Heart Doctors: If You’ve Had COVID, Be Aware of These Symptoms

Updated: Jan. 18, 2024

There are four major systems of the body doctors say they're seeing ongoing effects from COVID-19 right this moment. Read on if symptoms are puzzling you.

These days when you contract a COVID-19 infection, the data suggest that most cases are mild. That’s because the latest COVID variant primarily affects the upper respiratory tract, with symptoms ranging from a cough and sore throat to a runny nose and a mild fever.

However, even if you don’t experience the worst of symptoms that require hospitalization, this week heart doctors for the American Heart Association shared their realtime observations as COVID-19 is leaving lasting effects on patients and leading to long-term complications with damage to organs besides the lungs. “I would argue that COVID-19 is not a disease of the lungs at all,” said Nisha Viswanathan, MD, director of the long COVID program at David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA. “It seems most likely that it is what we call a vascular and neurologic infection, affecting both nerve endings and our cardiovascular system.”

That’s because COVID-19 leads to increased inflammation that can also potentially migrate to different parts of the body, essentially “hiding” from immunity. “SARS-CoV-2 is excellent at triggering your immune system to go from zero to 100,” remarked Lindsay McAlpine, MD, BSc, a Yale neurologist studying the broader long-term effects of the virus. “The inflammation that the virus triggers is systemic.”

Here are four sites of body where researchers are observing ongoing effects from COVID-19 that might not otherwise be clearly linked to what we think of as a “respiratory” virus.

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Brain and cognition

Some researchers believe that the over-stimulated immune system can cause clots and other cognitive issues. McAlpine likens the symptoms to those of a concussion, sometimes extending for months. Migraines can also increase, and neurological diseases like Parkinson’s or even Alzheimer’s can first appear after a COVID infection.

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Heart and circulatory system

Several heart and vein conditions can worsen or appear months after a COVID infection, including myocarditis, atrial fibrillation, deep vein thrombosis, and pulmonary embolisms. There is even an increased risk of a heart attack if the virus affects coronary arteries.

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Stomach and digestion

If you’re experiencing problems with nausea or diarrhea without a pinpointable cause, there’s a chance it could be aftershock from COVID. “We have found in multiple studies that COVID can remain in our GI tract for weeks and months after it has resolved in the rest of the body,” Dr. Viswanathan told the AHA. The virus has also been linked to irritable bowel syndrome and acid reflux issues.

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The kidneys have also been shown lasting issues from COVID infection, according to at least one 2023 study on how the virus affects multiple organs. It’s possible this is due to dehydration—but, said cardiologist Dr. Adrian Hernandez, MD, MHS, a director of Duke University’s Clinical Research Institute: “With a virus that can go anywhere and cause inflammation anywhere, you can have all sorts of problems.”

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3 things you can do to prevent long-term COVID complications, say doctors

Wear a mask: “A lot of people have COVID now, and it may take a while for them to test positive,” Dr. Viswanathan told the AHA. One study found that it took up to four days for a COVID infection to be detectable on an at-home antigen test.

Get vaccinated: “[The COVID vaccine] really does seem to be highly protective,” said Dr. Viswanathan. The CDC recommendations for adequate COVID-19 vaccination coverage vary based on age and previous vaccination status, so be sure to see where you stand.

Protect your heart: By controlling any high blood pressure issues, managing diabetes, and knowing your overall health status you will protect yourself from any COVID complications. “It will all decrease your risk,” Dr. Viswanathan said.