The new coronavirus has changed life as we know it. While there is a lot that we don’t know about the virus, we do know that people with heart and other conditions are more likely to get seriously ill from it.
Use this resource to learn about the new coronavirus and find information about how we can keep ourselves and others healthy during the COVID-19 pandemic. Because we are learning more about COVID-19 every day, recommendations may change.
What You Should Know
If you live with some type of heart disease, or have survived a heart attack or stroke, you know it can be challenging – even during normal times.
But since the COVID-19 pandemic began in March 2020, you may have been feeling like you’re on even higher alert. And you should know that you’re not alone.
In this section, you’ll find information about what COVID-19 is and some tips about how to keep yourself and others healthy.
You can also jump to the More Information section for added details about what you can do to avoid getting sick and feel more in control during the COVID-19 outbreak.
What Is COVID-19?
COVID-19 is an illness caused by a virus that infects humans and can involve several organs. Discovered in 2019, the new coronavirus quickly spread around the world.
Although it’s part of the same family of viruses that cause the common cold, the virus that causes COVID-19 is very different. Because it had never been seen in humans before, no one had existing immunity to it (that is, an ability to naturally fight it).
We are learning more about the virus every day. For starters, we don’t yet know:
- What the long-term health effects might be
- How long someone can give the virus to others
- If a person who has had the virus can get it again, and if you can then when
- Why some people get very ill, while others don’t have obvious signs of having it.
Signs and Symptoms
People with COVID-19 have reported a wide range of symptoms that include:
- Fever or chills
- Shortness of breath or difficulty breathing
- Muscle pain
- Sore throat
- New loss of taste or smell
Some people have also reported less common symptoms, such as nausea, vomiting, or diarrhea. Symptoms usually occur within 2-14 days of being exposed to the virus.
But many people don’t have any symptoms and don’t even know they are infected. New research suggests that as many as 1 out of 3 people infected with COVID-19 may not have obvious symptoms.
The concern, of course, is that those who don’t have symptoms can unknowingly pass the disease on to other people, especially those who could get very ill. It’s a reason why wearing a mask, staying 6 feet away from others, and washing your hands often are so important.
How Serious Is the Infection?
Based on what we know today, most people with the new coronavirus will have mild or moderate symptoms. This means they can usually recover at home while isolating themselves from the rest of the household.
But for as many as 1 in 5 people with COVID-19, the virus can be more serious. The main reason that people end up in the hospital is for difficulty breathing. COVID-19 can lead to pneumonia, not getting enough oxygen, heart problems and even death.
These complications are more common in older adults and those with existing health conditions, including heart disease.
What Increases Your Risk of Serious Illness?
Anyone can get COVID-19. But as with other respiratory infections, older adults and those with existing health conditions are more likely to become seriously ill. Groups at increased risk of needing to go to the hospital or dying from COVID-19 include:
❱❱ Adults who are 65 or older
❱❱ People living in nursing homes or long-term care facilities
❱❱ People with existing:
- Heart conditions
- Lung disease (COPD, moderate to severe asthma)
- High blood pressure
- Illnesses that lower the immune system’s ability to fight infection, for example people undergoing cancer treatments or bone marrow or organ transplants (some medications can do this too)
But experts are still learning about COVID-19. Other medical conditions might also increase your risk, for example moderate-to-severe asthma or being overweight. Research shows that people who smoke may have severe complications from COVID-19 as well.
It appears that while some people may be more susceptible to severe forms of the infection, even healthy and younger people are still at risk.
Because this coronavirus is still so new, there are limited data on therapies to treat COVID-19. Right now, the focus of treatment is to:
- Control the infection
- Calm an exaggerated immune response
- Manage symptoms and complications, for example using medication (to lower fevers), oxygen therapy or ventilator support
- Isolate potentially infected people so the virus doesn’t spread to others
One way to speed the process is to test drugs that are currently used to treat other diseases to see if they are safe and work to treat COVID-19. That way, researchers can build on existing safety and dosing information.
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved the antiviral agent remdesivir to treat COVID-19 in the U.S. It is being used in people with COVID-19 who are hospitalized and need supplemental oxygen. Clinical trials are still underway to determine what situations would benefit from using the medication. Remdesivir was originally developed to treat Ebola. Other antiviral treatments also are in development and being tested.
Anti-inflammatory steroids, such as dexamethasone, may be used in patients with COVID-19 who are in the hospital and need supplemental oxygen or are on ventilator support. In a United United Kingdom clinical trial, dexamethasone was shown to decrease deaths in these types of patients.
The FDA also has granted emergency use authorization for some monoclonal antibodies to treat people with mild-to-moderate COVID-19 to help them avoid having to be hospitalized. It’s important for this medication to be given early in the course of the disease when someone has only mild symptoms.
More clinical trials are underway to test different treatments. Cardiologists are involved in these trials as well to make sure that treatments for COVID-19 do not interfere with the medications that people with heart conditions commonly take. They also want to be sure that these treatments don’t harm the heart (for example, to be sure they don’t trigger dangerous heartbeats).
How It Spreads
Health professionals are still learning more about how COVID-19 spreads and how contagious it is. It seems to spread more easily than the flu and, in some cases, before someone has symptoms.
From what we understand, you are most likely to become infected:
❱❱ When a person with the virus coughs, sneezes or even talks within 6 feet of you (that’s about two arm lengths) and releases virus-containing droplets into the air; new studies suggest that some of these drops may linger in the air longer and travel farther distances than initially thought
❱❱ By living in close quarters with people who may have it (nursing homes or long-term care facilities, for example) or having close contact with another person, such as through shaking hands or hugging.
Research has shown that the new coronavirus may live for a time on objects such as doorknobs, handles, keypads, phones, keyboards, cardboard, and other shared surfaces.
Experts say it is possible to get sick if you touch a surface with the virus and then touch your mouth, nose or eyes. But this isn’t the main way the virus spreads, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Protect Yourself and Others
It’s an uncertain time. But there are things you can do to avoid getting sick and feel more in control during the COVID-19 pandemic.
If you have not been vaccinated against COVID-19:
- Wear a mask
- Keep 6 feet from others who are not in your household
- Wash your hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds
- Get your COVID-19 vaccine
To learn more about who can get a COVID-19 vaccine and where to find yours, visit the Centers for Disease and Control (CDC) website: Your COVID-19 Vaccination.
If you don’t have soap handy, you can also use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer. Make sure that it is made with at least 60% alcohol.
If you have been vaccinated against COVID-19, you are considered “fully vaccinated” two weeks after your second dose of a two-dose vaccine (Pfizer or Moderna), or two weeks after your one-dose vaccine (Johnson & Johnson).
After you are fully vaccinated:
- You can start doing some things that you did before the pandemic.
- To help prevent the spread of COVID-19 and for added protection, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends wearing a mask indoors in public spaces if you are in an area with high numbers of COVID-19 cases. You can find this information for your community at the CDC website.
- Check with your local government for the rules in your area.
- Find out if and when you should get an additional dose of vaccine – or booster shot – to strengthen your body’s protection against COVID-19.
For more details and the latest guidance, visit When You’ve Been Fully Vaccinated from the CDC.
Also, it’s important to do what you would usually do to avoid getting sick including:
- Cover sneezes and coughs – use the inside of your elbow, not your hands
- Avoid touching your eyes, nose or mouth
- Clean surfaces touched often – for example, doorknobs, handles, phones, keypads, or remote controls
- Get vaccinated against the flu and pneumococcal disease if you haven’t already as any illness can weaken your ability to fight another infection