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Dr Rahul Kurup is a researcher at the Heart Research Institute as well as a specialist cardiologist. He answers some common questions about COVID-19 and heart health.

What is COVID-19?

COVID-19 is an infectious illness caused by a recently discovered new strain of coronavirus, which is a large family of viruses that may cause illness in humans or animals. COVID-19 can be caught from someone who has the virus, and can spread when that person coughs, sneezes or exhales, spreading contaminated droplets into the air or onto surfaces. If someone comes into contact with these contaminated droplets, they may catch the virus.

How does COVID-19 affect a person’s health?

COVID-19 can primarily affect a person’s respiratory system, with the most common symptoms being fever, cough and shortness of breath. In its most extreme case, it can cause a severe lung condition known as acute respiratory syndrome, where a person might require assisted ventilation to help the lungs.

Is someone with heart disease at more risk?

As COVID-19 affects the lungs, this can have knock-on effects on the heart. The lungs and heart are interconnected, with the lungs oxygenating the blood the heart pumps. This puts someone with heart disease at more risk, simply because they don’t have as good a reserve to deal with this added complication to their health. Patients with heart disease also tend to have other medical conditions, such as high blood pressure and diabetes, which puts them at a higher risk of developing a severe illness from the virus.

A viral infection can also sometimes precipitate a heart attack, and it can be difficult to delineate the symptoms between the two. Therefore, it is important to consult your local medical provider so that additional tests can be organised if needed.

How can people protect themselves from COVID-19?

Essentially, people should be washing their hands properly and regularly with soap and water, for at least 20 seconds each time, or use an alcohol-based hand rub. Both methods kill viruses that may be on the hands. People should also avoid touching their eyes, nose and mouth, as any viruses on their hands can enter the body through those places and cause illness.

People can also practice social distancing – which simply means keeping as much distance as possible between themselves and other people when in public places, and avoiding crowded places. People should also self-isolate if symptoms suggestive of COVID-19 develop, and avoid travel to high-risk countries. A current list of these countries can be found here.

It’s also important that if one has symptoms of the disease, with a high possible risk of exposure, to get tested to allow contact tracing and prevent spread of the disease.

What can people with pre-existing conditions do to prepare or protect themselves?

People with a pre-existing condition like heart disease should follow the above recommendations for protecting themselves, but they should also have a lower threshold for seeking medical assistance if they experience symptoms. It’s important to detect the disease early so that care can be received, and the risk of developing a more severe infection can be reduced. It is also essential to notify medical facilities in advance if you have symptoms suggestive of COVID-19, so precautionary measures can be followed to prevent transmission of the virus.

It’s also important to get vaccinated against the flu to reduce the risk of concomitant or concurrent infections. Patients should also be aware of their closest testing clinics and have systems in place to seek prompt medical intervention, eg, contactable family members or a personal medical alert device such as VitalCall.

If you have concerns about your health, always speak to your doctor or other healthcare provider.

For more information about COVID-19 and answers to other common questions, visit the New Zealand Ministry of Health page on COVID-19.

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