Health

Former marathon runner, 39, mistook long Covid symptoms for ‘heart attack’ – dangers

The 39-year-old, who has been living with debilitating symptoms since first contracting the virus in November 2020, revealed that she has been experiencing a range of symptoms from breathlessness to blurred vision. But it wasn’t until a fateful day back in November 2021 that she started to experience symptoms which worryingly reflected a heart attack or stroke. Bravely sharing her health ordeal, the blogger said: “Having long Covid has been completely exhausting, mentally and physically. I’ve never experienced breathlessness before and all of a sudden, after catching Covid, I would get very breathless doing the smallest of tasks or even before going to sleep. It’s a terrifying experience.”

Recalling the day where she thought she might have a life-threatening condition, Spencer-Tracey continued to say: “I’ve struggled to get through the day without napping, and in November 2021 I became so unwell with sharp pains in my arms, dizziness, and sickness that I was taken to A&E for fear I was having a heart attack or had suffered a stroke.”

Long Covid can cause a variety of symptoms, which differ for every individual. According to the Office for National Statistics (ONS), as of December 6, 2021 the most commonly reported long Covid symptoms were:

  • Fatigue (51 percent)
  • Loss of smell (37 percent)
  • Shortness of breath (36 percent)
  • Difficulty concentrating (28 percent).

Yet other possible symptoms can include brain fog, heart palpitations, chest tightness and joint and muscle pain. For some, it can seem like a cycle of improving for a short amount of time and then getting worse again. Sadly, these long-term effects can affect anyone, not just those who needed to go to hospital, or even those who felt seriously unwell when they first caught the virus.

For Spencer-Tracey who experienced unusual symptoms of long Covid, a lack of understanding meant that she thought she was suffering from other health related problems.

READ MORE: Bowel cancer: Deborah James on initial symptoms – ‘I knew there was something wrong’

Common symptoms of a heart attack include the following, some of which crucially overlap with long Covid:

  • Pressure, tightness, pain, or a squeezing or aching sensation in your chest or arms that may spread to your neck, jaw or back
  • Nausea, indigestion, heartburn or abdominal pain
  • Shortness of breath
  • Cold sweat
  • Fatigue
  • Lightheadedness or sudden dizziness.

It seems that the former marathon runner’s suspicions were not far off, as recent research 2022 from Johns Hopkins Medicine explained that “some of the symptoms common in coronavirus long-haulers”, such as palpitations, dizziness, chest pain and shortness of breath, may be due to heart problems – or, just from having been ill from the virus.

Expert cardiologists Wendy Post, M.D., and Nisha Gilotra, M.D., clarified which post-coronavirus symptoms may point to a heart issue and how Covid can in fact damage the heart due to a lack of oxygen and stress.

As the virus causes inflammation and fluid to fill up the air sacs in the lungs, less oxygen can reach the bloodstream. As a result, the heart has to work harder to pump blood through the body, which can be dangerous in people, especially those with pre-existing heart disease. In the most severe cases, the heart can fail from overwork, or insufficient oxygen can cause cell death and tissue damage in the heart and other organs.

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In some people, heart rates can vary from fast to slow. This fluctuation is unrelated to exertion, but is a common problem for those suffering from Covid. Post said: “Any of these problems could be related to the heart, but they could also be due to other factors, including the aftermath of being very ill, prolonged inactivity and spending weeks convalescing in bed.

“Shortness of breath by itself is not always a sign of a serious problem, but if you have that symptom along with low oxygen (below 92 percent), that is a reason to be concerned.”

Going on to explain the relationship between Covid and chest pain, Post added: “Chest pain may be nothing serious, but if you are having severe chest pain, get help, especially if it is persistent or if you are also having nausea, shortness of breath or lightheadedness: These could be symptoms of a heart attack.

“If you have chest pain when you inhale, you might have lung inflammation. Sudden, severe chest pain could be a blood clot in the lung (pulmonary embolism).”

Overall, Post and Gliotra conclude that symptoms of Covid can “mimic” a heart attack, but often, when patients are given further tests, such as an angiogram, there is no further evidence of a major blockage in the heart’s blood vessels, which is a main indicator of a heart attack.

With new data concerning long Covid emerging daily, the NHS currently states that it has spent £220million opening dozens of long Covid centres around the country. But still, long Covid cases seem to far outstrip the support available for people to manage their symptoms.

According to data provided by leading UK charity Asthma + Lung UK, which is staffed by respiratory nurse specialists and healthcare advisers, the charity receives thousands of calls every month from those suffering from long Covid.

Now at “crisis point” the charity explains that many callers have become so desperate to ease their symptoms they are asking for advice about buying oxygen to manage their long Covid breathlessness, something that can be extremely dangerous without a prescription.

The helpline has also taken calls from people wanting information on private healthcare providers because they’re struggling to get help from the NHS. The latest data, for March, shows that almost one in three people (30 percent) people waited more than 15 weeks for an initial appointment.

Spencer-Tracey added: “The lack of support has been really frustrating. I’ve spoken to several doctors, but I just think they don’t know what to do with people like me. I’ve been passed from pillar to post, and it does sometimes feel like my concerns are falling on deaf ears. Like lots of people, I have been reliant on advice from charities such as Asthma + Lung UK and reaching out to other people with this horrible condition on social media.

“I just don’t think there’s enough education out there about the risks of long COVID, including how prevalent it is and how debilitating it can be. Unfortunately, I’ve found out the hard way.”

The charity is now urging the government to invest more in research into treatments and provide more staff at long Covid clinics. With Sarah Woolnough, CEO of Asthma + Lung UK, adding: “As we near the grim milestone of two million people living with long Covid, there is still a dismal lack of treatments for this disabling condition, which is leaving people fighting for breath and devastating every aspect of their life, health, work and relationships.

“While we campaign for this, we will be here to continue to support the millions of people in the UK living with lung conditions including long Covid, and would urge anyone struggling to call our helpline on 0300 222 5800 and visit our health advice: blf.org.uk/support-for-you/long-covid.”

Asthma + Lung UK is the only charity in the UK fighting for everyone with a lung condition, aiming for a world where everyone can breathe with healthy lungs. They fund research. They provide advice and support for the 12 million people who will get a lung condition during their lifetime. They campaign for clean air and we campaign for better NHS diagnosis and treatment. For further information visit asthmaandlung.org.uk.

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