Sick child lying in sofa bed with protection mask on face against infection.

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BOONE, N.C. — Although the vast majority of coronavirus patients won’t end up in a hospital, a new study finds even mild infections may have serious health consequences. Researchers from Appalachian State University say young adults could possibly face long-term damage to their heart health after COVID-19.

Their study reveals younger COVID patients who did not need hospitalization still displayed higher levels of stiffness in their arteries. In the long run, this could mean young, otherwise healthy, adults suffering mild cases of coronavirus may be at higher risk for heart complications after the pandemic.

While COVID mainly affects the respiratory system, previous studies have discovered the virus can also alter blood vessel function. In younger adults, these changes typically set in about three to four weeks after infection. In older patients and COVID “long haulers,” these changes are still present months after their illness.

COVID causing widespread artery damage?

The Appalachian State team suspects the virus may be having a harmful impact on arteries throughout the human body. This includes damaging the carotid artery, which supplies blood to the brain. These are similar symptoms to other bacterial and viral infections like rheumatic fever, Kawasaki disease, pneumonia, H. Pylori, and lupus. In all of these illnesses, the stiffening of the arteries can last long after a patient’s recovery.

Researchers examined a group of young adults three to four weeks after they tested positive for COVID-19. Using ultrasound scans on the carotid artery, the team monitored each patient’s artery health for 10 to 15 heart beats. For comparison, study authors used scans coming from healthy adults prior to the pandemic as a control group.

The team is now following these patients for six months following their infections, observing if or when their arteries begin to show signs of improvement. Study authors note the final results will be interesting, especially if the results confirm that heart health recovery is lagging behind after a coronavirus infection.

“These findings suggest a potential long-term impact of COVID-19 on young, relatively healthy adults who may otherwise think the virus may not be affecting them,” senior author Dr. Steve Ratchford says in a media release by The Physiological Society.

Researchers do note their study has a few limitations. For one, the team does not know if their participants had any preexisting arterial stiffness before contracting COVID-19. The results also do not account for changes due to menstrual cycles or contraceptive use however, researchers say these factors are not major influences on artery health.

The study appears in the journal Experimental Physiology.

About Chris Melore

Chris Melore has been a writer, researcher, editor, and producer in the New York-area since 2006. He won a local Emmy award for his work in sports television in 2011.

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