HEALTH MATTERS: Viral infections of the heart occur not uncommonA friend of mine started retaining fluid, and his doctor told him that he had a viral infection of the heart. I’ve heard of viruses causing colds, but not heart problems. Can you explain?
By: Dr. Joshua Wynne, Grand Forks Herald
Q. A friend of mine started retaining fluid, and his doctor told him that he had a viral infection of the heart. I’ve heard of viruses causing colds, but not heart problems. Can you explain?
A. Viral infection of the heart is not common but does occur from time to time. It turns out that everyday viruses that are all around us can on occasion get into the body and start multiplying in the muscle that composes the heart.
When this occurs, the heart muscle may become damaged and can’t squeeze as vigorously as normal; this causes fluid retention in the lungs and the feet. Most such infections cure themselves, but treatment is needed if there are symptoms of heart failure; we use diuretics (pills) that remove the excess water in the body, and other medicines to strengthen the beating of the heart muscle.
In certain circumstances, we remove a small sample of heart muscle — a process that we call a biopsy — using a tube that we insert through a small nick in the skin overlying a large vein. The tube is then threaded back to the heart so the biopsy can be taken. Depending on the findings after the biopsy specimen is examined under the microscope, other treatments may be indicated.
Most patients eventually recover, but some are left with chronic heart failure symptoms. In very advanced cases — which is not the norm — a heart transplant may be needed. Hopefully, your friend will follow the usual course of complete recovery.
Q. I’ve heard high blood pressure referred to as the “Silent Killer.” How so?
A. High blood pressure is a major cause of heart disease and stroke and a major contributor to mortality. It is one of the important causes of blockages of the coronary arteries and thus heart attacks. It also causes strokes both by promoting blockages in the arteries going to the brain and by causing bleeding into the brain tissue itself.
It can cause kidney failure as well. So hypertension (the technical term for high blood pressure) causes increased mortality through a variety of mechanisms. Unfortunately, until it is too late, hypertension often causes no symptoms; most people are unaware that they have high blood pressure unless they have their blood pressure measured. That’s the “silent” part.
That’s why it is so important for everyone to have their blood pressure measured periodically and for people with hypertension to follow medical instructions to reduce their elevated blood pressure. All hypertensive patients should limit their salt intake, lose weight if overweight and engage in sensible exercise.
Most, however, will also require medication, and many need more than one type of pill to achieve optimal control. But almost everyone can find a medical program that works and is tolerable. So get your blood pressure checked — and if it is elevated, be sure to follow through with any needed lifestyle changes along with careful adherence to any prescribed medications. Let’s no longer be quiet about the “Silent Killer.”
Wynne is vice president for health affairs at the University of North Dakota, dean of the School of Medicine and Health Sciences, and a professor of medicine. He is a cardiologist by training.
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