“Two decades back, whenever we got a heart patient in their 30s, the entire hospital would come to us and ask questions. It was a nightmare for us to see a young patient in their 30s suffering heart problems. But now, it has become normal. We see young people walking into emergency rooms with chest pain all the time,” says Dr Balbir Singh, Chairman & Head - Cardiology, Max Healthcare. “These years are precious and are meant to be most productive in an individual’s life. Young Indians suffering heart attacks is a great cause of concern and worry,” adds Dr Balbir.
Earlier this week, actress Sushmita Sen who is known for her fitness regime shared news of her health scare - she had suffered a heart attack and survived. “Massive heart attack…I had 95% blockage. Angioplasty done... stent in place... and most importantly, my cardiologist reconfirmed 'I do have a big heart',” shared the actress on her Instagram.
While arterial blockages and heart attacks in young people are a real cause for concern, there are also many conspiracy theories floating on the Internet about Covid vaccines leading to sudden heart attacks. Moneycontrol spoke to some of the leading cardiologists and immunologists from across the country to know their views on the same.
Covid vaccines and heart attacks
“There is no data to suggest that vaccines have played a role in an increase in heart attacks," says Dr Balbir. “However, Covid infections per se, not Covid vaccines, can lead to an increase in heart attacks. The usage of steroids during treatment can increase the risk of heart disease for a period of up to one year after the infection.”
Dr Kirti Sabnis, Infectious Disease Specialist, Fortis Hospital Mulund & Kalyan, says: "Severe Covid can cause a condition called cytokine storm (an over-reaction by the immune system) which can lead to tachycardia (fast heartbeat), arrhythmia (irregular heartbeat). It is not a life-long condition and most people can recover from this."
Dr Sabnis adds: "Severe Covid can also lead to dilated cardiomyopathy, a condition which causes the weakening of heart muscles. This is the only heart condition caused by Covid which is irreversible. But it does not occur without symptoms - there are warning signs".
Dr Sabnis adds that vaccine-related cardiac issues have been studied in m-RNA vaccine, which is not available in India. "M-RNA vaccines cause swelling of heart muscles - this is substantiated by data. However, Covaxin which uses inactivated coronavirus and Covishield which uses vector protein have no association with an increase in heart disease."
Dr Vikrant Shah, infectious disease expert at Zen Multispeciality Hospital Mumbai, says: "Theoretically, there is no explanation for vaccines causing heart attacks. We require more evidence to substantiate the claims and as of now, there isn't any. Therefore, we shouldn't panic and not pay heed to misinformation."
Is it gastritis or heart attack?
How to differentiate between chest pain due to acidity and heart attack, given that both types of pain tend to feel the same?
Dr Keshava R, Director - Cardiology, Fortis Hospital, Cunningham Road, Bangalore, says: “50 percent heart attack patients come with burning chest pain. Even for the most experienced doctors, it is very difficult to figure out if the pain is due to gastritis or heart attack. Doctors who have 30-40 years of experience working in cardiology would need an ECG to be sure if the pain is due to a heart attack or gastritis”.
Dr Keshava adds: “If you wake up in the middle of the night suddenly due to chest pain, you might attribute it to food consumption (indigestion). However, in such cases, it is advisable to visit the Emergency Room at the earliest to rule out heart attack.”
Heart attack: Symptoms and precautions to take
Dr Balbir explains, "A heart attack never comes without a warning", so it is important to look out for warning signs.
“It usually begins with a chest pain which goes up till the jaw and the arms. It is associated with sweating and can cause uneasiness. But not all people have these symptoms. They might just feel uneasy. Therefore, it is important to take into consideration the medical and family history. If you smoke, are obese or have a family history of heart disease, it is advisable to visit the Emergency room at the earliest.”
Dr Balbir cites the example of singer KK who passed away due to a heart attack in June 2022. “During his performance in Calcutta, all warning signs were present. But it was assumed that the singer needed fresh air due to an overheated and overcrowded venue. He was taken to the hotel instead of being taken to the hospital which cost his life.”
US-based physician Dr Edmund Fernandez recently recommended keeping tab 300 mg Aspirin handy in case one experiences chest pain in the middle of the night. Indian doctors echo this advice - aspirin is a blood thinner and may help patient buy some time till they can access medical help after a heart event.
Dr Balbir says: “Taking Aspirin certainly helps. In fact, I would say that it reduces the mortality rate by half. A person who takes an Aspirin at home before going to the Emergency room is better off than a person who does not.”
Having said that, indiscriminate and excessive use of aspirin can cause harm too. Talk to your doctor to get the root of the problem.
“Take an Aspirin if you have chest pain but go to the nearest hospital immediately after it. Don’t go to sleep. Aspirin is just a first aid response, it does not fix heart attacks. Aspirin is also not recommended for general consumption. You should have Aspirin only when you are staying far away from a hospital and would require time to get medical assistance,” Dr Keshava concludes.