Viral Heart Disease

Written by Colleen Story and Tricia Kinman | Published on May 5, 2015
Medically Reviewed by George Krucik, MD, MBA on May 5, 2015

Myocarditis is a heart condition caused by a virus, such as rubella, Epstein-Barr, and adenovirus. Learn about the symptoms and how to properly treat it.

Overview

Viral heart disease, also known as myocarditis, is a heart condition caused by a virus. The virus attacks the heart muscle, causing inflammation and disrupting the electrical pathways that signal the heart to beat properly. Most of the time, the body will heal itself and you may never know you had a problem. However, in rare cases, the infection itself and the resulting inflammation can damage and weaken the heart. This can also trigger heart failure and heart rhythm irregularities.

This condition can happen to people who seem to be in good health. The only sign of viral heart disease is flu-like symptoms for some people. Although a wide variety of viruses may affect the heart, a few viruses are more commonly linked to myocarditis and other heart problems.

Types of Viruses

Adenovirus

The adenovirus is one of the most common viral causes of myocarditis in both children and adults. It typically causes respiratory infections. It may also sometimes cause bladder and bowel infections. The virus spreads through contact with droplets from the nose and throat of an infected person.

Cytomegalovirus (CMV)

This group of viruses includes the herpes simplex viruses, varicella-zoster virus (which causes chickenpox and shingles), and the Epstein-Barr virus (which causes mononucleosis). According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 50 to 80 out of every 100 people are infected with CMV by the time they’re 40 years old. Up to 90 percent of adults have been infected with the Epstein-Barr virus.

CMV typically lays dormant and harmless in the body, but it can cause infections, including viral heart infection. The viruses are spread through contact with body fluids of an infected person. It can also be transmitted from a pregnant woman to a fetus during pregnancy.

Coxsackievirus B

This is the most common cause of myocarditis, blamed for about half of all U.S. cases. It can cause the flu or attack the heart, creating an infection that lasts from 2 to 10 days. Cardiac symptoms can potentially occur within two weeks.

Symptoms may include fever, fatigue, and chest pains. It doesn’t usually cause death, but may result in permanent heart damage, particularly if it recurs a second time. This virus is transmitted through fecal material, so some of the best prevention methods are washing your hands and improving your overall hygiene.

Enteric Cytopathic Human Orphan Viruses (ECHO)

This family of viruses typically causes gastrointestinal infections and skin rashes. The virus can also cause myocarditis. You may contract the virus by coming into contact with contaminated stool, or by breathing in air particles from an infected person.

Human Parvovirus B19

This virus causes the so-called “fifth disease,” a mild rash illness that’s more common in children than adults. It’s also occasionally associated with acute myocarditis. The virus spreads through saliva or nasal mucus. Washing your hands and covering your mouth and nose when you cough or sneeze can help reduce the spread of the virus.

Rubella

Known as the virus that causes German measles, rubella can cause viral heart infection. It’s also associated with miscarriages, stillbirths, and birth defects. It can cause myocarditis if it infects the heart, although it’s not common. A vaccine against rubella is available. 

Symptoms

Because many viral heart infections create no visible symptoms, the infection can go unnoticed. Symptoms that may occur include:

  • an abnormal heartbeat
  • chest pain
  • fatigue
  • fever
  • muscle aches
  • sore throat
  • joint or leg pain or swelling
  • fainting or shortness of breath

Blood tests, electrical testing, X-rays, and nuclear heart scan testing can show signs of stress on the heart and may alert a doctor to the issue.

Treatment

Treatment for viral heart infection can include medications such as:

  • antiviral agents to treat the infection
  • anti-inflammatory medicines to reduce swelling in the heart
  • diuretics to remove excess water and edema

Doctors also can recommend certain lifestyle changes, such as eating a low-salt diet and reducing activity. Your doctor will probably administer medications to even out abnormal heart rhythms or help reduce the risk of blood clots if the heart muscle has been damaged or weakened. Treatment will vary depending on the severity of the infection and its effects on the heart.

Work closely with your doctor if you have been diagnosed with a viral heart infection. Take all medications as prescribed and monitor your symptoms.

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