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, only a few are more commonly linked to myocarditis and other heart problems.
Types of viruses
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 cause bladder and bowel infections. The virus spreads through contact with droplets from the nose and throat of an infected person.
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 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. They can also be transmitted from a pregnant woman to a fetus during pregnancy.
This is the most common cause of myocarditis, blamed for about half of all 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 it may result in permanent heart damage, particularly if it recurs. 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, an illness characterized by mild rash 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.
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.
Because many viral heart infections create no visible symptoms, the infection can go unnoticed. Symptoms that may occur include:
- an abnormal heartbeat
- chest pain
- 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 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.
Viral heart disease occurs when a virus attacks the heart muscle. This can lead to inflammation and disruption of the electrical pathways that signal the heart to beat properly. Most people who have viral heart disease will only experience flu-like symptoms. If testing leads to a diagnosis, work closely with your doctor to develop a treatment plan. Take all medications as prescribed and monitor your symptoms.