COVID-19 has been associated with persistent cough, exhaustion, and taste and smell abnormalities, among other chronic health issues. However, new studies have suggested a possible connection with high cholesterol.
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High cholesterol: What is it?
According to NHS, a blood level of too much cholesterol, a fatty molecule, is referred to as high cholesterol. It is primarily brought on by smoking, drinking alcohol, eating fatty foods, and not exercising enough. Moreover, it may run in families.
The sum of your LDL (“bad”) and HDL (“good”) cholesterol values is your total cholesterol level. Providers advise maintaining a total cholesterol level below 200 mg/dL since high cholesterol raises your risk of developing chronic illnesses including heart disease. However, lower is preferable—the CDC advises avoiding total cholesterol levels above 150 mg/dL.2
What is the relationship between COVID-19 and Cholesterol?
Let’s talk about the good first. A 2022 study examined data from 9,005 British adults over 40 discovered that those with low COVID test results were more likely to have high HDL (“good”) cholesterol. The scientists hypothesised that this particular kind of cholesterol may have reduced the incidence of COVID in some way.
Second, the bad. According to a different study analysing data from 55,412,462 individuals, those with genetically elevated cholesterol, heart disease, or both were more likely to experience a heart attack following COVID-19. Put another way, individuals with elevated low-density lipoprotein cholesterol fared worse after COVID-19.
Now, is it possible for COVID to lead to elevated cholesterol levels?
According to a recent study, it might.
Researchers discovered that individuals with COVID were more likely than those who had never had the virus to develop high cholesterol and to be prescribed cholesterol-lowering drugs after analysing data from nearly 52,000 individuals who did not previously have a history of high cholesterol.
The researchers came to the conclusion that after having COVID, there are probably higher chances of high cholesterol and being placed on cholesterol-lowering drugs for up to a year.
“It’s very clear that having COVID is associated with a new diagnosis of high cholesterol,” Cheng-Han Chen, MD, PhD, board-certified interventional cardiologist and medical director of the Structural Heart Program at MemorialCare Saddleback Medical Center in Laguna Hills, California said.
“It also appears that the more serious a COVID infection you have, the higher the chances of high cholesterol.”
Why Would Cholesterol Levels Rise Due to COVID-19?
Although the results do not demonstrate that COVID causes high cholesterol, researchers are finding a correlation between high cholesterol and the virus. Thomas Russo, MD, a professor and chief of infectious diseases at the University at Buffalo in New York, said that more research is needed for us to “understand more about the post-COVID reaction.”
However, there are some theories. One comparatively straightforward theory holds that having a COVID-19 infection is the only cause of elevated cholesterol. “It may be the consequence of an acute infection, and it might be tied to inflammation,” said Russo.
According to Chen, COVID could also influence how the liver breaks down cholesterol. “There have been studies that show that COVID infection affects your gut microbiome, and that also influences how your body metabolises cholesterol,” he said.
Another possibility is that people may change their lifestyle after a COVID infection because they have lingering symptoms. “Maybe you don’t have the same exercise routine you used to, or maybe you don’t eat as carefully,” Chen said.
The recent study only tracked people for a year, so it’s possible that high cholesterol linked to COVID could go down over time.
How to Lower Your Risk of Getting High Cholesterol From COVID
Experts do warn that having COVID could definitely increase your risk of acquiring high cholesterol based on these studies.
“What’s really remarkable is that every subgroup that has been studied all showed that COVID infection was linked with an increased cholesterol diagnosis,” Chen said.
However, people who already had cholesterol that was on the higher end of normal may be the most at risk, Russo said.
Chen said the research also suggests that healthcare providers need to pay closer attention to patients’ cholesterol numbers after they’ve had COVID, and that they should consider treatment for high cholesterol if needed.
If you’ve recently had COVID, it may be worth asking your provider to check your cholesterol, especially if you don’t already know your numbers. They can also talk to you about lifestyle changes that can be made to help control cholesterol, such as making changes to your diet and exercise routine.
While Chen said it’s too early to say what will prevent people from developing high cholesterol after COVID, Russo recommends staying up-to-date with your vaccines to start. “
We also know that vaccination and/or early treatment decreases the risk of long COVID and other consequences. It would make sense to be vaccinated to lower your risk.”