DALLAS, March 16 -- A common respiratory virus can infect the hearts of adults -- young and old -- and cause heart muscle damage that can shorten life and cause sudden death, according to a study in today's Circulation: Journal of the American Heart Association.
The discovery resolves an issue of nearly a decade's standing: whether certain adenoviruses, which normally infect the upper airway, can cause the condition left ventricular dysfunction (LVD) in adults. Several adenoviruses have been known for almost a decade to cause LVD in children.
Senior author of the study, Jeffrey A. Towbin, M.D., at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, says the finding could lead to new strategies to prevent or treat LVD, which leads to disabling and eventually fatal heart failure and can also cause sudden death.
Physicians can treat the fever and inflammation commonly caused by adenoviruses, but not the virus itself, says Towbin. When symptoms occur, drugs can be used to strengthen the heart's weakened pumping ability, but in some cases, a heart transplant is required.
"Adenovirus, a common cause of upper respiratory infection, must be considered as a potential cause of heart muscle disease," he says. "For that reason, pediatricians, family physicians and internists should take into account the potential late-onset of cardiovascular complications that may occur after the typical flu-like illness. Patients who feel poorly several weeks after a flu-like illness should contact their physicians. Usually symptoms will be fatigue or shortness of breath that continue after recovery from the respiratory illness. A physical exam or chest X-ray can reveal heart enlargement."
A vaccine against specific adenovirus types exists, but is not widely used and may not be effective against the types that cause LVD, says Towbin, professor of pediatrics (cardiology), molecular and human genetics, and cardiovascular sciences.