When is it safe for athletes to return to their sport after recovering from COVID-19? Learn about the latest return-to-play guidelines established by heart and sports medicine specialists.
“Athletes are high-performing individuals, pushing their bodies to excel at their sports. Because COVID-19 impacts multiple organ symptoms, including the lungs and the heart, the disease may impact athletes as they return to sport,” says Meagan Murphy Wasfy, MD, MPH.
Dr. Wasfy is a Mass General Brigham cardiologist. She’s also a faculty member of the Cardiovascular Performance Program at Massachusetts General Hospital, which provides specialized heart care for athletes. Dr. Wasfy warns that athletes with lingering symptoms should be cautious before putting strain on their systems again after recovering from COVID-19 infection.
Previous studies had shown that COVID-19 can cause myocarditis, or inflammation of the heart muscle. That was concerning to doctors caring for athletes, including cardiologists and sports medicine specialists.
”Myocarditis, usually caused by viruses, is among the leading causes of sudden cardiac arrest and death in athletes under 35 years old,” explains Dr. Wasfy. “While myocarditis is very rare, there was an abundance of caution, especially in the pandemic’s early stages when we were still learning about COVID-19.”
As compared to the general population, athletes are not more susceptible to severe COVID-19 or lingering symptoms.
“Athletic individuals tend to be healthier than the general population due to their lifestyle and high fitness,” Dr. Wasfy says, meaning if anything, they’re less likely to be high-risk for serious COVID-19.
However, because athletes push their bodies in sport, they may be more likely to notice subtle symptoms such as reduction in fitness after COVID-19 infection than those in the general population who are inactive.
“The guidelines have evolved several times since the beginning of the pandemic. Initially, every athlete who had COVID underwent a cardiac screening process,” says Dr. Wasfy.
Several studies collected data on big groups of athletes (including professional athletes and collegiate athletes) in order to evaluate the risk of cardiac issues after COVID-19. The data collected has informed how athletes can return to their sports safely.
Athletes should now follow Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidelines for isolating after a COVID-19 exposure or infection. “We usually recommend refraining from exercise during that time to facilitate recovery,” says Dr. Wasfy. Athletes who don’t have symptoms, or who have mild symptoms, can return to training once they no longer test positive. They don’t need any further heart testing.
For athletes who had more severe heart and lung symptoms, like chest pain, heart palpitations, or shortness of breath, Dr. Wasfy says it’s recommended they see a doctor and undergo additional testing before returning to exercise. Doctors determine the tests based on the nature of the patient’s symptoms.
“Likewise, if athletes return to play and experience new symptoms, then they may need additional cardiovascular testing,” adds Dr. Wasfy.
“We fully endorse athletes getting vaccinated and following the CDC recommendations,” says Dr. Wasfy. “Vaccines help prevent bad outcomes and severe disease.”