Could getting Covid raise cholesterol?

Covid may increase the risk of high cholesterol for up to a year after infection, two recent studies suggest, prompting some doctors to take a closer look at the apparent trend.

“It’s something we need to pay more attention to,” said Dr. Ashish Sarraju, a cardiologist in the Cleveland Clinic’s Preventive Cardiology and Rehabilitation Section, adding that the latest research is “provocative.”

A study, published in The Lancet Diabetes & Endocrinology earlier this month, found that people who had already been infected with Covid had a 24% increased risk of having high cholesterol.

“These are people who have never had cholesterol problems before,” said Dr. Ziyad Al-Aly, study author and clinical epidemiologist at Washington University in St. Louis. “Now all of a sudden they started having problems weeks and months after Covid-19.”

It looked at new diagnoses of high cholesterol among 51,919 people with Covid from March 2020 to January 2021, the period before vaccines became widely available. The participants were patients who had sought care within the Department of Veterans Affairs. The majority were white men in their early 60s.

Compared to the 2.6 million people who did not have Covid during the same period, patients who contracted Covid were more likely to have high levels of triglycerides and LDL cholesterol, the so-called wrong type of cholesterol, up to a year later. They were also more likely to have lower levels of “good” HDL cholesterol.

A second study, published in The Lancet Infectious Diseases in late December, had similar results, but notably, in a much younger group of people.

Researchers in Switzerland compared the cholesterol levels of 177 members of the Swiss military who had Covid in 2020 with 251 others who had not been infected. The average age of the participants was 21 years old.

The Covid group ended up with higher cholesterol levels, said author Patricia Schlagenhauf, a professor in the Department of Global and Public Health at the University of Zurich. They also had higher body mass indices after Covid.

“The fact that these young people have significantly higher cholesterol, higher LDL and higher BMI indicates a metabolic disorder,” she said.

Sarraju, of the Cleveland Clinic, made similar observations.

“We’ve definitely seen patients who have had Covid come in with a high BMI or metabolic issues,” he said.

Why a respiratory virus like Covid can lead to high cholesterol is unclear. Ongoing inflammation could play a role. But participants in those studies were also sick during the first wave of Covid cases, when people largely stayed home.

There have been ‘behavioral changes including diet and lack of exercise’ that may be a factor in the rise in cholesterol levels, said Dr Glenn Hirsch, chief of cardiology at the National Jewish Health in Denver. He said his team had seen an increased risk of many conditions after Covid, including diabetes, cardiovascular disease and kidney disease.

“It seems to be something that should be followed more closely,” Sarraju said.

As of Wednesday, more than 101 million Covid cases had been reported in the United States since the start of the pandemic.

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