Preventing Arrhythmias and QTc Prolongation in COVID-19 Patients on Psychotropics

Faisal A. Islam, MD, MBA, BCMAS, Mohammed S. Islam, MD, and Zia Choudhry, MD, PhD, MBA

June 18, 2020

Editor's note: Find the latest COVID-19 news and guidance in Medscape's Coronavirus Resource Center.

Over the last few weeks, several conflicting reports about the efficacy of SARS-CoV-2 treatments have emerged, including high-profile papers that were placed in the limelight and groundbreaking retractions that were issued by the Lancet and New England Journal of Medicine, involving the potential dangers of COVID therapy with findings derived from the Surgisphere database.

Hydroxychloroquine has garnered considerable media attention and was touted earlier by President Trump for its therapeutic effects.1 Naturally, there are political connotations associated with the agent, and it is unlikely that hydroxychloroquine will be supplanted in the near future as ongoing clinical trials have demonstrated mixed results amid the controversy.

As clinicians navigating unchartered territory within the hospital setting, we have to come to terms with these new challenges, tailoring treatment protocols accordingly with the best clinical practices in mind.

Patients with preexisting mental health conditions and who are being treated for COVID-19 are particularly susceptible to clinical deterioration. Recent studies have indicated that psychiatric patients are more prone to feelings of isolation and/or estrangement as well as exacerbation of symptoms such as paranoia.2 

Even more concerning is the medication regimen, namely, the novel combination therapies that arise when agents such as hydroxychloroquine are used in tandem with certain antipsychotics or antidepressants. As clinicians, we must reassess the psychotropic medication regimen for people who are currently being treated for or recovering from COVID-19.

What's at Stake for COVID-19–positive Mental Health Care Patients?

Although the efficacy of hydroxychloroquine is currently being investigated,3 the antimalarial is usually prescribed in tandem with azithromycin for people with COVID-19. The National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases has advised against that particular combination therapy because of ongoing concerns about toxicities.3,4

In another study, azithromycin was effectively substituted with doxycycline to help minimize systemic effects for patients with cardiac and/or pulmonary issues.5 Azithromycin is notorious in the literature for influencing the electrical activity of the heart with the potential for fatal arrhythmia and sudden cardiac death in individuals at risk for cardiovascular disease.5,6,7 

It should be noted that both of these commonly prescribed COVID-19 medications (for example, hydroxychloroquine and azithromycin) could lead to QT interval prolongation especially within the context of combination therapy. This is largely concerning for psychiatrists and various other mental health practitioners for the following reasons: (1) higher rates of metabolic syndrome and cardiovascular diseases among psychiatric patients8 and/or (2) effects of certain antipsychotics (for example, IV haloperidol, thioridazine, and ziprasidone) and antidepressants (for example, citalopram and escitalopram) on the QT interval.9

SARS-CoV-2 and Clinical Judgement: Evaluating Patients at Higher Risk

Although COVID-19 medication guidelines are still being actively developed, hydroxychloroquine appears to be commonly prescribed by physicians. The medication has known myriad untoward effects, including potential behavioral dysfunction (for example, irritability, agitation, suicidal ideation)10 as well as the aforementioned issues concerning arrhythmia (for example, torsades de pointes). Health care professionals might not have much control over the choice of COVID-19 agents because of a lack of available resources or limited options, but they can exercise clinical judgment with respect to selecting the appropriate psychotropic medications.

Treatment recommendations

1. Establish a baseline EKG

A baseline 12-lead EKG is the standard of care for patients currently being screened for COVID-19. It is necessary to rule out the presence of an underlying cardiovascular disease or a rhythm irregularity. A prolonged QTc interval is generally regarded as being around greater than 450-470 msecs with variations attributable to gender;11 numerous studies have affirmed that the risk of acquiring torsades de pointes is substantial when the QTc interval exceeds 500 msecs.12

2. Medical management and risk assessment

Commonly prescribed antipsychotics such as IV haloperidol and ziprasidone are known for exerting a negative effect on the interval and should readily be substituted with other agents in patients who are being treated for COVID-19; the combination of these antipsychotics alongside some COVID-19 medication regimens (for example, hydroxychloroquine/azithromycin) might prove to be fatal. The same logic applies to COVID-19 patients previously on antidepressant therapeutics such as citalopram and escitalopram.

3. Embrace an individually tailored approach to therapeutics

While American Psychiatric Association guidelines historically supported a cessation or reduction in the offending agent under normal circumstances,12 our team is recommending that the psychotropics associated with QTc interval prolongation are discontinued altogether (or substituted with a low-risk agent) in the event that a patient presents with suspected COVID-19. However, after the patients tests negative with COVID-19, they may resume therapy as indicated under the discretion of the mental health practitioner.


1. Offard C. “Lancet, NEJM Retract Surgisphere Studies on COVID-19 Patients.” The Scientist Magazine. 2020 Jun 4.

2. Shigemura J et al. Psychiatry Clin Neurosci. 2020 Apr;74(4):281-2.

3. Keshtkar-Jahromi M and Bavari S. Am J Trop Med Hyg. 2020 May;102(5):932-3.

4. Palca J. “NIH panel recommends against drug combination promoted by Trump for COVID-19.” NPR. 2020 Apr 21.

5. Mongelli L. “Long Island doctor tries new twist on hydroxychloroquine for elderly COVID-19 patients.” New York Post. 2020 Apr 4.

6. Hancox JC et al. Ther Adv Infect Dis. 2013 Oct;(5):155-65.

7. Giudicessi JR and Ackerman MJ. Cleve Clin J Med. 2013 Sep;80(9):539-44.

8. Casey DE. Am J Med. 2005 Apr 1;118(Suppl 2):15S-22S.

9. Beach SR et al. Psychosomatics. 2013 Jan 1;54(1):1-3.

10. Bogaczewicz A and Sobów T. Psychiatria i Psychologia Kliniczna. 2017;17(2):111-4.

11. Chohan PS et al. Pak J Med Sci. 2015 Sep-Oct;31(5):1269-71.

12. Lieberman JA et al. APA guidance on the use of antipsychotic drugs and cardiac sudden death. NYS Office of Mental Health. 2012.

Dr. Faisal A. Islam is medical adviser for the International Maternal and Child Health Foundation, Montreal, and is based in New York. He also is a postdoctoral fellow, psychopharmacologist, and a board-certified medical affairs specialist. Dr. Faisal Islam disclosed no relevant financial relationships.

Dr. Mohammed Islam is affiliated with the department of psychiatry at the Interfaith Medical Center, New York. He disclosed no relevant financial relationships.

Dr. Choudhry is the chief scientific officer and head of the department of mental health and clinical research at the International Maternal and Child Health Foundation. He disclosed no relevant financial relationships.

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