We’ve heard that elderly people and those with underlying health conditions are most at risk if they’re infected with coronavirus, but those can seem like really general terms. Who does that include? And why can they face more serious illness?
“According to the [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention], some of the underlying conditions that may put you at higher risk include: chronic lung disease and asthma, heart disease and undergoing cancer treatment,” said CNN Chief Medical Correspondent Dr. Sanjay Gupta in an episode of CNN’s “Coronavirus: Fact vs. Fiction” podcast. Anyone with diabetes, kidney failure or liver failure may also be at higher risk.
The role of the immune system is to protect against disease or other potentially damaging pathogens. A strong one is needed to help stave off coronavirus infection.
“Think of it like this,” Dr. Gupta suggested. “In your everyday life, you’re always fighting off pathogens. Most of the time you don’t even realize it. If you have an underlying condition, it makes it more challenging to fight off a virus like this. You may develop a fever, shortness of breath or a cough more easily than someone who doesn’t have a preexisting illness.”
Additionally, there are more specific reasons why each condition has its own vulnerabilities. Here’s a guide to underlying conditions affected by coronavirus and why, and how you can protect yourself or an at-risk loved one.
Eight out of 10 deaths reported in the US have been in adults ages 65 and older, according to the CDC. Older adults have also been more likely to require hospitalization and admission to an intensive care unit.
Older adults are more likely to have long-term health problems that can increase their risk for infection and serious disease. And, our immune systems usually weaken with age, making it more difficult for people to fight off infections, according to Johns Hopkins Medicine.
The quality of our lung tissue also declines over time, becoming more elastic and making respiratory diseases such as Covid-19 of important concern because of the potential for lung damage.
Inflammation in older adults can be more intense, leading to organ damage.
Those with lung disease, asthma or heart conditions
People with chronic airway and lung diseases such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), asthma, pulmonary fibrosis and interstitial lung disease can lay the foundations for more severe infection with coronavirus because of the inflammation, scarring and lung damage those conditions cause, Johns Hopkins Medicine reported.
Covid-19 affects a person’s airway and lungs, but those organs work together to provide the body with oxygen. When the lungs are overburdened with an infection, the heart has to work harder, which exacerbates the challenges of people already living with heart disease.
According to the CDC, many conditions can cause a person to be immunocompromised, including cancer treatment, smoking, bone marrow or organ transplantation and immune deficiencies. Poorly controlled HIV or AIDS and prolonged use of man-made steroid hormones or other immune-weakening medications can also hamper a person’s immune function.
Cancer can weaken immunity by spreading into the bone marrow, which makes blood cells that help fight infection, according to Cancer Research UK. Cancer prevents bone marrow from making enough blood cells.
Some cancer treatments can temporarily weaken the immune system, too. Because cancer treatments such as chemotherapy, cancer drugs, radiotherapy or steroids are targeted toward cancer cells, they can also diminish the number of white blood cells created in the bone marrow.
A 2017 study found cigarette smoking can harm the immune system by either causing extreme immune responses to pathogens or rendering the body less effective at fighting disease. This may occur by smoking, negatively altering the cellular and molecular mechanisms responsible for keeping an immune system strong.
When a person undergoes a bone marrow transplant using stem cells from a donor, or they receive an organ, a doctor may prescribe medications to prevent graft-versus-host disease and mitigate the immune system’s reaction by suppressing its function. After the operation, it takes time for your immune system to be up and running again.
HIV and AIDS attack the body’s immune system, specifically the body’s T cells, which help the immune system fight off infection. When the diseases are untreated, HIV reduces the number of those cells, making the person more likely to contract other infections or infection-related cancer, according to the CDC.
People with severe obesity, or a body mass index of 40 or higher, are at higher risk of serious disease.
“Obesity shares with most chronic diseases the presence of an inflammatory component,” a 2012 study said. Inflammatory responses were linked between the immune system and body fat. Obesity is known to impair immune function by altering white blood cell count as well as the cells that control immune responses.
People with type 1 or type 2 diabetes face an increased risk of getting really sick with Covid-19, as both cause a blood sugar spike. If blood sugar is poorly managed, viral diseases can be more dangerous as high blood sugar may give viruses a place to thrive, according to Diabetes in Control, a news and information resource for medical professionals.
Higher levels of inflammation have been discovered in the bodies of people with diabetes, weakening the immune system and making it more difficult for those affected to stave off sickness in general.
Kidney and liver disease
The kidneys produce several hormones that affect immune responses. Having kidney disease and failure can weaken your immune system, making it easier for infections to take hold. According to the National Kidney Foundation, doctors and researchers have found that most infections are worse in people with kidney disease.
The liver is an integral member of the body’s line of defense, helping to regulate the number of white blood cells utilized in immune responses and defend against harmful pathogens. Someone with liver disease is experiencing abnormalities in the function of the immune system, giving rise to more serious illness.
Neurological and neurodevelopmental conditions may also increase the risk of serious Covid-19 for people of any age.
These include disorders of the brain, spinal cord, peripheral nerve and muscle such as cerebral palsy, epilepsy, stroke and intellectual disability, according to the CDC. Those with moderate to severe developmental delay, muscular dystrophy or spinal cord injury are also more at-risk.
People with neurological conditions may not be more at risk due to solely their condition, but because medications they might take to control their condition could hamper their immune system. However, some neurological conditions, such as Parkinson’s, have been recognized to have inflammatory components, which may harm the immune system.
Others including muscular dystrophy, multiple sclerosis or amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) could cause paralysis to the diaphragm, which leaves those affected very at risk for respiratory failure if they were to be sick with Covid-19.
Staying safe when you’re more at risk
If you see yourself on the list of those at higher risk for severe illness, there are several things you can do to protect yourself. First, make sure you are contact your doctor or doctors about your risk level. Second, be extra vigilant about the recommendations that most people are being asked to follow.
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Stay home whenever possible and avoid close contact with people, the CDC suggests. Wash your hands often to prevent transferring the virus from a surface to your face, and try to clean and disinfect frequently touched surfaces as often as you can.
If you don’t have an underlying condition, doing your part by practicing these cautionary measures can help protect not only you, but your loved ones with existing conditions.