Man and woman read the thermometer with concern
Man and woman read the thermometer with concern
Man and woman read the thermometer with concern

Coronavirus and COVID-19: Who is at higher risk?

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Certain people are at a high risk for a serious infection if they catch COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus, including those over age 85 and people with heart disease, lung disease or diabetes.

But how do these conditions make people more vulnerable to more serious COVID-19 infections? Lisa Maragakis, M.D., M.P.H, senior director of infection prevention, explains.

Older Adults and COVID-19

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), eight out of 10 deaths in the U.S. from the new coronavirus have been in people 65 and older. An estimated 6% to 29% of people 85 and older who get COVID-19 will require intensive care. Here are some reasons why:

  • Older adults are more likely to have long-term health problems that can put them at risk.
  • People’s immune systems tend to weaken with age, making it more difficult for older people to fight off infections.
  • Lung tissue becomes less elastic over time, making respiratory diseases like COVID-19 a particular concern for older people.
  • Inflammation in older people can be more intense, causing organ damage.

Caring for an older person during the COVID-19 pandemic? Here are some tips.

COVID-19 and Heart Disease

Although COVID-19 most often affects the airway and lungs, these organs work together with the heart to drive oxygen to the body’s tissues. When the lungs are overtaxed due to illness, the heart has to work harder, which creates challenges for people who are already living with heart disease.

The American Heart Association notes that viral illnesses similar to COVID-19 can raise the risk of a heart attack in people with a buildup of plaque in their blood vessels. Research shows that viral illness can make it more likely that a piece of the plaque lining the vessels could break off and block blood flow to the heart.

Lung Disease and COVID-19

Chronic airway and lung diseases such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (or COPD, such as emphysema), asthma, pulmonary fibrosis and interstitial lung disease can set the stage for a more severe infection with the new coronavirus because of scarring, inflammation or lung damage.

It’s very important for people with these conditions to work with their doctors and ensure they have adequate supplies of maintenance and rescue medications on hand.

Diabetes as a Risk Factor for COVID-19

People living with diabetes have an increased risk of getting very sick from the new coronavirus. Diabetes type 1 and type 2 both cause an increase in blood sugar. Poorly controlled blood sugar can make viral diseases, including COVID-19, more dangerous, possibly because higher blood sugar can create an environment where viruses are likely to thrive.

In addition, diabetes increases inflammation and weakens the immune system, making it harder for people living with the condition to fight off disease in general.

Those living with diabetes should adhere to their medication regimens and do everything possible to keep their blood sugar under control. Having an adequate supply of medications and staying in close touch with the doctor can add to peace of mind.

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Coronavirus Self-Checker and COVID-19 Vaccine FAQ

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Coronavirus prevention guidelines apply to everyone

Whether or not they are in a high-risk category, everyone needs to take steps to protect themselves and others from catching or spreading COVID-19. Severe illness is occurring in people who have no known risk factors, including young adults and even children. Physical distancing, frequent, thorough handwashing and other guidelines such as wearing a cloth face covering if physical distancing isn’t possible are appropriate to help lower the risk for everyone, especially the most vulnerable. 

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Coronavirus (COVID-19)

What you need to know from Johns Hopkins Medicine.

Updated June 25, 2020