10 Things That Increase Your Risk of Coronavirus Complications

From your age to your medical history, here's what can cause severe illness from COVID-19.

Underlying health issues continue to be a huge factor in the severity of reactions to the coronavirus. COVID-19 is primarily a respiratory virus, meaning that it attacks the lungs. The virus first attaches itself to mucous membranes in the nose, mouth, and even the eyes, which is why it's important to avoid touching your face. From there, it descends into the lungs by multiplying and infecting cells along its path. The lungs, however, are not the only organs in the body that can be impacted—a wide range of factors and health conditions play a role in how your body reacts and whether or not you are at a greater risk of developing severe complications from the coronavirus. Here are a few major ones.


Older man

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), at least 95 percent of people who have died because of COVID-19 in Europe were over the age of 60. What's more, Neil Ferguson, of Imperial College London, estimates that 4% of people who are infected in their 60s die; and that number jumps significantly to 8.6% for people in their 70s.

As you age, you are more likely to develop other health issues, many of which can lessen your body's ability to fight off the virus—causing complications. And, according to WebMD, even if older individuals have no underlying health issues, our immune systems naturally grow less effective as we age.


Woman wearing a mask crossing the street in NewYork City

Outside of physical concerns, where you live is a huge factor in terms of whether you are on the front lines of the pandemic. For example, as New York City became an epicenter of the coronavirus crisis, many of its residents began—against advice—retreating to second homes in smaller communities, such as Cape Cod. The result of the migration, and others similar to it, has lead to the continued spread of the virus and put added strain on areas of the country with insufficient medical resources. In fact, at the time this article was published, more than 12,000 people have have signed a petition to close bridge access to the peninsula, essentially cutting it off from the mainland and any additional visitors.

Severe obesity

reasons you're tired

Why is the current death rate in New Orleans twice that of New York City, and four times that of Seattle? Some officials are suggesting that it's because the residents of NOLA have obesity and obesity-related conditions in far higher numbers. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) states that individuals who have a body mass index (BMI) above 40 are at higher risk. Learn more about BMIs—and calculate your own—at the CDC website.


man getting a diabetes test at the doctors office

While individuals with diabetes aren't necessarily more likely to contract COVID-19 than those without the condition, diabetics do face a greater risk of severe complications from the coronavirus. The American Diabetes Association states: "Your risk of getting very sick from COVID-19 is likely to be lower if your diabetes is well-managed." One complication in particular that diabetics may face is a higher risk of diabetic ketoacidosis, which can result in a coma, or even death.

High blood pressure and hypertension

Asian man getting his blood pressure checked

If you have blood pressure above 130/80, you may face severe complications if you contract COVID-19, the American Heart Association says. And according to analysis published by JAMA, 5.6 percent was the reported death rate for people in China who contracted the virus and also had high blood pressure.

For context, normal blood pressure ranges are lower than 120/80, while elevated rates are between 121-129/80-89—hypertension stage 1 starts at 140/90 or higher. If you have high blood pressure, make sure to limit your alcohol and caffeine intake, and stock up on any medication prescribed by your doctor prescribes.

Heart conditions

Doctor discussing patient's heart with him about heart condition

While the coronavirus' main point of attack is the lungs, it may also compromise the heart, says Orly Vardeny, associate professor of medicine at the Minneapolis VA Health Care System. And if you have a buildup of fatty tissue around their arteries, the impact of the virus can be far more severe—potentially causing heart attack, inflammation, or even heart failure, she says.

Chronic lung disease

Woman taking puff of inhaler

Because of the way the virus attacks the body, individuals with lung issues, such as asthma, emphysema, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), can face serious complications—including pneumonia and excess fluid in the lungs. And, yes, smokers face a greater risk when it comes to COVID-19, the WHO says.

Kidney disease

Man with Kidney Cancer Diseases That Affect Men

Anyone who is on dialysis for kidney issues will have a weakened immune system, which can make them more susceptible to the coronavirus. The National Kidney Foundation notes that this is not a reason to stop dialysis, but it is necessary to take added precautions. It's also important, the foundation emphasizes, for individuals who have recently had kidney transplants to continue taking any doctor-prescribed anti-rejection medicines.

Liver disease

Doctor pointing at liver to explain liver disease to patient

According to the American Liver Foundation, conditions such as cirrhosis, hepatitis C, and fatty liver disease can compromise the body and make an individual more likely to develop heart problems—which can result in variety of serious complications.


Woman with cancer talking to husband in hospital bed

Cancer patients are at a greater risk of severe coronavirus complications due to their compromised immune system, the American Cancer Society (ACS) says. The organization notes that individuals undergoing chemotherapy or having bone marrow transplants should remain highly cautious.

"For some [cancer patients] it may mean a delay in having elective surgery," says Len Lichtenfeld, MD, deputy chief medical officer of the ACS. "For others it may be delaying preventive care or adjuvant chemotherapy that's meant to keep cancer from returning."

Adam Shalvey
Adam Shalvey is a writer based in Rhode Island. Read more
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