These Conditions Increase Your Risk for Severe Illness From Coronavirus

Diabetes, heart disease, and other chronic conditions may cause serious complications.

The coronavirus pandemic has caused thousands of deaths and infected hundreds of thousands of people, upending life as we know it across the globe. And while there is much about COVID-19 we've yet to learn—most significantly, how to inoculate ourselves against it—medical professionals have noted a number of preexisting health issues that seem to increase one's risk of becoming critically ill if they contract the infectious disease. With that, here are nine health conditions that can raise your risk of severe coronavirus complications.


Man having his blood glucose levels checked by his doctor for diabetes

People with diabetes have been found to face a higher chance of experiencing severe illness if they contract COVID-19.

"With uncontrolled diabetes, the elevated levels of sugar (glucose) in the system impairs the body's ability to heal itself," explains Douglas P. Jeffrey, MD, a family medicine specialist from Eugene, Oregon, who is a medical advisor for eMediHealth. "The immune system is unable to perform optimally when blood sugar is elevated."

According to the American Diabetes Association, viral infections can increase inflammation in those living with diabetes. "This is also caused by above-target blood sugars, and both could contribute to more severe complications," the organization says on its website.


Doctor with older patient

In a recent paper published in the journal JAMA, doctors from Rome's Istituto Superiore di Sanità noted that in a sample of Italian patients who died after contracting COVID-19, 9.6 percent of them had a history of stroke.

"The data suggests that people who have a heart condition or vascular disease, or who have had a stroke, may be at higher risk of complications if they are infected with COVID-19," says Cindy Yip, director of data for the knowledge management and heart program at Heart & Stroke in Canada. She urges stroke survivors to ensure they have a supply of current prescriptions and get home delivery from their pharmacy whenever possible. "In stocking up on non-perishable foods, give priority to heart-healthy choices," Yip adds.


Obese man, contagious conditions

An audit by the U.K.'s National Health Service found that 63 percent of critically ill coronavirus patients in U.K. hospitals were overweight, obese, or morbidly obese.

"Obstructive sleep apnea and obesity hypoventilation syndrome are two prominent and somewhat common complications of obesity," Jeffrey says. "[With] a disease that primarily kills people due to inability to breathe properly, one can imagine the marked increased risk that obesity causes in the lungs."

Respiratory illness

Person using breathing apparatus

Those with respiratory illness or diseases such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and cystic fibrosis have been found to be at an increased risk of severe complications from coronavirus. And on its list of high-risk conditions, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) includes "people with chronic lung disease or moderate to severe asthma."

A recent study, conducted by researchers at Britain's University College London and published by MedRxiv, even found COPD to be the greatest risk factor for severe coronavirus-19 among those who've been hospitalized because of it.


Cancer patient

Since some types of cancer treatments, such as chemotherapy, often weaken one's immune system, cancer patients are generally at a greater risk for any infection, including COVID-19, the National Cancer Institute says. What's more, in the Italian patient survey discussed in JAMA, 20.3 percent of those who died from coronavirus also had an active form of cancer.

Oncologist Daniel Vorobiof, MD, the medical director of Belong.Life, a social networking app for cancer patients, adds, "One of the important findings noticed during the first wave of the COVID-19 infection in China was the fact that patients with cancer represented a high-risk immunocompromised population."


Man at the doctor

Autoimmune disorders, which typically suppress the immune system—or require medications that do so—have been found to raise the risk of severe coronavirus symptoms.

"It can become quite perilous when your doctor needs to modify disease treatment or stop it entirely in order to protect patients from this infection," says Jeffrey. "Of course, the symptoms of such diseases will return when the medication is reduced or eliminated during the peak of a pandemic."

Heart disease

Woman at doctor's office

According to a recent study by the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention of more than 45,000 confirmed COVID-19 cases, those with cardiovascular disease suffered a 10.5 percent mortality rate, compared with an estimated 2.5 percent mortality rate for those without preexisting heart conditions.

"COVID-19 infection not only puts direct stress on the heart as your body fights it off creating a massive inflammatory response, but also pneumonia will decrease oxygen levels needed for the heart to function," says Tim Canty, MD, executive director at Comprehensive Spine and Pain Center of New York. "Underlying cardiomyopathy from prior damage due to smoking, hypertension, diabetes, or heart attacks would put someone at higher risk."

High blood pressure

Doctor checking patient's blood pressure

The same study from the Chinese CDC found that those coronavirus victims suffering from high blood pressure experienced a 6.3 percent mortality rate. And in Italy, 76.1 percent of patients who died from COVID-19 had hypertension.

In addition, the American Heart Association says,"Those with a chronic condition such as high blood pressure—a reading above 130/80—may face an increased risk for severe complications if they get the virus." The organization urges those with high blood pressure "to follow guidance about keeping other conditions well controlled and maintaining good health and hygiene," including avoiding over-the-counter medication that can raise blood pressure, excessive alcohol or caffeine, and mixing certain foods with certain herbs.

Kidney disease

Man using his phone while getting dialysis

According to the National Kidney Foundation, diseases such as chronic or acute renal failure predispose an individual to "higher risk for more serious coronavirus illness."

"Someone with a preexisting decrease in renal function is susceptible to renal failure as the coronavirus infection progresses into the late stages," explains Canty. "It would be important to keep the right amount of fluid balance in the body as the infection progresses—dehydration could lead to loss of kidney function, but too much fluid intake… can overload the body's systems, worsening the lungs."

Alex Daniel
A journalist based in Brooklyn, New York. Read more