COVID-19: People Who Are at High Risk for Serious Illness

Overview

COVID-19 is a disease caused by a type of coronavirus. This illness was first found in 2019 and has since spread worldwide (pandemic). Symptoms can range from mild, such as fever and body aches, to severe, including trouble breathing. COVID-19 can be deadly.

Coronaviruses are a large group of viruses. Some types cause the common cold. Others cause more serious illnesses like Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS) and severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS).

What puts you at high risk for serious illness?

COVID-19 causes a mild illness in many people who get it. But certain things may increase your risk for more serious illness. These include:

  • Age.
    • Older adults are at highest risk. The risk increases with age.
    • Babies born premature or who are less than 1 year old may also be at high risk.
  • Asthma, cystic fibrosis, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), and other chronic lung diseases.
  • A weakened immune system or taking medicines, such as steroids, that suppress the immune system. This also includes medicines taken because of an organ transplant.
  • Vaping or smoking or having a history of smoking.
  • Serious heart conditions, such as heart failure, coronary artery disease, or high blood pressure.
  • Tuberculosis (TB).
  • HIV.
  • Cancer or getting treatment for cancer.
  • Conditions that involve the nerves and brain. Examples include stroke, dementia, and cerebral palsy.
  • Being overweight (obesity).
  • Diabetes.
  • Chronic kidney disease.
  • Liver disease.
  • Substance use disorders.
  • Sickle cell disease.
  • Pregnancy or a recent pregnancy.
  • Genetic, metabolic, or neurologic problems in children. This includes children who may have many health problems that affect many body systems. These problems may limit how well the child can do routine activities of daily life.
  • Down syndrome.
  • Mood disorders, such as depression or schizophrenia.

Some people have a higher risk of getting very sick or dying from COVID-19 because of where they live or work. The risk can also be higher if people don't have access to health care. This includes people from certain racial and ethnic minority groups, as well as people with disabilities.

This is not a complete list. If you have a chronic health problem, ask your doctor if you should take extra precautions. The more of these things you have, the higher your risk for serious illness. Talk with your doctor about ways to manage your risk.

Should you get the COVID-19 vaccine?

The simple answer is yes. The COVID-19 vaccine is safe and effective for almost everyone. The only people advised not to get it are those who've had a severe allergic reaction to the vaccine's ingredients.

Experts recommend staying up to date on your COVID vaccines, especially if you:

  • Have an underlying health problem like diabetes, chronic lung disease, or obesity. Having COVID-19 can be much worse if you have conditions like these.
  • Have a weakened immune system. You may be at higher risk for getting very sick from COVID-19. The vaccine may not work as well for you, but it should still be safe.
  • Are pregnant, were recently pregnant, or are planning a pregnancy, or if you are breastfeeding. Getting the vaccine during pregnancy can help protect both you and your baby. Getting vaccinated increases the chance that you will stay healthy enough to carry your pregnancy to term. This gives your baby the best chance for a healthy start. Getting vaccinated helps protect your baby after birth too. For example, your baby is less likely to be hospitalized for COVID-19. The risk of problems from the vaccine should be far smaller than the risks from having COVID-19. There is no evidence that vaccines, including the COVID-19 vaccine, cause fertility problems.

If you have any questions about the vaccine, talk with your doctor.

How can you protect yourself?

  • Take steps to reduce your risk of illness.
    • Stay up to date on your COVID-19 vaccines.
    • Wear a mask with the best fit, protection, and comfort for you if you go into public areas, especially indoor spaces.
    • Wash your hands often. And avoid touching your mouth, nose, and eyes.
    • Avoid sick people and crowds. If you have to be in a crowded area, such as an airport, wear a mask. This is important even if you're outside.
    • Choose outdoor visits and activities when possible. If you have to spend time indoors with others, open windows and doors. Or use a fan to blow air away from people and out a window.
    • Ask your doctor if you need medicine to lower your risk of getting COVID-19. (This is called pre-exposure prophylaxis, or PrEP). People who can get this treatment include those who have a weakened immune system.
  • Be prepared to act quickly.
    • Learn about medicines to reduce your risk of getting very sick from COVID-19. These include antiviral medicines.
    • Have COVID-19 tests available at home, or know where to get tested. If you have symptoms, get a test right away.
    • If you test positive for COVID-19 or you're sick, call your doctor right away. Medicines to reduce your risk of serious illness need to be taken in the first few days after you get sick. You may be able to get them from your doctor, a pharmacy, or a health clinic.
  • Get others to help protect you.
    • Ask the people you live with or who are in close contact with you to stay up to date on their COVID-19 vaccines.
    • Ask the people you live with to wear a mask in public areas. This is important even if they're up to date on their COVID-19 vaccines.
    • Ask people who don't live with you to get a COVID-19 test before you visit with them.

Credits

Current as of: January 28, 2023

Author: Healthwise Staff
Medical Review:
Heather Quinn MD - Family Medicine
Lesley Ryan MD - Family Medicine