Who is most at risk for coronavirus disease (COVID-19)?

Reviewed on 3/21/2020

Ask a Doctor

I’m very concerned about my elderly mother catching the coronavirus (COVID-19). Is she at more of a risk for the illness and if so, what can we do to protect her?

Doctor's Response

It’s especially important we take care of older adults and others in our community who suffer from other serious medical conditions because they are at more risk of suffering severe illness if they have COVID-19. 

The population of adults who are at risk include adults over the age of 65, as well as those with the following conditions:

COVID-19 complications for those at risk

  • Older adults may experience higher levels of stress, fear, and anxiety in addition to a higher risk of severe symptoms of the illness. 
  • To date, of the reported deaths in the U.S. due to COVID-19, 8 out of 10 were adults aged 65 or older.
  • People with HIV have an increased risk of getting very sick with COVID-19 based on their age and other medical conditions.
  • The risk from immune suppression is not known for those with HIV. When looking at data for other viral respiratory infections, generally the risk for people with HIV getting very sick is greatest in:
    • People with a low CD4 cell count, and
    • People not on HIV treatment (antiretroviral therapy or ART).
  • People with asthma: Because COVID-19 affects the respiratory tract (nose, throat, lungs), people with asthma are at higher risk for getting very sick, including an asthma attack, pneumonia, and acute respiratory disease.
  • Pregnant women: Generally pregnant women are at a higher risk of developing serious illness from COVID-19 viruses and respiratory infections such as influenza, making it important to protect them from illness. 
  • It is still unknown whether a pregnant woman infected with COVID-19 can pass on the illness to her unborn child, or whether the illness will cause problems during pregnancy or after birth.  

How to prevent the coronavirus

Most coronaviruses are as contagious as common cold viruses or influenza virus (the flu virus). They are typically acquired by direct contact with hands with secretions or breathing within 3 feet of a cough or sneeze with the virus.

The best way to prevent coronavirus and other respiratory viruses that often circulate at the same time is to avoid inhaling infectious respiratory secretions or touching surfaces that may be contaminated.

The same general tips for preventing the cold, flu, and other illnesses apply to avoiding COVID-19. Keep the following in mind to keep older adults and those at risk safe and healthy:

  • Stay home whenever possible.
  • Avoid close contact with people who are sick or have recently been sick.
  • Limit being in public or crowded places during winter and spring or when an outbreak of respiratory viruses is suspected.
  • Stay home if you are sick with cold symptoms.
  • If you must be around other people, cover your cough or sneeze with your elbow or sleeve to avoid contaminating your hands and then contaminating objects you touch. You can also use tissues that you can throw away.
  • Wash hands frequently with soap and water.
  • Use alcohol-based hand sanitizer often, especially if frequently touching potentially contaminated surfaces (for example, public keyboards, touch pads, doorknobs, elevator buttons).
  • Surgical masks are of limited value in preventing transmission or infection with most respiratory viruses, especially if they are worn a long time and become moist from breath. Masks do not replace the respiratory and hand hygiene measures above.
  • Health care workers should pay close attention to public health guidance about severe respiratory virus outbreaks to reduce their risk of infection. For MERS, SARS, and 2019-nCoV, people usually use barriers such as gloves, gowns, and masks during a hospital stay.
  • Contact your healthcare provider if you are experiencing coronavirus symptoms or if you have any concerns about your health.

COVID-19 is a new disease, which is currently being studied closely. At the present time, we do not have a vaccine that can prevent COVID-19, so it’s best to avoid exposure to the virus with the above advice.

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Reviewed on 3/21/2020

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