Managing COVID-19 Risk With Common Immune Disorders

By Peter Schelden

What does diabetes have in common with lupus, organ transplants, and smoking?

They all compromise your immune system.

Coronavirus worry continues to run high for many. Managing an immune disorder during the pandemic further complicates your ability to stay safe, as the coronavirus attacks people with such conditions more severely.

And some people may be at higher risk than they know.

Your immune system can malfunction in a variety of ways, due to both rare and common conditions.

Some people are immunocompromised, meaning they have weak immune systems. That can be the case for people with poorly controlled HIV/AIDS, cancer, diabetes, or a recent organ transplant.

But others have overactive immune systems, or immune systems that turn against their own, otherwise healthy tissues, which cause different concerns. People with diabetes type 1, lupus, rheumatoid arthritis, and scleroderma fall into these categories.

If your immune system misbehaves, how should you act to protect yourself from COVID-19?

What Is Immunity?

Your immune system involves various body parts, including your skin, blood, lungs, and bone marrow. Your tonsils, thymus, and lymph nodes are important to the process of immunity, too.

All of these body parts work together to prevent, slow, or stop infections, said Praveen Buddiga, MD, FAAAAI, of Medscape. Your skin and nasal passages provide physical barriers that make it more difficult for infections to take root.

When infections develop, your lymphatic vessels carry white blood cells to the site of the infection. These trap the intruder—a virus in the case of the novel coronavirus—and stop it from reproducing.

COVID-19 Concerns and Solutions for People With Weakened Immunity

People who are immunocompromised are no more likely to become infected than anyone else. However, the highly-contagious COVID-19 virus, which has already infected more than 5.6 million people worldwide, is more likely to cause severe complications if you have a suppressed immune system, the CDC says.

Many people have weakened immune systems. Conditions that can compromise your immune system include:

People who fit one or more of these categories stand a greater risk of serious harm from a COVID-19 infection. While all people are advised to follow the precautions of local health authorities, people in these groups may wish to take additional care to prevent infection.

Depending on the severity of immune weakness, people whose immune systems are compromised may need to shelter-in-place for longer, carefully avoid crowds, and carefully maintain their 6-feet separation from others. These common precautions take on greater urgency as nations reopen and citizens increasingly relax their own standards.

The best ways to protect yourself during the pandemic will come from a conversation with your doctor.

COVID-19 Concerns and Solutions for People with Overactive Immunity

Many diseases and conditions lead to overactive immune systems, or so-called autoimmune disease, which is when your body’s immune response attacks healthy tissue.

These people may also face additional risks when exposed to the novel coronavirus. This may be due to the condition itself, or it may be due to the immunosuppressant medicines often necessary to control these conditions.

Some common conditions included in this category include:

Like those with suppressed immune systems, people with autoimmune disorders need to take special precautions to avoid infection. They may be taking immunosuppressive medicines, which may mask the telltale fever of COVID-19 infection. These people should watch for cough, fatigue, and difficulty breathing, according to Dr. Betty Diamond, Chair, AARDA Scientific Advisory Board.

Dr. Diamond advices these further precautions for people with autoimmune disorders:

  • Avoid crowds
  • Strictly maintain social distance of at least six feet
  • Avoid public transportation (if necessary, use public transport outside of peak hours)
  • If someone at home has contracted COVID-19, they should wear a mask for your protection, and should not be in the same room as you.

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