Pre-existing conditions can make you a target for infections. Here's how you can get the upper hand.
For people living with conditions such as diabetes, cardiovascular disease and lung disease, the COVID-19 pandemic is a harsh reminder that chronic medical problems and infections can be a dangerous combination. Pre-existing conditions can make you more susceptible to infections and increase the risk of serious illness. Even pregnancy, a normal, healthy pre-existing condition, can lead to more serious symptoms with infections.
What Is A Pre-Existing Condition?
For months we've been hearing about pre-existing conditions and how they can make COVID-19 more dangerous and deadly. Simply put, a pre-existing condition is any long-term personal illness, disease or health condition. In the case of COVID, having a pre-existing condition increases the chance of becoming more severely ill from the virus.
Common pre-existing conditions include:
- Autoimmune disease (ie: rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, inflammatory bowel disease)
- COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease)
- Heart conditions, such as heart failure or coronary artery disease
- Hypertension or high blood pressure
- Kidney disease
- Liver disease
- Obesity (body mass index [BMI] of 30 or higher)
- Type 1 or 2 diabetes
Why Do Pre-existing Conditions Make It Harder To Fight Infections?
The body relies on its immune system to fight harmful invaders like infections from viruses or bacteria. It's always on alert for anything that threatens your health.
"Chronic conditions like high blood pressure, heart or lung disease, obesity or diabetes challenge your immune system," said Beth Yegerlehner, MD, a Franciscan Physician Network family medicine physician in Indianapolis. "If you have a pre-existing condition and get sick with an infection, it's harder to fight it because the body is already compromised."
One of the biggest problems of an underlying health problem is the increased presence of inflammation inside the body. If an infection enters the body, the level of inflammation rises even further and the body can feel under attack. This type of severe inflammation not only challenges the immune system, it can harm nearby healthy tissues and organs and can also make medical conditions worse.
"For instance, inflammation worsens insulin resistance, so patients may develop new onset diabetes," said Milli Gupta, MD, a Franciscan Physician Network endocrinologist in Munster, Indiana. "Inflammation can also cause someone who's pre-diabetic to become diabetic, or well-controlled sugars may suddenly spike."
Even a normal, healthy pregnancy challenges the immune system because it's working harder to protect both mom and baby.
"With pregnancy, the immune system is suppressed so the body doesn't fight off the pregnancy. This means if someone gets the flu when pregnant, they may get sicker than if they weren't pregnant." said Lafayette, Indiana-based Franciscan Physician Network obstetrician/gynecologist Brittany Sherron, MD.
How Can You Protect Yourself If You Have Pre-Existing Conditions?
If you have a pre-existing condition, infection prevention is the best defense.
- Get and keep your health condition under control. Keep all scheduled appointments and take all prescribed medications and supplements as directed. If you start to feel "off," keep a log and contact your healthcare provider.
- Keep your vaccinations up-to-date. Vaccinations are essential if you're pregnant or have a pre-existing medical condition. Vaccinate against the flu and pneumonia as early in the season as possible.
- Protect yourself and others. COVID-19 has shown how important it is to limit exposure to a virus. Wear a mask, don't touch your face, wash hands often and keep at least a six-foot distance from others. "You don't have to be scared, but if you have a pre-existing condition or you're pregnant, be careful who you expose yourself to," said Dr. Sherron.