Unsure whether you’re in the ‘high risk’ category when it comes to COVID-19? We explain who’s most vulnerable.
With news of the latest COVID-19 confirmed cases and death rates dominating daily headlines, it’s little wonder many of us are feeling anxious about our own health. The uncertainty surrounding each individual’s response to the illness can be cause for concern, and now with the Prime Minister admitted to intensive care, other seemingly healthy adults may be questioning how they will react to the virus.
‘It’s true that COVID-19 can make anyone seriously ill, so people must take all advice to stay safe and well,’ says Dr Andrew Thornber, Chief Medical Officer at Now Patient.
This advice states that you must stay at home, and only go outside:
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- For food, health reasons or work (if you cannot work from home)
- Stay at least 2m (6ft) away from others while out
- Wash your handsas soon as you return home
It’s also important to remember that, for most people, COVID-19 will present as a mild to moderate illness. However, following the strict social distancing and self-isolating guidelines above will help to keep not only you but also high-risk members of society as safe as possible.
So, who falls into this high-risk category?
The over 70
If you are over the age of 70, you need to be particularly stringent in following the Government’s guidelines on social distancing, even if you feel fit and well.
‘It does not matter how fit and healthy you are at 70 or over,’ says Dr Thornber. ‘The immune system weakens the older you get, so fighting infection can be harder to do so.’
Ask neighbours or family member to do your food shopping for you, or try to book online food deliveries, so you have to go out as little as possible.
Because COVID-19 is a new illness, its effect on expectant mothers and unborn babies has yet to be studied in detail, hence the reason pregnant women must be strict in their adherence to the social distancing guidelines.
‘Because this is a relatively new virus which we are still learning about, pregnant women have been placed into the vulnerable category,’ says Dr Thornber. ‘But looking at statistics across the world, there is no evidence to state that pregnant women and their babies will get severely unwell from COVID-19. It is expected they would get mild to moderate flu-like symptoms.
‘There have been a small number of babies across the world born with coronavirus, but we are still unsure whether they contracted the virus before or after birth. In China, a few babies born to mothers with COVID-19 were premature, but it is unclear whether the virus caused early labour or not. There is also no evidence to show any increased risk of miscarriage. The UK is conducting real-time observation of all pregnant women who develop COVID-19 during pregnancy and their unborn babies.’
People with an underlying health condition
According to Dr Thornber, this includes conditions such as:
- Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)
- Heart disease
- Liver disease
‘Everyone should take the risk of COVID-19 seriously and follow the social distancing measures, as people not in the at-risk categories or with underlying health conditions can still contract the virus,’ says Dr Thornber.
However, those with underlying health conditions need to be extra cautious.
‘Let’s take diabetes as an example,’ says Dr Thornber. ‘High levels of blood sugar over a long period of time can actually depress your immune system, so it won’t respond as quickly to the virus if it enters the body. The virus then has more time to replicate, get down to your lungs and cause the problems associated with breathing, which can lead to needing hospital treatment.’
Those who are morbidly obese
According to the Center for Disease Control, those with a body mass index (BMI) of 40+ are at a higher risk of becoming severely ill from COVID-19.
‘COVID-19 has been linked to respiratory issues, so if a person is carrying excess weight, it can cause pressure upon the body – especially the chest and lungs – and cause issues with breathing,’ explains Dr Thornber. ‘Excess weight makes it more difficult for the lungs and diaphragm to expand and inhale oxygen. Once starved of oxygen, organs will start to fail. Therefore, those with a BMI over 40 should take extra care and follow all medical advice.’
Being high risk: protecting your mental health
If you fall into one of the above categories, you may well be feeling especially concerned or anxious. Perhaps worries and uncertainties keep flooding your brain, maybe even stopping you from sleeping at night.
‘If you’re in a high-risk COVID-19 group, the constant dramatic news and headlines will no doubt lead to heightened anxiety,’ sympathises Dr Meg Arroll, chartered psychologist on behalf of Healthspan. ‘But there are many ways people who are at greater risk can manage worries and concerns at this challenging time.’
Dr Arroll has the following advice to help protect your mental health during this time:
Divert attention to positive news stories
If you can’t stop checking your phone for the latest coronavirus updates, now might be a good time to switch off for a while, or at least to switch focus.
‘It’s important to moderate the amount of news you consume,’ says Dr Arroll. ‘Even though it can feel reassuring to know the exact statistics, this is often unhelpful in terms of emotional health. Instead, seek out the recovery stories. Make a pact with yourself that every negative headline you read, you have to find a counter positive story. This will help put the current situation into perspective.’
Practice radical self-acceptance
Accepting yourself fully, without any judgement, can help to calm both your mind and body.
‘When we are stressed, our minds and bodies enter a state of “fight or flight” and quite negative thought patterns about ourselves can emerge. If you’re in an at-risk group, you may be berating yourself for being in this category, but it’s not your fault. To break these cognitive patterns, accept every aspect of yourself, your entire life and the current situation without any blame, criticism or judgement. We are in unprecedented times, so there is no “perfect” way to cope with what’s happening, nor can we change the past. Therefore, allow radical acceptance to calm the mind.’
Find your control outlet
As humans, we don’t like uncertainty, and yet much of our current situation is uncertain. Trying to control or second guess what’s happening will only serve to create additional stress and anxiety, so let go of the wider situation, and focus on the things you can control, instead.
‘We can’t control this pandemic individually, but we can exert control over a small space in our lives,’ advises Dr Arroll. ‘When feeling particularly anxious or aggravated, find a junk drawer, messy wardrobe or disorganised bookshelf, and funnel all your desires for control onto this. Notice how much calmer you feel afterwards, as this micro-exercise helps to anchor you when the wider world feels uncertain.’