People with obesity are one of the “high-risk” groups. Here’s why.
People with obesity fall into the at-risk group for COVID-19, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. This doesn’t mean they are more likely to get COVID-19. Instead, they are more likely to have complications if they do get COVID-19.
Experts define obesity as having a body mass index (BMI) of 30 or higher. Although BMI isn’t the ultimate indicator of good health, people who have a high BMI are statistically more likely to have COVID-19 complications.
How Obesity Affects COVID-19 Risk
Obesity can affect the risk of COVID-19 complications in a few different ways.
1. Belly fat
Abdominal fat may push on the diaphragm. This makes it harder for the lungs to fully expand. As a result, breathing becomes more difficult. Since COVID-19 also affects breathing, the combination can cause problems.
2. Other comorbidities
People with obesity have a higher risk of other metabolic problems. They may also have:
- High blood pressure
- High cholesterol
- Insulin resistance
- Heart disease
Many of these are also risk factors themselves for complications of COVID-19.
3. Immune dysfunction
One of the components of the immune system is called cytokines. These substances create inflammation in the body during an immune response. People with obesity may have chronic inflammation, which means they have higher levels of cytokines on a regular basis.
A potential complication of COVID-19 is a cytokine storm. This is when the immune system releases too many cytokines at once, which overwhelms the body and can be life-threatening. People who already have high levels of cytokines, such as people with obesity, may have a higher risk of cytokine storm. (Learn more about cytokine storm here.)
4. Blood clots
Both COVID-19 and obesity increase the risk of blood clots. Blood clots have been one of the common complications of COVID-19 and can lead to other problems, like stroke.
Managing Your Risk Factors
If you are obese or even overweight, there are things you can do to manage your COVID-19 risk. This includes ways to prevent infection of the virus that causes COVID-19, as well as ways to stay safe if you do get COVID-19.
To lower your risk of getting COVID-19, it’s important to:
- Practice good hand hygiene
- Wear a mask in public settings and around people you do not live with
- Avoid crowds and large gatherings
To manage your risk of complications if you get COVID-19, it’s important to:
- Stay hydrated
- Isolate to avoid spreading the virus to others
- Stick to your prescribed medications
- Make an action plan with your doctor so you know what to do if symptoms start getting worse
If you’re worried about your COVID-19 risk, talk to your doctor. They can help you come up with a plan for managing your risk factors and staying safe.
Dr. Sood is a board-certified endocrinologist in private practice in New York City and an assistant professor at Hofstra School of Medicine.Preeti Parikh
Preeti Parikh, MD serves as the Chief Medical Officer of HealthiNation. She is a board-certified pediatrician practicing at Westside Pediatrics, is an Assistant Clinical Professor at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine, and is an American Academy of Pediatrics spokesperson. She holds degrees from Columbia University and Rutgers Robert Wood Johnson Medical School and has completed post-graduate training at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine.
- Defining adult obesity. Atlanta, GA: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (Accessed on January 22, 2021)
- Obesity and COVID-19. Atlanta, GA: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (Accessed on January 22, 2021)
- Overweight and obesity in adults: health consequences. Waltham, MA: UpToDate, 2020. (Accessed on January 22, 2021)