Navigating the COVID-19 Pandemic with a Weakened Immune System

Navigating the COVID-19 Pandemic with a Weakened Immune System

COVID-19 is a new disease and as such there is limited information regarding risk factors for severe disease. Based on currently available information and clinical expertise, older adults and people of any age who have serious underlying medical conditions might be at higher risk for severe illness from COVID-19.

Millions of Americans are immunocompromised, meaning that they have a weakened immune system. Immunocompromised individuals tend to have a higher risk for contracting any respiratory infections. Coronaviruses are therefore especially dangerous for people who fall into this category. The precautions that being taken by the general public at this time are things that people in this vulnerable group do as par for the course. Therefore, being immunocompromised may not increase the risk of contracting COVID-19, especially for those taking the practiced precautions, but it could mean that those who do  contract the virus will experience far more severe symptoms. The standard advice to reduce transmission of the virus still applies:

  • Limit contact with people as much as possible.
  • Maintain distance (six feet or more) from other individuals.
  • Wash hands frequently with soap and warm water for 20 to 30 seconds. Children (and adults) can be encouraged to sing a song while washing to ensure sufficient duration.
  • Avoid touching your eyes, nose, or mouth to the best of your ability.
  • Stay away from people who are sick.
  • Stay home.
  • Clean and disinfect high-touch surfaces in your home–counters, tabletops, doorknobs, bathroom fixtures, toilets, phones, keyboards, tablets, and bedside tables–every day.

In addition to these standard precautions that everyone should follow, there are some additional points that should be taken into account by those with increased vulnerability.

Your Doctor – Your First Port of Call

For those with chronic conditions it is likely that many will have existing doctor’s appointments. Currently, the CDC and WHO are advising that any non-urgent appointments be rescheduled. Those who are unsure of the urgency of appointments are urged to contact their doctors ahead of time to check. Many doctors are now offering a telehealth service so that appointments can occur over the phone or via a video chat service. This gives physicians the opportunity to better decide whether it is necessary to see patients in person on a case by case basis. It also allows doctors to advise patients whether they should make any changes to regular treatment protocol without requiring in person office visits. Patients are advised to consult their physicians before making any changes to medications or doses.  Those taking regular medications may request extended prescriptions to minimize visits to pharmacies. In some cases, medications may be sent by mail, further reducing risk of exposure.

A Mental Health Check

Isolation itself can cause anxiety and frustration impacting health negatively. It can be helpful for immunocompromised individuals to reach out, use the available technology to check in with others, maintain relationships and keep to a routine. Reaching out to others to maintain emotional stability may help others mitigate anxiety from isolation. It may also help guarantee early detection of signs of extreme stress that warrant professional intervention.

An Active Eating Plan

For many rheumatic and other autoimmune conditions, exercise and healthy eating are significant contributors to symptom reduction. Both of these things can be more difficult when practicing social distancing and isolation. It is important to maintain one’s dietary routine as much as possible. While trips to gyms are not recommended, maintaining a home routine is highly encouraged. There are many online resources for exercise geared towards those with chronic conditions such as chair yoga or low impact stretching. Beyond the benefit of reducing physical symptoms, a regular fitness routine can be a wonderful way to reduce boredom and build relationships. Reducing boredom can also be key to avoiding poor dietary choices. Boredom and malaise has been linked to increased caloric intake and a tendency to consume less healthful foods. Developing a culinary practice may help to relieve emotional factors that lead to poor eating habits. It may also help to ensure a reduction in modified starches or sugars often found in packaged goods. Online recipe forums and tutorials designed for health and reduced inflammation are readily available. The development of culinary skills may lead to healthy eating practices that can be maintained well beyond this period of social isolation.

Overall, those with compromised or weakened immune systems need not panic. Many already have an established routine that includes the very precautions now suggested for the general public. Talk to your primary care physician to address any specific concerns you have regarding your condition and make sure you use reliable resources such as the CDC or WHO websites to stay up to date regarding the latest news and recommendations.


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Article Author
Arthritis National Research Foundation

The Arthritis National Research Foundation's mission is to provide initial research funding to brilliant, investigative scientists with new ideas to cure arthritis and related autoimmune diseases. Writing articles about the patients affected and the science being done to find a cure shows why we need to come together to #CureArthritis!

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