What Are Comorbidities—and How Do They Affect COVID-19? Here's What Experts Say

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About 1.3 million people are now receiving the COVID-19 vaccine every day, and some states are starting to allow people with certain comorbidities to get the shot. On February 8, New York’s Governor Andrew M. Cuomo said residents with comorbidities and underlying conditions could make appointments at state-run mass vaccination sites from February 14.

But what are comorbidities—and how do they affect COVID-19? Here’s what expert told us, plus how to know if you have one.

Comorbidities definition

“Comorbidities are the presence of two or more diseases in the same person,” Jooby Babu, MD, pulmonologist and critical care specialist at Providence St. Joseph Hospital in Southern California, tells Health. “For instance, a person who has diabetes and hypertension, or diabetes and kidney failure.”

The term comorbidity was first documented in the 1970s by renowned doctor and epidemiologist A.R. Feinstein, who used people who suffered from rheumatic fever and multiple other diseases as examples.

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How do comorbidities affect COVID-19?

In June 2020, a study published in SN Comprehensive Clinical Medicine investigated the belief that COVID-19 in a person with underlying health conditions or comorbidities “has an increasingly rapid and severe progression, often leading to death.” The researchers looked at all the available data and found that having comorbidities also increases the chances of coronavirus infection. They also concluded that patients with a history of hypertension, obesity, chronic lung disease, diabetes, or cardiovascular disease have the worst prognosis and most often end up with deteriorating outcomes, such as the life-threatening lung injury ARDS (acute respiratory distress syndrome) and pneumonia.

Comorbidities are a serious health concern, Dr. Babu says, because the presence of two or more conditions increases the chances of hospitalization and the risk of death and affects quality of life. When a person experiences comorbid conditions, they may have a compromised immune system or need additional care that exposes them to others. Plus, they may already be experiencing complications from the underlying condition that puts increased stress on their body. According to a study published by the Annals of Family Medicine, “Comorbidity is associated with worse health outcomes, more complex clinical management, and increased health care costs.”

CDC list of comorbid conditions

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) provides a list of comorbid conditions in COVID-19 patients, which includes cancer, chronic kidney disease, heart disease, Down syndrome, obesity, pregnancy, and type 2 diabetes mellitus.

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Because COVID-19 is a new disease, there’s not a lot of data on how other underling conditions affect COVID-19 severity. But the CDC says there might be an increased risk for severe illness from COVID-19 if the patient also has moderate to severe asthma, cystic fibrosis, hypertension (high blood pressure), dementia, and type 1 diabetes mellitus, among other conditions.

Comorbidities and the COVID-19 vaccine

The opportunity to get the COVID-19 vaccine comes as welcome news to those who live with chronic health conditions. For Dr. Babu, it’s an important development. “Patients with comorbidities should get vaccinated as early as possible,” he says.

Whether you’ve been vaccinated or not, if you live with a chronic health condition, it’s even more important that you follow the hygiene and safety guidelines set out by the CDC. In other words, limit person-to-person contact, wear masks in public areas, and be super vigilant about hand washing with soap and water or hand sanitizer.

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It’s also important to reduce the risk of medication interactions, so if you live with multiple conditions or disorders, make sure your doctor knows all prescribed med and over-the-counter drugs you’re taking.

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