A person with HIV putting their hand out to block coronavirus cells

COVID-19: Basics for the Immunocompromised

For those living with chronic health conditions, current news about the coronavirus (COVID-19) can be anxiety-inducing. We have questions and concerns about how the virus is transmitted, how it can impact our daily lives, and how it could impact our health. This is especially true for those who are immune-compromised. Although feelings of anxiety are normal, it is essential that you do not panic. Knowing the facts about COVID-19 is the first important step in protecting your health.

What is COVID-19?

Coronaviruses are a family of viruses that have been around for a long time. There are several different kinds of coronaviruses that infect humans and animals. Some coronaviruses are even responsible for the common cold. A new type of coronavirus was identified in China at the end of 2019, called the SARS-CoV-2 virus, or COVID-19 for short.1-3

How is COVID-19 transmitted?

Although the first cases of COVID-19 infections may have been linked to animal transmission, the way how the virus is traveling now suggests that it can be transmitted via person-to-person contact.1 Ways that the virus can be transmitted include the following:1

Person-to-person

The virus can be transmitted between people who are in close contact with one another (within about 6 feet) through respiratory droplets produced when an infected person coughs or sneezes, these droplets can land in the mouths or noses of people who are nearby or possibly be inhaled into the lungs.

Contact with infected surfaces or objects

It may be possible that a person can get COVID-19 by touching a surface or object that has the virus on it and then touching their own mouth, nose, or possibly their eyes, but this is not thought to be the main way the virus spreads.

What are the symptoms of COVID-19?

The symptoms of COVID-19 are similar to those of the flu or cold. This can make it hard to tell them apart. Many cases of respiratory symptoms may not be due to COVID-19, but due to another illness. However, if you think you have been in an area with cases of COVID-19, or around someone who has tested positive for the virus, please contact your doctor. The following symptoms of COVID-19 are:1

  • Fever
  • Cough
  • Shortness of breath
  • Fatigue
  • Body or muscle aches

On April 28, 2020, the CDC announced the addition of 6 symptoms associated with coronavirus infection. These symptoms include:1

  • Chills
  • Repeated shaking with chills
  • Muscle pain
  • Headache
  • Sore throat
  • New loss of taste or smell.

Some people with COVID-19 have also noticed gastrointestinal issues like nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea. However, respiratory issues are the most common with the virus. Symptoms can range from being very mild to severe, leading to pneumonia and other complications.3-5

How will COVID-19 affect those who are immune-compromised?

We are still learning more every day about how COVID-19 affects people, including those who are immune-compromised. At this time, it appears that those who are immune-compromised may be at a greater risk of both acquiring COVID-19 and developing more severe cases of the illness.5

Your immune system may be compromised if you have other pre-existing conditions or if you are taking drugs that impact the immune system. These include steroids, biologics, chemotherapy, and more. If you are unsure whether or not you are immune-compromised or if drugs you are taking are impacting your immune system, contact your doctor. They may be able to help assess your risk of COVID-19.

The idea that a virus might hurt the immune-compromised more than others is not new. Illnesses like the seasonal flu also tend to impact those with impaired immune systems harder as well. Many of the same steps you use to protect yourself from the flu each year also work to reduce your risk of getting other illnesses like COVID-19, too.

Should you travel?

The decision of whether or not to travel often needs to be made on a case-by-case basis. Some important questions you may need to ask yourself when deciding whether to travel include:

  • Am I traveling to an area that has been heavily impacted by COVID-19? (especially when thinking about traveling internationally)
  • Am I going somewhere where I will be in an enclosed space with other people who might be sick for long periods of time? (such as long flights or cruise ships)
  • Is my health stable enough that if I was to get sick while traveling and be delayed in getting home I would be okay?
  • Do I have enough supplies, including medications, in case I am delayed?
  • Am I going somewhere that has access to quality healthcare in case I get sick?
  • Is my trip necessary or is there another time I could go that might be better?

Because your doctor is familiar with your medical history, they can be a great source of information when making the decision on whether to travel. They may be aware of places to get care or other doctors where you’re going who can help in case of an emergency. They may also be able to prescribe extra medications just in case. Your doctor can also tell you what precautions you may need to make while traveling, such as wearing a mask.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) also regularly updates their Travel Health Notices page with travel warnings. Some countries are currently listed as having a Level 3 travel advisory, meaning all nonessential travel should be avoided. This list can also be used to help you decide on your travel plans.

Where can I find reliable information on COVID-19?

It is understandable to be nervous about a new illness like COVID-19, especially with all of the coverage the virus is getting in the news and online. One thing to keep in mind, though, is that not all sources are equal when it comes to accuracy, reliability, and reducing fear. Large organizations like the CDC or the World Health Organization (WHO) are great places to find up-to-date information on COVID-19 that is medically reviewed and accurate. On the CDC’s coronavirus Situation Summary page, you can find regularly updated information on the virus and see what the CDC is doing to help.

Editorial Note: This article was updated to reflect the 6 new COVID-19 symptoms confirmed by the CDC on April 28, 2020.

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