how diabetes, asthma and other underlying health conditions affect how you cope

As the number of UK cases of coronavirus continues to rise, what has become clear is how many of the patients to die from the virus have underlying health conditions that make them susceptible to catching it. 

The death toll in Britain has exceeded 200. Most of those who have died have suffered from underlying health conditions. 

“It’s a new infection, but from our experience with dealing with flu epidemics, we know that people with various conditions will fare worse,” says Fan Chung, a professor of respiratory medicine at Imperial College. “A paper has just published in the New England Journal of Medicine, that looked at the first 1,001 cases in Wuhan. The figures showed those with diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, COPD, cancer and renal disease, fared worse. And I suspect the people who very unfortunately died in the UK had one or any of those conditions.”

A Chinese study has found people with heart disease, diabetes and cancer had a 79 per cent chance of being admitted to intensive care or dying from the virus, due to their weakened immune systems.

Here are the underlying health conditions that put you at higher risk of getting the coronavirus, and a reminder of how it might initially spread.


People with diabetes face a higher risk of complications if they get the coronavirus, due to the fact their fluctuating or elevated glucose levels leave them with lowered immunity. This also means they have less protection against getting the virus. “Coronavirus or COVID-19 can cause more severe symptoms and complications in people with diabetes,” says Dan Howarth from Diabetes UK. “If you have diabetes and you have symptoms such as a cough, high temperature and feeling short of breath you need to monitor your blood sugar closely and call the NHS 111 phone service.

“People with diabetes who don’t experience symptoms and have recently travelled to any of the affected areas need to follow information on the NHS and the GOV.UK websites,” adds Howarth. “These are updated regularly and are the most up-to-date source of information available.”

Heart disease

Somebody with a heart condition is more likely to have a compromised immune system, so their immune response won’t be as strong if exposed to a virus. COVID-19 also targets the lungs, which could cause problems for a diseased heart that has to work harder to get oxygenated blood around the body.  


Asthma is a respiratory condition that leads to inflammation of the breathing tubes that transport air to and from the lungs. “Coronavirus can cause respiratory problems for anyone, but for the 5.4million people in the UK with asthma, the risk is greater,” says Jessica Kirby, Head of Health Advice at Asthma UK. “Respiratory viruses like this can trigger asthma symptoms and could lead to an asthma attack.”

Kirby says if you’re a sufferer, it’s essential to take your preventer, daily as prescribed. “This helps cut the risk of an asthma attack being triggered by any virus, including coronavirus,” she says. “Keeping a reliever inhaler to hand is vital, so you can use it if you get asthma symptoms.

“If your asthma symptoms get worse, and you haven’t travelled to an at-risk area or been in contact with someone who has, make an appointment to see your GP as soon as you can. If you think you might have coronavirus, use the NHS 111 online coronavirus service.”

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)

COPD is the name for certain lung conditions that cause breathing difficulties, including emphysema, which is characterised by damage to the air sacs in the lungs, and chronic bronchitis, which is a long-term condition involving inflammation of the lung’s airways. People with COPD are more likely to get coronavirus if exposed to the virus because they have damage to their epithelial lining, which makes it easier for viruses to enter the body.


Cancer patients are more susceptible due to their compromised immune system. “Various cancer drugs and treatments, like chemotherapy, mean your immune system may be suppressed,” says Prof Chung, “and this would increase your chances of catching it. And if you do get it while you have cancer, you would probably fare worse than somebody with the virus who didn’t have cancer.”


Not a health condition as such, but many of the thousands of deaths so far have involved elderly people with underlying health conditions. “The elderly are at greater risk, and government advice for the elderly to avoid crowded areas is sound advice,” says Prof Chung. “The figures we have so far seem to imply the risk increases above the age of 70. However it’s even worse for those over 80. The chances of getting it – and faring worse – increase two or three times above the age the 70, but even more so above 80.”

In terms of children, who appear to be less prone to getting the coronavirus and, if they do, getting a more benign version of the illness, Prof Chung says that a young person with an underlying health condition isn’t at a greater risk: “A young person with asthma, or heart disease, wouldn’t be predisposed to get the coronavirus or suffer from it, in the same way an adult with the condition would,” he says. “Maybe it’s their immune system, and how it’s different from older people, but in terms of their susceptibility of getting the coronavirus, health conditions in young people don’t seem to increase their chances of catching it.”


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