COVID-19, chronic illness and the elderly – what you should know


Older people and people with chronic conditions are at higher risk of suffering from severe complications if they are diagnosed with COVID-19.

Being elderly or having a chronic disease does not mean you are more likely to get COVID-19; it means you are at risk of developing more serious symptoms or complications if you do get it, says the World Health Organization (WHO).

Most of the deaths caused by COVID-19 have involved elderly people (over 65 years of age) who have underlying chronic conditions, or any disease that compromises the working of the immune system, such as HIV. That is worrying in South Africa where just under 14% of the population is estimated to be HIV positive.

A chronic condition is any condition that lasts for six months or longer. Such conditions not only lead to physical symptoms, such as pain and fatigue, but it can also be the cause of high stress levels. These can all have a serious effect on the working of your immune system, making you more susceptible to any viruses doing the rounds.

There is no evidence that children are more susceptible to this virus than any other people, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). But as with all respiratory illnesses, children with underlying health conditions, such as asthma, may be at increased risk of severe infection.

Elderly people and people with chronic conditions are twice as likely to suffer from serious complications if they become infected with COVID-19, says the CDC.

They give two reasons for this:

  • With age, people's immune systems tend to become less efficient at fighting off disease and infection
  • Underlying chronic health conditions can make it harder for your body to cope with and to recover from illness as it is already under pressure.

People who have cardiovascular disease, diabetes, asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), cancer, kidney disease, or high blood pressure have been named by the Norwegian Institute of Public Health as being at high risk of complications as they are simply more at risk of developing a respiratory disease.

In most of the serious cases, people who have been infected with COVID-19 have developed pneumonia, a lung infection, which can cause a nasty cough, a fever, shortness of breath, chest pain, fatigue and confusion. If you notice any of these symptoms, phone your doctor immediately.

The WHO notes that about one in every five people who is infected by COVID-19 needs to be hospitalised. The rest recover at home.

Prevention is key for people with heart disease or other chronic conditions, the American College of Cardiology reminds us. We don't yet know about the 2019 coronavirus, but there are some effective preventive measures that you can take to reduce your risk of infection and that of the people around you:

  • Washing your hands frequently with soap and water for at least 20 seconds
  • Breaking the chain of transmission by staying home as much as possible, wearing a mask when you leave your home, avoiding people who are ill, trying not to touch your face, avoiding public gatherings, and infected surfaces
  • Securing the safety of healthcare staff in order to prevent transmission to other patients.

If you are elderly, or have any chronic conditions, you need to be even more scrupulous in following your doctor's orders, and instituting preventive measures. Prevention is indeed far better than cure. If you have COVID-19 or suspect you have the virus that causes COVID-19, you should seek medical care.

All medical information found on this website including content, graphics and images, is for educational and informational objectives only. Discovery Health publishes this content to help to protect and empower all South Africans by promoting a better understanding of COVID-19.

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