What to Know About Obesity and COVID-19

September 2, 2020

Clinical Contributors to this Story

Aram E. Jawed, M.D., FACS, FASMBS contributes to topics such as Bariatric Surgery.

Hans J Schmidt, M.D. contributes to topics such as .

You may know that age is one of the biggest risk factors for contracting COVID-19, and older people are more likely to become severely ill due to the virus. But studies are showing that another lesser-known factor is causing people to become just as sick when they contract the novel coronavirus: obesity.

Why Obesity Matters

Defined as a body mass index (BMI) of 30 or more, obesity affects about 40 percent of the U.S. population. This is creating a more dangerous situation during the pandemic, because both young and older people who are obese are more likely to require a ventilator or intensive care rather than fight off the virus on their own.

“While some people with obesity have underlying conditions that are risk factors for COVID-19, it’s important to know that obesity on its own is a big risk factor,” says Hans J. Schmidt, M.D., chief of bariatric surgery at Hackensack University Medical Center.

“This is kind of an eye-opener for people,” adds Aram E. Jawed, M.D., FACS, FASMBS, bariatric surgeon at JFK Medical Center. “They don’t understand or realize that just having obesity alone puts your immune system at such a low level of immunity that you can’t combat the virus on your own.”

Not only is your body less able to fight off the virus, Dr. Jawed says, but you’re also more likely to give the virus to others. This is due to the inflammatory nature of obesity, which causes prolonged viral shedding—meaning the virus is increased in the breath and can be more easily spread. This can be particularly harmful if the virus has mutated into a more virulent strain inside your body, making it even more difficult for yourself and others to fight off.

There is not yet a vaccine for COVID-19, but Dr. Jawed is concerned that once one is produced, it may be less effective for those who are obese, because obesity has historically created a decreased immune response to vaccines for other viruses.

How to Reduce Your Risk

Currently, the best defenses against COVID-19 are following health guidelines (i.e., social distancing, wearing a mask), as well as strengthening your immune system. One way to do that is by losing weight.

Since many people are working from home or still sheltering in place, Dr. Schmidt suggests using this time to focus on personal health.

“This is an opportunity for people to focus on themselves and make themselves healthier,” he says. “Work on increasing your activity, and eat healthier by spending some time cooking good food rather than ordering in. As much as you can, make this a positive change on your lifestyle instead of a negative change.”

But not everyone can successfully attain sustained weight loss through diet and exercise alone. If you have tried everything and can’t keep the weight off, and you have a BMI of 35 or higher, you may benefit from bariatric surgery.

“You might consider a minimally invasive, low-risk procedure that will give you lifelong weight loss, which can reduce inflammation significantly and strengthen immunity,” Dr. Jawed says. “Our bariatric surgeons can help you figure out which procedure is best for you.”

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The material provided through HealthU is intended to be used as general information only and should not replace the advice of your physician. Always consult your physician for individual care.