Obesity Linked to Increased Risk of Developing a Severe Case of COVID-19

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Since the pandemic began, doctors and scientists have been trying to understand why some people are at a higher risk of becoming infected with severe cases of COVID-19. Research has shown that one of the most significant risk factors is obesity. One study from England found a clear relationship between a body mass index (BMI) of 23 or higher and a heightened risk of being hospitalized. In the U.S., 78% of COVID-19 patients who needed hospitalization were overweight or obese.

To make matters worse, obesity rates have drastically increased in children and adults since the start of the pandemic, due to high levels of stress, lower activity levels, and dietary changes.

Understanding the Role of Obesity in COVID-19

Adipose (fat) tissue secretes adipokines and cytokines, two hormones that increase inflammation in the body and weaken the immune system. When patients are obese, they’re essentially in a constant state of heightened inflammation and immune dysfunction.

Recent studies have shown that the severity of COVID-19 is linked to what’s known as a “cytokine storm.” This refers to a hyper-activation of the immune system and cytokines in the body. In obese patients, the levels of pro-inflammatory hormones are already high, increasing the odds of developing a cytokine storm as a result of infection, an autoimmune condition, or other diseases.

Severely obese patients also have higher viral loads after exposure to COVID-19 than those who are at a healthy weight. Viral load refers to the amount of virus in a person’s body; the higher the viral load, the more infectious a person is. Likewise, obese patients have been found to have greater and more prolonged viral shedding—up to 48% higher and 42% longer than their leaner counterparts.

In addition, obese patients often need to be hospitalized for longer and take time to test negative. This indicates that not only does obesity increase the risk of transmission to other people, but it also increases the amount of time it takes obese patients to overcome COVID-19 infections.

Patients with obesity often experience other comorbidities that can increase the risk of hospitalization. Asthma is a common comorbidity for patients with obesity and a recognized risk factor in developing COVID-19, pneumonia, and other respiratory illnesses. Respiratory dysfunction and decreased lung capacity, for example, make being on a ventilator more challenging and predispose obese patients to hypoventilation-associated pneumonia, pulmonary hypertension, and cardiac stress.

Obesity is also associated with an increased risk of cardiovascular disease, kidney disease, and type 2 diabetes—all of which are known to increase the risk of pneumonia-related organ failure. Metabolic issues, such as hypertension, prediabetes, insulin resistance, and dyslipidemia, are also linked to an increased risk of pneumonia.

How to Protect Yourself Against COVID-19

It’s important for everyone to follow the CDC guidelines for COVID-19, but it’s especially critical if you’re at a higher risk of developing severe complications. If you’re obese, one of the best things you can do to protect yourself is to lose weight. Not only will this reduce the risks associated with COVID-19, but it will also help lower your risk of developing serious chronic diseases like heart disease, diabetes, high blood pressure, and some cancers.

Start by making small lifestyle changes, such as eating healthy meals, reducing your portion size, and increasing your daily activity. Avoid skipping meals, as this can lead to overeating later in the day. Stress and sleep also play a role in obesity, so developing good stress management skills and getting enough good-quality sleep is important for effective weight loss.

If you’re not sure where to start, or you’d like additional support on your journey, Dr. Jennifer Hubert offers personalized medical weight loss plans to help you stay on track and reach your goals. Dr. Hubert takes a holistic approach to weight loss, incorporating nutritional counseling, behavior modification, and medical monitoring. Her customized weight loss plans have helped countless patients regain their health and maintain a healthy weight. For more information, schedule a consultation at Dr. Hubert’s office today by calling (707) 575-THIN (8446).