COVID-19 and Obesity
Written by Ada’s Medical Knowledge Team
- Obesity is a risk factor for severe illness due to COVID-19.
- Although obesity is easily preventable, the worldwide prevalence of this condition continues to rise.
- Obesity and COVID-19 deaths are strongly correlated, as obese people may have 3 times as much risk of being hospitalized due to an infection with the coronavirus.
COVID-19 and obesity have emerged as a combination to be wary of. Obesity, a condition characterized by excess body fat, has been found to increase the risk of severe COVID-19 symptoms and complications. To help you understand the link between COVID-19 and obesity, this article will delve into how obesity worsens the outcome of COVID-19, the things you can do to prevent serious complications, and the available treatment options.
What qualifies as obese for COVID-19?
Obesity and being overweight both have an impact on the outcome of COVID-19. It’s important to know when you are overweight and when you are considered to be obese. This is essential for the effect of COVID-19 and several other chronic diseases such as heart disease, stroke, and type 2 diabetes. If you’re already living with chronic conditions due to obesity, your risk for severe complications of COVID-19 increases as well. 1
Knowing your BMI (body mass index) can help you understand whether you’re overweight. It can be calculated easily by dividing your weight in kilograms by the square of your height in meters (kg/m²). If you want to determine your BMI, use our BMI calculator, this feature is available only in the US and Canada at the moment. The guidelines of the WHO state that: 1 2
- Overweight is a BMI greater than or equal to 25
- Obesity is a BMI greater than or equal to 30
When calculating the BMI, it’s crucial to take into consideration that the formula does not apply to everyone. The formula only considers the weight, not the division between fat and muscle. This makes the formula less accurate for: 3
- Athletes and bodybuilders
- Pregnant women
- The elderly
How does obesity make COVID-19 worse?
Obesity does not affect how big the chances are that you are going to get infected with the coronavirus, but once you’re infected, it can make the outcome of COVID-19 worse in several ways: 4
- The risk of serious symptoms increases significantly for people with COVID-19 and obesity. The same goes for people who are overweight and get COVID-19.
- COVID-19 can triple the risk of hospitalization in obese people.
- COVID-19 deaths and obesity are strongly related.
- Obesity weakens the immune system, which means that the body’s natural defense system will not defend you from the coronavirus as well as it usually would.
- Obesity decreases lung capacity, which can also make ventilation more difficult.
For children with obesity, these COVID-19 complications can be even worse than for adults. 4
Obesity and COVID-19 severity
Obesity and COVID-19 are significantly related, as obesity puts you at risk for many serious diseases. Because of this, obese people often have underlying conditions which may also increase the risk of severe symptoms due to the coronavirus. Other possible risk factors that may worsen your COVID-19 outcome are: 5
- Chronic conditions of the lungs, such as asthma and COPD
- Chronic kidney, heart, liver, or neurological diseases
- Diseases that affect your immunity, such as cancer or HIV
- Diabetes (find here more information about covid-19 and diabetes)
- Use of immunosuppressive medications, having had a transplant, or cancer treatment
Which treatment do you need if you have obesity and COVID-19?
If you're overweight, COVID-19 can be treated similarly to people with a healthy weight. However, it's vital that you get tested as soon as possible if you notice that you're experiencing any symptoms related to the coronavirus, as obesity can cause severe COVID-19 complications. If a test confirms that you have been infected, you should contact your doctor as soon as possible to get more information regarding treatment.
Your doctor will assess your risk profile and ask you additional questions to determine if you are at risk of severe symptoms or hospitalization. If you are eligible for antiviral treatment, your doctor will prescribe you medication you can take at home. This medication will help your immune system fight the virus by decreasing the virus in your body. For this medication to be effective, it needs to get started as soon as possible, so you should not postpone contacting your doctor.
If you aren’t eligible for this medication, then there are still other things that you can do to alleviate your symptoms. You can: 6
- Opt for painkillers such as Paracetamol, Ibuprofen, or Naproxen
- Rest as much as possible
- Drink enough water
- Reduce your cough by taking cough medicine and sitting upright instead of laying on your back
If you are obese and you have COVID-19, you should keep track of your symptoms and evaluate how your condition is progressing. You should always contact your doctor if: 6
- You’re gradually feeling worse
- You’re having difficulty breathing even when not physically active
- You feel very weak, and basic tasks feel too difficult
- You’re shaking or shivering
- You still feel unwell after a month
How to prevent serious complications from COVID-19 if you’re overweight
Obesity and COVID-19 are interconnected as obesity is a risk factor for complications of COVID-19. There are, however, several measures that overweight individuals can take to decrease the risk of complications. You can do so by working towards a healthy weight and taking preventative measures to reduce the odds of getting infected with the coronavirus. 4
You can work towards a healthy weight by: 4
- Eating a healthy and balanced diet. Eating nutrient-rich food such as fruits, vegetables, lean protein, and whole grains while watching your calorie intake will boost your immunity and help you decrease your weight.
- Regular physical activity can help with weight loss and also helps to prevent diseases such as heart disease and type 2 diabetes, which also put you at risk for severe COVID-19 complications.
- Having healthy sleeping habits and getting enough sleep can help with obesity and the chronic conditions it may cause, such as heart disease and type 2 diabetes.
- Healthily dealing with stress. Long-term stress can lead to worsening chronic health problems, which increase your risk of severe complications of COVID-19.
As it takes some time to get to a healthy BMI, it's crucial to protect yourself against coronavirus infection. You can do so by taking preventative measures that reduce your exposure to the virus, such as: 7
- Getting vaccinated and keeping your vaccination up-to-date with the recommended booster shots.
- Following hygiene guidelines such as washing your hands regularly and thoroughly with water and soap
- Improving indoor ventilation by opening a window or moving activities outdoors.
- Avoiding contact with people who are experiencing symptoms of COVID-19 or who have tested positive.
- Wearing a mask that fits well, covering both nose and mouth. Masks can set a barrier for the particles you breathe, cough, or sneeze out. Respirators such as the N95 mask provide higher protection as they fit closely on the face and filter out particles, including the virus that causes COVID-19.
- Keeping a safe distance from others.
- Getting tested for COVID-19 if you think that you might have been infected, and staying at home if you suspect that you have COVID-19.
COVID-19 and obesity are closely linked, as obesity has been identified as a major risk factor for severe COVID-19 infection. People with obesity often deal with other underlying health conditions such as diabetes, high blood pressure, and cardiovascular disease. This can make them more vulnerable to COVID-19 complications as well. It’s vital for individuals with obesity to take extra precautions to protect themselves against an infection with the coronavirus and to treat an infection as soon as possible.
Q: Is obesity a critical risk factor in the COVID-19 pandemic?
A: Obesity is a significant risk factor for COVID-19, as it raises the probability of severe complications, possibly resulting in hospitalization or death.
Q: Does obesity contribute to the severity of COVID-19?
A: Obesity contributes to the severity of COVID-19 in various ways. It causes a higher risk of hospitalization and death, as well as a higher risk of developing other chronic diseases, which increases the risk of severe COVID-19 even more.
Q: How does obesity make COVID-19 worse?
A: Obesity can make COVID-19 worse as it decreases lung function and weakens the immune system. This makes it more difficult for the body to defend itself against the infection, resulting in severe complications.
Q: Are obese people more contagious when they have COVID-19?
A: No evidence suggests that people with obesity and COVID-19 are more contagious than others. How contagious you are depends mainly on the stage of your infection, your viral load, whether or not you have symptoms, and your vaccination status.