A healthy living blog from Marshfield Clinic Health System

COVID-19 and chronic disease: There’s a connection

A woman listens as her doctor explains why she might be more susceptible to COVID-19 due to her chronic disease.

Chronic disease has a significant effect on a person’s ability to fight off viruses like COVID-19.

Editor’s note: This article was published on March 30, 2020. COVID-19 information and recommendations are subject to change. For the most up-to-date information, visit the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) website or view our most recent COVID-19 blog posts.

Chronic disease has a significant effect on a person’s ability to fight off viruses like COVID-19.

Chronic diseases are defined broadly as conditions that last for more than one year and require ongoing medical attention, or limit activities of daily living or both, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Chronic diseases like heart disease, cancer and diabetes are the leading causes of death and disability in the United States.

Six in 10 Americans live with at least one chronic disease, according to the CDC, Dr. Shereif Rezkalla, cardiologist, at Marshfield Clinic Health System, says the older population with a chronic disease are most susceptible to COVID-19.

“The immune system grows weaker as we age, which makes it more challenging for older adults to fight off infectious diseases,” Dr. Rezkalla said.

Chronic disease and age compound risk

Chronic diseases also are more common with age, can compromise the immune system, and make people more vulnerable to serious complications to COVID-19, according to the National Foundation for Infections Disease. Roughly, eight out of 10 Americans that have died from COVID-19 are age 65 or older, Dr. Rezkalla said.

“Having multiple chronic diseases coupled with older age makes you even more susceptible,” he said.

COVID-19 is easily transmittable

A troubling aspect about COVID-19 is the ease with which it’s transmitted, Dr. Rezkalla said. The length of time that COVID-19 can remain stable on surfaces, like stainless steel or plastic, is for as long as nine days, and on rare occasions even longer, Dr. Rezkalla said.

With trips to the grocery store necessary for many people during the pandemic, this can be scary. With essentials like milk behind glass doors and plastic or metal shopping cart handles, it is imperative to take precautions and wash your hands regularly, Rezkalla said.

“The most important thing any of us can do is to wash your hands with soap and water for 20 seconds,” he said. “It’s one of the best ways to protect you. Any time you come in close contact with someone or touch a common surface, wash your hands.”

It is also a good idea if you are right-handed that you open doors using your left hand, Dr. Rezkalla said.

“Inadvertently people touch their face with their dominant hand many times a day,” he said. “Make sure that hand has the least chance of coming in contact with the disease.”

Rezkalla said most people who get COVID-19 – who are healthy and have no underlying conditions, aren’t hit hard – maybe a fever and cough.

Kick smoking habit

Rezkalla has a plea during this time. Because smoking attacks the lungs, the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 could be an especially serious threat to those who smoke, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse. If there was ever a better time to quit smoking, it’s now.

“One thing I would stress is, we know smoking increases your likelihood of having increased complications with COVID-19,” he said. “I urge people to try to take this chance to quit smoking.”


Wisconsin Department of Health Services

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

World Health Organization

Marshfield Clinic Coronavirus Updates 

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