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COPD

Updated 17 June 2020

Overweight COPD patients at higher risk of Covid-19

A University of Manchester study has linked being overweight and already being predisposed to lung disease with an increased Covid-19 risk.

  • As Covid-19 cases increase in SA, those with comorbidities are most at risk
  • COPD is one underlying illness which can increase your risk, especially if you are overweight
  • There's no detailed data, but SA has a high prevalence of COPD

As the Covid-19 outbreak progressed, many experts and scientists came to the conclusion that certain comorbidities make people more likely to be infected with Covid-19, and even suffer more severe symptoms.

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is a chronic lung disease characterised by obstruction of the airflow that cannot be fully reversed. Therefore, breathing in a person with COPD is mostly restricted.

As Covid-19 emerged, it was mostly defined as a respiratory disease affecting the lungs, with the main symptoms being coughing, a fever and breathlessness. While most cases are mild enough for home treatment, the most severe cases require ventilation in hospitals as lungs fill up with fluid and patients struggle to breathe.

Unhealthy weight amplifies risk

When the lungs are already affected, Covid-19 can have a dire outcome in patients. But, according to new research from the University of Manchester, being overweight can amplify the risk of contracting Covid-19.

The team examined the lung tissue of 37 Covid-19 patients. The receptor called ACE2, which makes it easier for SARS-CoV-2 to cling to cells, was found to be more common in overweight patients with COPD.

The more ACE2, in the lungs and other tissues, the bigger the chance of SARS-CoV-2 entering the body and causing Covid-19.

Professor Dave Singh, senior author of the study, said: “Many COPD patients suffer with frequent viral infections, so they also have a high risk of developing Covid-19. Our findings suggest that the risk is further increased in COPD patients who are also overweight.”

Dr Andrew Higham, lead author of the study said: “Overweight COPD patients have more of the receptor, or entry point, required for coronavirus infection, in their lungs. This means these patients may be at a greater risk of developing Covid-19 due to increased opportunities for infection.”

Another study published in the journal PLOS ONE in May 2020 also examined the prevalence, severity and mortality in Covid-19 patients with COPD who were also smoking. In this study, the COPD prevalence in reported Covid-19 cases was low, but the infection was immediately more severe and deadly in those with COPD, especially in those who are current smokers.

Common comorbidity

The study was published in the journal Obesity. According to the study authors, this information is important, since there are almost 329 million people affected with COPD worldwide and the World Health Organization ranks COPD as the fourth most important cause of death due to non-communicable disease in the world.

According to the South African Medical Journal, there is limited data on the exact prevalence in South Africa, but data from Cape Town compared with other countries suggested that the prevalence in Cape Town alone was already high – which adds to the current problem of the high Covid-19 case number in Cape Town.

How to lower your risk

If you are currently suffering from COPD and if you are overweight, Prof Singh emphasised that it’s important to follow all the available guidelines to avoid being infected with Covid-19.

It is suggested that people with COPD should continue their normal treatment and ensure that they have their medication at hand. Speak to your healthcare provider if you are concerned about upcoming appointments in the light of Covid-19.

You can also take the following precautions:

  • Stay home and work from home if you can, unless you absolutely have to go for essential medical check-ups and errands.
  •  Wear a face mask outdoors to lower your risk of infection and encourage your family members to do so as well to avoid being infected.
  •  Practice stringent hand hygiene.
  •  Try to make use of online delivery services for food and essentials.
  •  Manage your current COPD symptoms and your general health as well as possible. Eat healthy and drink plenty of water, as this may help remove excess mucus from your lungs.
  • Limit your usual COPD triggers, whether it's cigarette smoke, exposure to chemicals or allergens. 

What should you do if you suspect Covid-19 infection?

If you might have been exposed to someone who has the disease and you present with symptoms such as a fever, increased breathing difficulties, a new, persistent cough and fatigue, contact your healthcare provider immediately as they can point you towards the nearest testing facility.

Alternatively, call the National Institute for Communicable Disease helpline (0800 029 999) and isolate yourself as much as possible. Monitor any symptoms that might require hospitalisation.

READ | Why weight gain is not your friend, especially as you age 

READ | Are disinfectants putting nurses at risk of COPD?

READ | This breathing technique could be just what you need 

Image credit: iStock