COVID-19 Risk Factors

Medically Reviewed by Dan Brennan, MD on January 02, 2023
7 min read

People from all walks of life get COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus, but some may have greater chances of catching it or of getting very sick. A lot depends on the kind of work you do, the conditions you live in, and whether you have other health problems.

If you catch COVID-19, you have a greater chance of getting severe complications if you're older or have another health problem.

Age. Your chances of getting seriously sick with COVID-19 go up with your age. Someone who’s in their 50s is at higher risk than someone in their 40s, and so on. The highest risk is in people 85 and older.

There are a few reasons for this:

  • Older adults are more likely to have long-term health problems like high blood pressure or type 2 diabetes.
  • Your immune system -- your body's defense against germs -- weakens with age.
  • As you age, changes to your lung tissue can make it harder to heal from COVID-19.

Heart problems. Heart failure, coronary artery disease, and heart disease raise your risk of severe illness.

Long-term kidney disease. Underlying kidney disease weakens the immune systemso it doesn’t fight infections as well as it should.

Cancer. Your chances are higher if you currently have cancer. Experts aren’t sure whether the same is true if you have a history of cancer.

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). People with this long-term condition may already have lung damage that can make the effects of COVID-19 worse.

Diabetes. People who have type 2 diabetes are more likely to need to stay in a hospital’s intensive care unit (ICU) and are more likely to stay there longer than people who don’t have diabetes. There’s not much research on COVID-19 in people who have type 1 diabetes.

Asthma. Because COIVD involves the respiratory system, those with moderate to severe asthma are considered at risk.

Weakened immune system because of an organ transplant

Obesity. This is defined as a body mass index (BMI) of 30 or more.

Mental health. Mood disorders and schizophrenia spectrum disorders can raise your risk of getting sick from COVID-19.

The most common mood disorders are:

  • Depression
  • Bipolar disorder
  • Seasonal affective disorder
  • Self-harm

Sickle cell disease. This blood disorder can cause other heart problems that raise your risk of severe illness.

Research is ongoing, but experts suspect that other conditions may also make you more likely to become seriously ill. These include:

Early research has found that in general, children are less likely to get COVID-19 than adults, and severe cases are rare.

But kids with one or more other health conditions have a higher risk of severe COVID-19. These include:

  • Long-term lung disease, including moderate to severe asthma
  • Diabetes
  • Heart disease or high blood pressure
  • A weakened immune system
  • Neurological or developmental disorders

Some children hospitalized with COVID-19 show signs of a condition that doctors now call multisystem inflammatory syndrome in children (MIS-C). Symptoms are similar to those of Kawasaki disease or toxic shock syndrome. They include a lasting fever, low blood pressure, stomach trouble, a rash, and inflammation of the heart muscle (myocarditis).

Essential workers. Doctors, nurses, nursing home workers, and home health aides have been on the front lines of the fight against COVID-19. Grocery store employees, mail carriers, bus drivers, and others also have important jobs that can't be done at home. The kind of work they do means they need to interact with others outside their homes, which puts them at higher risk of infection.

If you work at a health care facility, you need personal protective equipment (PPE) that may include some combination of gloves, gown, face mask, eye protection, and a face shield.

If you work in a medium-risk place like a retail store, most have taken safety precautions like installing physical barriers such as plastic sneeze guards, but you should continue to wear a face mask.

When you are at work, continue to try to keep at least 6 feet away from customers and other workers, and wash your hands often with soap and water or use a hand sanitizer that has at least 60% alcohol. Don't use co-workers' phones, desks, or other work tools.

People with disabilities. If you need assistance from home health aides, you may face higher chances of coming into contact with someone who might spread the coronavirus. Ask people who come into your home to wash their hands before and after they touch you, change your linens, or do laundry.

Also make sure that frequently touched objects in your house, including doorknobs, faucets, phones, wheelchairs, or walkers, get disinfected several times a day.

Racial and ethnic minorities. The CDC says African-American and Hispanic people are more likely to need to go the hospital for COVID-19 and are more likely to die from the disease.

Researchers say a variety of things are behind these trends, including less access to health care and lack of health care insurance. The CDC also says African-American people have higher rates of chronic conditions than white people.

According to the CDC, a higher percentage of people in minority groups may work in places such as health care facilities or grocery stores, where they are more likely to be exposed to COVID-19. If you work at a high or moderate-risk job, take protective precautions like face masks and frequent handwashing. Practice social distancing as much as possible.

Homeless people. People living on the street or in shelters for the homeless may find themselves in close contact with people who might be infected with COVID-19.

The CDC says local authorities should encourage people who are living in encampments to spread out their sleeping spaces so they aren't near others. The CDC also recommends that public health officials find ways to temporarily isolate homeless people who they suspect have COVID-19.

People who live in rural areas. Differences in care and higher rates of other health conditions like high blood pressure or obesity can put people who live in rural areas at risk. These communities are also becoming home to more racial and ethnic minorities.

When case counts in your region increase, the CDC recommends staying home when you can, wearing face masks when you have to go out, and following other social distancing guidelines. If possible, keep routine health appointments for things like vaccinations or blood pressure checks.

Women who are pregnant or breastfeeding. Not only might pregnancy raise your risk of severe COVID-19, but the virus may also bring higher chances of complications such as premature birth.

Don’t skip your prenatal appointments, but keep your contact with other people to a minimum.

People with substance use disorder. Research shows that people who use substances, have an addiction, or have been diagnosed with substance use disorder at any time during their lifetime are more likely to get COVID-19. They’re also more likely to have a very bad case of the infection.

People who have developmental or behavioral disorders. By themselves, conditions such as ADHD, autism, and cerebral palsy don’t necessarily raise your risk of severe COVID-19. But people who have these disorders might also have other serious health issues that can make illness more likely. They may also have trouble understanding official guidelines or letting others know when they’re sick.

Vaccines are advised for anyone over the age of 6 months. Check with your local health department, pharmacy or doctor about how to obtain one. Don’t stop or change any medications without talking to your doctor first.

If you're at high risk, experts recommend that you take these steps:

  • Wash your hands often.
  • Stay home as much as you can.
  • Postpone or cancel visits if you or the other person might have come into contact with the coronavirus in the past 14 days.
  • If you have to go out, make sure you stay 6 feet away from others, or about two arm lengths.
  • Meet up with other people outdoors when possible.
  • Wear a high-quality, well-fitting face mask. Ask people around you to do the same, if you can.
  • Take all your regular medications. That way, if you do get sick with COVID-19, your long-term medical conditions will be under better control.
  • Ask your doctor if you are up to date with your vaccines, including pneumonia vaccines if you're over 65.
  • Have at least a 4-week supply of prescription and over-the-counter medicines on hand. Talk to your doctor or pharmacist about getting an extra 90-day supply, or use a mail-order service so you can avoid trips to the drugstore. Also, keep several weeks of groceries and other household supplies at home to limit outings.
  • Clean and disinfect frequently touched surfaces in your home every day to stop the spread of the virus from person to person.