These days, everyone is watching the spread of the virus that causes COVID-19, wondering if they will get it and if they may be at risk of having a serious illness if they do. If you have ulcerative colitis, you probably have even more questions: Am I at greater risk if I get sick? How can I protect my family and myself? And should I stop taking my medicines?
Because COVID-19 is a new illness, there’s no data yet about how ulcerative colitis specifically might affect your risk. But there is information on things that do seem to put people at higher risk of having a rougher time if you do get sick because of the new coronavirus. For now, experts on this condition have offered their best advice based on what they do know.
Who’s at Risk?
Although many thousands of people have gotten COVID-19, most haven’t become extremely sick because of it. Older adults and those of any age who have other health conditions may be more likely to become severely ill with COVID-19. If you have ulcerative colitis, your risk may depend on many things, including your age, other health conditions you have, and what medicines you take.
Ulcerative colitis is a chronic inflammatory condition. The medicines your doctor has prescribed work to reduce inflammation by controlling the immune system. Some -- but not all -- of the drugs used to treat this condition suppress your immune system. This raises your risk of infection, whether that’s a run-of-the-mill cold or COVID-19. If the medicines you take do that, you may also be more likely to get severely ill if you do get sick.
How Can I Protect Myself?
Everyone should be following guidelines to protect themselves from getting COVID-19. If you have ulcerative colitis and take medicines that affect your immune system, you’ll want to be even more careful. For the most part, though, the basic steps you should take won’t look much different from what everyone should be doing now.
That includes doing these things:
- Wash your hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds.
- When soap and water aren't available, use hand sanitizer.
- Disinfect surfaces around you.
- Avoid touching your face.
- Avoid contact with people who are sick.
- Stay home as much as possible and follow any stay-at-home orders where you live.
- If you must go out, keep a distance (at least 6 feet) from other people.
Should I Stop Taking My Medicine?
The short answer is, “No.” If you stop taking your medicine because you’re worried about your immune system, your symptoms may flare. Some medicines take months to leave your system anyway. So stopping them now wouldn’t change your risk of COVID-19 now. And you definitely don’t want to have to go to a hospital now because of a flare.
It may be a good idea to avoid steroids if you can. But you shouldn’t stop taking them suddenly. As a general rule, don’t change any of your medications without first talking to your doctor.
What if I Get Sick?
The main symptoms of COVID-19 are a fever, dry cough, and shortness of breath. And although COVID-19 is a respiratory illness, it’s worth noting that about half of people with the virus also have digestive upsets, often including diarrhea. So if you notice a change in how you are feeling, call your doctor.
Most importantly, if you think you might have COVID-19, isolate yourself from other people. Call your doctor or follow the advice where you live to learn what to do next and how long you’ll need to stay away for other people.
Managing Your Stress
No doubt about it: This is a stressful time. And stress can trigger a flare-up. COVID-19 has added a new layer of stress and a wide range of concerns for everyone. Use these tips to help you handle it:
- Make a plan for your self-care, including how to handle a long time at home.
- Ask for support from friends and family -- online, if you can’t do this in person.
- Even while you are stuck at home, keep to a schedule.
- Ask your doctor for advice.
- Consider talking to a mental health professional.
- Find activities that help you relax, like meditation or a walk outside.
- Don’t watch or read the news too much. Stay informed, but don’t obsess.
- Find support from friends, family, and others.