Information about the novel coronavirus (the virus that causes COVID-19) is constantly evolving. We will refresh our novel coronavirus content periodically based on newly published peer-reviewed findings to which we have access. For the most reliable and up-to-date information, please visit the CDC website or the WHO’s advice for the public.
What is obesity?
Obesity is a common chronic medical condition, especially in the United States. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), over 40% of American adults have obesity, which is determined by using your body mass index (BMI), a measurement that is based on your weight and height. People with a BMI of 30 kg/m2 or higher are considered to have obesity. This medical condition is more than just a weight problem—obesity increases your risk of many other health problems, including heart disease, diabetes, and high blood pressure. In the case of coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19), obesity also increases your risk of developing severe COVID-19, likely more so in people under the age of 60 (Lighter, 2020).
- Obesity is a chronic medical condition that affects more than 40% of American adults
- Several recent studies strongly suggest that people with obesity have a higher risk of having severe COVID-19 symptoms, leading to hospitalization and mechanical ventilation.
- Obesity may increase the risk of severe COVID-19 by contributing to reduced lung function and an increased immune system response.
- Getting vaccinated is a good way to prevent the spread of coronavirus and protect yourself and those around you.
Obesity as a risk factor for severe COVID-19 symptoms
COVID-19 affects certain groups of people more than others. Age is a significant risk factor for having severe symptoms, specifically if you are over the age of 64 or live in a nursing home. So is having diabetes or other chronic medical conditions, like lung or heart problems. However, scientists have recently discovered that obesity is another risk factor for severe COVID-19 illness, especially for people under the age of 60. And it’s not just because obesity puts you at risk for other medical problems. People with obesity—regardless of other health conditions—seem to be developing severe COVID-19 symptoms at a higher rate than people without obesity.
A study looking at over 4,000 people in New York who tested positive for COVID-19 found that people with obesity were more than twice as likely to require hospitalization for COVID-19 than those without (Petrilli, 2020). Of all of the chronic medical conditions that were associated with critical COVID-19 symptoms, obesity ranked higher than diabetes, heart disease, or lung problems in this particular study (Petrilli, 2020). Data from New York hospitals also showed that people who were younger than 60 and had a BMI >35 kg/m2 were almost two times as likely to be admitted to the intensive care unit (ICU) (Lighter, 2020).
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Other data from France suggested that there was a higher rate of obesity in the COVID-19 patients who needed to be admitted to the ICU (Simonnet, 2020). Also, patients with a BMI >35 kg/m2 required intubation (mechanical ventilation) due to severe COVID-19 symptoms over 90% of the time (Simonnet, 2020). Looking at one hospital in China during January and February 2020, researchers noted that people with obesity were more than twice as likely to progress to severe pneumonia, regardless of other comorbidities (Qingxian, 2020). Many of these studies are small or only examine a particular population, and most are not peer-reviewed. Scientists are continuing to study COVID-19, but the data strongly suggests a link between severe COVID-19 disease and obesity.
Why does obesity increase risk?
Even though we’ve been studying COVID-19 since December 2019, there is a lot about it that we just don’t know. One thing that seems to play a role in this disease is higher levels of inflammation and immune system response in the body. Obesity also tends to increase inflammation, so this may be why people with obesity are at higher risk of severe disease with COVID-19 (Petrilli, 2020). Another thought is that obesity may reduce lung function, making people with obesity more likely to have breathing problems (Qingxian, 2020). Regardless of the theories, people with obesity need to be extra vigilant as they are at higher risk for developing severe symptoms and requiring hospitalization.
What can you do?
Whether or not you have obesity, you can take steps to help avoid getting COVID-19. Getting vaccinated is a great way to protect yourself and those around you from catching coronavirus. There are plenty of local resources available to find a vaccination site and remember that COVID-19 vaccines are always free. Speak to your local pharmacy to find the vaccination center closest to you.
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) – Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19). (2020, April 23). Retrieved 27 April 2020, from https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/need-extra-precautions/index.html
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). FastStats – Overweight Prevalence. (2016, June 13). Retrieved April 27, 2020, from https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/fastats/obesity-overweight.htm
- Jennifer Lighter, MD, Michael Phillips, MD, Sarah Hochman, MD, Stephanie Sterling, MD, Diane Johnson, MD, Fritz Francois, MD, Anna Stachel, MPH. (2020) Obesity in patients younger than 60 years is a risk factor for Covid-19 hospital admission, Clinical Infectious Diseases https://doi.org/10.1093/cid/ciaa415
- Petrilli, C., Jones, S., Yang, J., Rajagopalan, H., O’Donnell, L., & Chernyak, Y. et al. (2020). Factors associated with hospitalization and critical illness among 4,103 patients with COVID-19 disease in New York City. doi: 10.1101/2020.04.08.20057794, https://www.medrxiv.org/content/10.1101/2020.04.08.20057794v1
- Qingxian, C., Fengjuan, C., Fang, L., Xiaohui, L., Tao, W., & Qikai, W. et al. (2020). Obesity and COVID-19 Severity in a Designated Hospital in Shenzhen, China. Preprints with The Lancet https://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.3556658, https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=3556658&fbclid=IwAR1d8yXcTO6l7lgAbw_eSidmXdtmtJyVLXWr3NuTL3G9FwkODpFrkKeeO40
- Simonnet, A., Chetboun, M., Poissy, J., Raverdy, V., Noulette, J., & Duhamel, A. et al. (2020). High prevalence of obesity in severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus-2 (SARS-CoV-2) requiring invasive mechanical ventilation. Obesity. doi: 10.1002/oby.22831, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/32271993