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Coronavirus and compromised immune systems: What to know if you are at risk

A CDC vaccine provider weighs in.

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COVID-19 can unfortunately be fatal for those with suppressed immune systems.

For the most up-to-date news and information about the coronavirus pandemic, visit the WHO website.

As the novel coronavirus spreads across the world, healthcare professionals are warning certain groups of people -- including the elderly and the immunocompromised -- to socially distance or isolate themselves. The unfortunate reality is that these groups are at a higher risk of developing a serious or even fatal illness if they are infected with COVID-19.

Some of these high risk groups are well defined -- for example, a few parts of the country are asking anyone over 65 years old to stay home in order to avoid infection. But, words like "immunocompromised" may be a little confusing to the general public. If you don't know exactly what it means to be immunocompromised, or are wondering if you're included in that group, keep reading. We have everything you need to know and where to look for developing information.

What does 'immunocompromised' mean?

Dr. Michael Hall, a CDC vaccine provider, tells CNET that being immunocompromised means you have "a reduced ability to fight infections." He explains that our immune system is built around B lymphocytes and T lymphocytes, which both fight infections in different ways. If someone has a disease or disorder that affects either of these systems, they're immunocompromised (also called immunosuppressed).

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Examples of conditions that would cause an individual to be immunocompromised include cancer, autoimmune disorders like lupus or rheumatoid arthritis, lung disease, high blood pressure, AIDS, diabetes, malnutrition and certain genetic disorders.

There's some debate over whether temporary conditions like pregnancy would cause someone to be immunocompromised, and the general consensus is that pregnant people are not immunosuppressed in the conventional sense of the word. However, if you are pregnant or are dealing with anything else that changes your daily health function, it's always best to take extra precautions to avoid illness. Same goes for anyone who is taking any medications that suppress your immune system, like corticosteroids.

How can I tell if I'm immunocompromised?

If you are immunocompromised, you would most likely know from previous conversations with your healthcare provider about any chronic conditions you would have. However, it is possible that you have a condition suppressing your immune system that hasn't been diagnosed yet.

Signs of being immunocompromised include frequent and recurring infections like bronchitis or pneumonia, a blood disorder, digestive problems and delayed growth of development. If you suspect that you have a suppressed immune system, you should check in with a healthcare provider -- you cannot diagnose these conditions on your own.

What extra precautions should immunocompromised people take?

CDC recommendations for best practices are rapidly evolving as the situation develops, so you should always check for the most recent information from trusted sources. Plus, many local governments are instituting their own protective measures, and those should always be followed.

That being said, the CDC has a list of some basic guidelines that immunocompromised people should follow (besides everyday precautions). First and foremost, stay home as much as possible -- this means not only staying away from any crowds, but also avoiding trips to public areas in general. And it definitely means to forgo any cruise trips or nonessential travel. Hall agrees that simply staying home is the best thing anyone can do to avoid getting sick. He also states that immunocompromised people may want to take vitamin C, vitamin D and a good multivitamin to bolster their immune systems.

Because you'll be stuck at home, it's a good idea to stock up on any necessary supplies. This includes nonperishable groceries, medications and other household supplies -- for an exhaustive list, check out this guide. It's also a good idea to contact your pharmacy and ask for an extra supply of any essential medications in case you can't leave the house for an extended period of time.

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If you do feel like you're developing symptoms of COVID-19 and are immunocompromised, contact your doctor immediately or reach out to a medical professional through a telemedicine service. Early symptoms include fever, a dry cough or shortness of breath. Difficulty breathing, chest pain, confusion and bluish lips or face are emergency warning signs, so if these happen to you or you notice them in someone else, seek emergency help. Make sure to call the medical center you're going to before you arrive -- they may have special precautions in place to prevent the spread of the virus. 

Finally, as long as you're feeling healthy you should make a plan for what to do in case of illness. Check in with your healthcare provider -- they'll be able to alert you to any specific symptoms you should be looking out for, depending on any chronic conditions you have. Stay in touch with any neighbors and family members via regular email or phone calls, and have a designated person that you know can help you if you start feeling ill. If you do have a regular caregiver, it's still a good idea to keep in contact with other people, in case your caregiver gets sick, too.

The information contained in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended as health or medical advice. Always consult a physician or other qualified health provider regarding any questions you may have about a medical condition or health objectives.