COVID-19 Q&A: Obesity significantly increases risk of severe illness from COVID-19

December 5, 2021
DHW Communications

Obesity is a common and serious disease that puts people at risk for many other serious diseases and increases the risk of severe illness from COVID-19.

  • DHW Voice Generic Image
    A study of COVID-19 cases shows that hospitalizations, intensive care unit (ICU) admissions, need for ventilators, and deaths are higher with a higher body mass index (BMI).
  • A higher risk for having to be admitted to the hospital or death was really apparent in those younger than age 65. 
  • More than 900,000 adult COVID-19 hospitalizations happened in the United States between the beginning of the pandemic and Nov. 18, 2020. Models estimate that 271,800 (30.2 percent) of these hospitalizations were attributed to obesity.

Why focus on obesity when there are other serious chronic health issues that also can make it more likely someone will get seriously ill with COVID-19?

Adults with enough extra weight to be considered obese are more likely to also have additional health issues that make it more likely they will wind up in the hospital or worse if they get sick with COVID-19.

Extra weight puts extra strain on our bodies, and it’s important for people to know that so they can make well-informed decisions about how to continue to protect themselves during the COVID-19 pandemic. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), having obesity may triple the risk of hospitalization due to a COVID-19 infection.

What are some of the reasons having obesity could cause someone to get sicker from COVID-19?

  • Obesity is linked to a lower immune response to bacteria and viruses.
  • Obesity lowers lung capacity and can make it more difficult to put someone who needs it on a ventilator.
  • Obesity is related to other health conditions, such as diabetes and high blood pressure, that often have worse outcomes from COVID-19.

What about children? Does this apply to them, too?

Yes, sadly. Children who have obesity may suffer worse outcomes from COVID-19. In a study of COVID-19 cases in patients ages 18 years and younger, having obesity was associated with a 3.07 times higher risk of being admitted to a hospital and a 1.42 times higher risk of severe illness (intensive care unit admission, ventilator use, or death) when hospitalized.

Losing weight is incredibly difficult. What can be done about this now?

Change and long-term weight loss take time, but there are things people can do now. They can help protect themselves and their families during this pandemic by:

  • Getting vaccinated and following other protective pandemic measures
  • Eating a healthy diet
  • Being consistently active
  • Getting enough sleep
  • Coping with stress in healthy ways, and avoiding tobacco and drinking too much alcohol.

Dr. Christine Hahn is Idaho’s state epidemiologist and the Division of Public Health’s medical director. She is board certified in infectious disease and works in the Family Medicine Residency of Idaho’s tuberculosis clinic twice monthly. She also serves on CDC’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices, and since late February 2020, has been focusing almost solely on responding to the coronavirus pandemic.

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The Idaho Department of Health and Welfare is dedicated to strengthening the health, safety, and independence of Idahoans. Learn more at healthandwelfare.idaho.gov. 

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