The current coronavirus outbreak is worrying for everyone, but it’s particularly concerning if you’re already living with a chronic illness. Many of those who have passed away from the virus have been elderly or suffering from a pre-existing illness – meaning that it’s most dangerous for anyone living with things like asthma, diabetes or heart disease.
By all accounts, coronavirus symptoms are flu-like in their presentation. For most people, it might be a case of feeling poorly for a few days but it can kill. That’s why the NHS offers free flu vaccines to anyone with a serious long-term health condition, pregnant women and people over the age of 65. Because coronavirus is so new, there’s no such vaccine to protect against it at the moment.
So how can you stay safe if you do have a chronic condition? The advice is pretty common sense. It’s all about making sure that you put yourself at as little risk as possible of picking up infections – there’s no need to be worried if you’re able to stay on top of your self-care. Make sure that you are on the right treatments (keep up to date with your regular health checks) and make sure you manage your symptoms as well as you can
To help you do just that, talkhealth will be hosting a Twitter chat on 9 April #talkcoronavirus, during which you’ll have the opportunity to discuss with our community and see how others stay on top of managing a chronic condition amid the coronavirus outbreak. To find out about how to take part, click here.
If you have asthma…
Keep taking your brown inhaler every day. That will cut your risk of having an asthma attack as a result of any respiratory virus. Make sure that you have your blue reliever inhaler on you at all times.
Asthma UK recommends downloading and using an asthma action plan to help recognise and manage asthma symtoms when they come on, and suggests making a next day appointment to see your GP if they feel like they’re getting worse.
If you think you have Coronavisus, ring NHS 111.
If you have type 1 or 2 diabetes…
You could be at greater risk of more severe symptoms but Diabetes UK advises following the general NHS advice on how to reduce the risk of picking up infections.
However, if you are taken ill, be sure to monitor your blood glucose levels closely or be aware of the signs of hyperglycaemia (needing to pee more often, thirsty, headaches, etc). If you have hyper symptoms, contact your GP.
Follow the advice of your GP, nurse or diabetes team regarding your medication if you need to. If you do find yourself going down with a cough, fever or breathing difficulties, ring 111.
If you have eczema…
We know that washing our hands is the best form of defence against contracting or spreading the virus. All that extra washing and hand sanitising can be drying for the skin – something that is particularly pertinent for eczema sufferers.
As your skin dries out, it becomes dry, cracked and inflamed – leaving it susceptible to infection.
Try using an emollient soap substitute which is kinder on the skin, or applying moisturiser to your hands before applying hand sanitiser. Experts are now calling for people to ‘wash, moisterise, then sanitise’ their hands to ensure the virus isn’t lurking.
Many eczema patients take immunosuppressants to manage their overactive immune systems. While being immune suppressed can increase the risk of catching a virus, talk to your GP before changing your medication consumption as stopping taking it also be dangerous.
If you have a lung condition…
For things like COPD, the advice is the same as always: keep your hands clean.
The British Lung Foundation also recommends that you think about avoiding crowds and busy places. Social distancing can help to slow down the spread of the virus and the BLF recommends avoiding rush hour travel if possible, avoiding people who are unwell, ordering shopping and prescriptions online and working from home if possible.
Quitting smoking is one of the best ways to protect yourself against viral infections like coronavirus, with smokers being five times more likely to get flu and five times more likely to get pneumonia.
If you have a COPD flare-up, follow the BLF’s guidance here.
If you have cancer…
Cancer patients are known to be more susceptible to the virus due to their compromised immune systems. Treatments like chemotherapy suppress the immune system, lowering your ability to fight off infection – particularly if you have leukemia or lymphoma.
Cancer Research recommends talking to your cancer team if you have any questions or worries about coronavirus.
It’s vital that you follow the NHS advice regarding handwashing and avoiding unwell people if you are having or have recently received cancer treatment or have a type of cancer that lowers your immunity.
For all other conditions, keep taking your medication
If you have a prescription, it’s vital that you continue to take it even if you are unwell. If you can’t collect your medication, get a friend or family member to do it for you. You need to have at least four weeks’ supply of medication at home.
Don’t panic if you start to feel ill
Symptoms of coronavirus include:
- Shortness of breath
If you have these symptoms, it doesn’t mean that you have coronavirus – it’s probably a cold. But you should contact your GP on the phone or ring NHS 111 to make sure. Don’t go to your GP surgery, pharmacy or hospital but stay at home, ring from the comfort of your bed and await instructions. You may be asked to come to a testing unit or NHS staff will visit your home.
Wash your hands
You’ve probably heard the Health Secretary and NHS chiefs all over the news telling people to wash their hands for 20 seconds. That still remains your best form of defense.
Because the virus is spread by coughs and contaminated surfaces like handrails and door handles, make sure that you’re carrying a small tube of hand sanitser with you when you’re out and about (useful for when you’re travelling on public transport, in the office or touching surfaces lots of other people might have touched). Then make sure that you’re giving your hands a proper scrub when you come home or before you eat.
Don’t get a face mask
Some people might be parading around with masks clad over their noses and mouths but the official advice is that it’s not necessary. There’s too little evidence to suggest that wearing a mask will protect you from the virus and the British Lung Foundation has warned that ‘for people living with a lung condition, wearing a face mask can make breathing more difficult’.
Only avoid public places if your GP advises it
You can go about your life as normal – just make sure that you do keep your hands clean. However, if a medical professional has warned you to avoid public places, then listen to them and act on their advice.
Dr Gary Lyman, an oncologist and health policy expert at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Centre, says that sleep deprivation is one the most damaging ways to ruin your immune system.
‘Everybody has a different threshold but if you’re not getting a minimum of six or seven or, ideally, eight hours of sleep a night, there’s demonstrable scientific evidence that the immune system may be compromised,’ he told Hutch.
Dr Lyman says that up to 80% of our immune system is located in the gastrointestinal tract so it’s directly impacted by the food we eat and the bacteria living there.
Make sure you’re having a balanced diet packed with fruit and veg. Limit the amount of meat you eat; Veggies and vegans enjoy a much more robust gut microbiome than omnivores, and that’s probably down to the amount of prebiotic fibre they consume. Try to give yourself at least two plant-based days a week. You may also want to reduce how much sugar and sweetener you’re eating – research has found that sweeteners can increase the number of bacterial strains linked to metabolic disease.
You can find out more about how to improve your gut health here.
The advice coming from the government might be to avoid any unnecessary travel or congregation but that doesn’t mean you can’t go outside to enjoy some fresh air. In fact, going for a walk or jog – anything that gets your heart pumping outdoors – is really good for you. Right now, a brisk walk around your local park is going to be much better than going to the gym.
We also know that exercise can lead to greater gut bacteria diversity. Working out in the fresh air exposes you to more bacteria, and many people who move more tend to eat slightly better – which can also have an impact. Try to aim for at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise every week.
The most important thing is to keep your hands clean and not to panic. As long as you’re taking precautions by washing your hands regularly with soap and you’ve got enough medication at home to get by for four weeks, there’s no need to panic.