COVID-19: People Who Are at High Risk for Serious Illness

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COVID-19 is a disease caused by a type of coronavirus. This illness was first found in 2019 and has since spread worldwide (pandemic). Symptoms can range from mild, such as fever and body aches, to severe, including trouble breathing. COVID-19 can be deadly.

Coronaviruses are a large group of viruses. Some types cause the common cold. Others cause more serious illnesses like Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS) and severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS).

What puts you at high risk for serious illness?

COVID-19 causes a mild illness in many people who get it. But certain things may increase your risk for more serious illness. These include:

  • Age.
    • Older adults are at highest risk. The risk increases with age.
    • Babies born premature or who are less than 6 months old may also be at high risk.
  • Asthma, cystic fibrosis, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), and other chronic lung diseases.
  • A weakened immune system or taking medicines, such as steroids, that suppress the immune system. This also includes medicines taken because of an organ transplant.
  • Smoking or having a history of smoking.
  • Serious heart conditions, such as heart failure, coronary artery disease, or high blood pressure.
  • Tuberculosis (TB).
  • HIV.
  • Cancer or getting treatment for cancer.
  • Conditions that involve the nerves and brain. Examples include stroke, dementia, and cerebral palsy.
  • Being overweight (obesity).
  • Diabetes.
  • Chronic kidney disease.
  • Liver disease.
  • Substance use disorders.
  • Sickle cell disease.
  • Pregnancy or a recent pregnancy.
  • Genetic, metabolic, or neurologic problems in children. This includes children who may have many health problems that affect many body systems. These problems may limit how well the child can do routine activities of daily life.
  • Down syndrome.
  • Mood disorders, such as depression or schizophrenia.

Some people have a higher risk of getting very sick or dying from COVID-19 because of where they live or work. The risk can also be higher if people don't have access to health care. This includes people from certain racial and ethnic minority groups, as well as people with disabilities.

This is not a complete list. If you have a chronic health problem, ask your doctor if you should take extra precautions. The more of these things you have, the higher your risk for serious illness. Talk with your doctor about ways to manage your risk.

Should you get the COVID-19 vaccine?

The simple answer is yes. The COVID-19 vaccine is safe and effective for almost everyone. The only people advised not to get it are those who've had a severe allergic reaction to the vaccine's ingredients.

Experts recommend staying up to date on your COVID vaccines, especially if you:

  • Are older than 50. It's even more important if you are over 65. Your risk of getting seriously ill or dying from COVID is much higher than a younger person's.
  • Have an underlying health problem like diabetes, chronic lung disease, or obesity. Having COVID-19 can be much worse if you have conditions like these.
  • Have a weakened immune system. You may be at higher risk for getting very sick from COVID-19. The vaccine may not work as well for you, but it should still be safe.
  • Are pregnant, were recently pregnant, or are planning a pregnancy, or if you are breastfeeding. Getting the vaccine during pregnancy can help protect both you and your baby. Pregnancy makes it more likely that you will get seriously ill or even die from COVID. Getting vaccinated helps keep you safer. It helps protect your baby from COVID after birth too. For example, your baby is less likely to be hospitalized for COVID-19. There is no evidence that vaccines, including the COVID-19 vaccine, cause fertility problems.
  • Are at a higher risk for getting very sick or dying from COVID-19 because of where you live or work. People who don't have access to health care are also at a higher risk. So are people from racial and ethnic minority groups and some people with disabilities.

If you have any questions about the vaccine, talk with your doctor.

How can you protect yourself?

  • Take steps to reduce your risk of illness.
    • Stay up to date on your COVID-19 vaccines.
    • Wear a mask with the best fit, protection, and comfort for you if you go into public areas, especially indoor spaces.
    • Wash your hands often. And avoid touching your mouth, nose, and eyes.
    • Avoid sick people and crowds. If you have to be in a crowded area, such as an airport, wear a mask. This is important even if you're outside.
    • Choose outdoor visits and activities when possible. If you have to spend time indoors with others, open windows and doors. Or use a fan to blow air away from people and out a window.
  • Be prepared to act quickly.
    • Learn about medicines to reduce your risk of getting very sick from COVID-19. These include antiviral medicines.
    • Have COVID-19 tests available at home, or know where to get tested. If you have symptoms, get a test right away.
    • If you test positive for COVID-19 or you're sick, call your doctor right away. Medicines to reduce your risk of serious illness need to be taken in the first few days after you get sick. You may be able to get them from your doctor, a pharmacy, or a health clinic.
  • Get others to help protect you.
    • Ask the people you live with or who are in close contact with you to stay up to date on their COVID-19 vaccines.
    • Ask the people you live with to wear a mask in public areas. This is important even if they're up to date on their COVID-19 vaccines.
    • Ask people who don't live with you to get a COVID-19 test before you visit with them.

Related Information


Current as of: June 28, 2024

Author: Healthwise Staff
Clinical Review Board
All Healthwise education is reviewed by a team that includes physicians, nurses, advanced practitioners, registered dieticians, and other healthcare professionals.

The Health Encyclopedia contains general health information. Not all treatments or services described are covered benefits for Kaiser Permanente members or offered as services by Kaiser Permanente. For a list of covered benefits, please refer to your Evidence of Coverage or Summary Plan Description. For recommended treatments, please consult with your health care provider.