The COVID-19 pandemic has taken center stage and, for months now, health care experts have cautioned that certain segments of the population in the United States may be more at risk of developing severe illness because of the viral infection. Included in this group are people who have issues with their immune systems, which has put many arthritis sufferers on high alert.
At West County Rheumatology, Dr. Sona Kamat and our team want to ensure that our patients have the latest information when it comes to this widespread health scare, especially those with autoimmune disorders, such as rheumatoid or inflammatory arthritis.
If you have a form of arthritis that stems from a dysfunctional immune system, here’s what you should know about COVID-19.
Understanding your immune system
To give you a better idea of your risks, let’s first step back and take a look at the role of your immune system when it comes to viral infections, such as COVID-19 or the flu. Your immune system is an extremely complex network of cells, tissues, and organs located throughout your body that are tasked with fighting off harmful pathogens.
When a virus is introduced into your body, your immune system jumps into action and launches a response that’s designed to accomplish two objectives:
- Fight off or kill the virus
- Adapt to the virus by creating an immunity through antibodies
If your immune system is compromised, neither of these areas may be functioning optimally, leaving you at a higher risk of infection and developing a serious illness because of the infection.
Who’s at higher risk when it comes to COVID-19?
Since COVID-19 is a novel coronavirus, medical experts are scrambling to gain a better understanding of the virus. What they have learned so far is that certain segments are at far greater risk of developing a serious illness after becoming infected, including people who are over the age of 65, as well as those who have:
- Existing respiratory risk factors (chronic lung disease or asthma, for example)
- Serious heart conditions
- Liver disease
- Compromised immune systems
For arthritis sufferers, the last item on this list is, understandably, cause for concern.
Historically, people with severe inflammatory arthritis and rheumatoid arthritis (RA) are at an overall higher risk for developing infections, and there’s some evidence that this applies to COVID-19, as well.
It’s important to note that this virus is relatively new, and there’s much we still need to learn, but data does suggest that people with RA and severe inflammatory arthritis may be at higher risk of infection, as well as developing serious complications once infected (such as secondary bacterial infections). As well, if your RA or inflammatory arthritis is active, this may negatively impact how your body is able to fight off infections like COVID-19.
Arthritis medications and COVID-19
Many people with inflammatory or autoimmune arthritis take immune-weakening medications since it's their immune systems that are causing the problem. If you fall into this category, please don’t stop taking your medications without consulting us first as there’s much we need to consider.
For example, to determine whether we should change your medications to reduce your COVID-19 risk, we assess any other risk factors you may have as well as the protective and preventive practices you have in place. In most cases, we typically find that patients are better off continuing their treatments to keep the pain and discomfort of their arthritis in check, as long as they practice extra vigilance when it comes to preventing infection.
The bottom line is that there’s still much we need to learn about the behavior of COVID-19, but anyone who has issues with their immune system should absolutely err on the side of caution and do everything in their power to prevent from becoming infected. If you have questions about your arthritis and COVID-19, please don’t hesitate to contact our office in St. Louis, Missouri.