A senior man washing his hands in a kitchen sink

Here’s what older adults need to know about the novel coronavirus.

The novel coronavirus, which causes the disease COVID-19, has been reported in at least 36 states across the country. New developments are quickly emerging, but the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) reports that, according to data from China, older adults and those with pre-existing medical conditions are at a higher risk for contracting this illness.

Here’s what older adults need to know about the coronavirus.

What are the symptoms of coronavirus?

According to the CDC, the novel coronavirus is technically called “SARS-CoV-2,” and the disease it causes has been abbreviated as “COVID-19.” Symptoms include fever, coughing, and shortness of breath.

While these symptoms can be similar to a cold or flu and may not be the novel coronavirus, the CDC recommends that people call their healthcare providers if they experience these symptoms. According to STAT News, the disease can become dangerous if patients develop acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS), in which fluid builds up in the small air sacs of the lungs. Patients with ARDS can't get enough oxygen to their vital organs, which can be fatal in some cases.

Who is most at risk?

Right now, it appears that anyone can contract the disease, but some people with COVID-19 become sicker than others. These at-risk groups may experience more serious symptoms and need more intense treatment.

According to the CDC, older adults are more at risk if they contract the virus. CNN reported that older adults might be twice as likely to have serious illness than younger adults. Of the confirmed cases in China, the fatality rate for patients over 80 was almost 15 percent, but only 2.3 percent for people in their 50s, STAT News reported. Older adults are also more likely to develop ARDS and, therefore, they're at a higher risk of fatality.

Because our immune systems weaken as we age, many studies show that people over 70 are much more vulnerable to the normal flu and less likely to avoid contracting it with a vaccination. While being older doesn’t necessarily mean someone is immunodeficient, older adults “often do not respond efficiently to novel or previously encountered antigens,” one study states. This means that in a situation like the novel coronavirus, where the virus is not part of a normal vaccine or common in the viruses we encounter, the immune systems of older adults might not be able to fight off the infection as well.

Those who have heart disease, lung disease, or diabetes are also at a higher risk, and these diseases are more likely to occur in older adults. Older adults and those with underlying health problems are in the high-risk category.

How to Avoid Exposure

Right now, the CDC is encouraging everyone to spread facts and not fear. The organization has put out specific recommendations for at-risk populations. For these populations, they recommend:

  • Stay home as much as possible.
  • Wash hands with soap and warm water for at least 20 seconds, especially after being in a public place.
  • Avoid face touching with dirty hands.
  • Avoid touching door handles, elevator buttons, handrails, and other “high-touch” spots in public areas.
  • Avoid sharing household items.
  • Avoid contact with people who are sick. This includes not shaking hands or engaging in close bodily contact.
  • Avoid crowds as much as possible. This can include large events or public transportation.
  • Limit all non-essential travel on airplanes, and do not go on cruise ships.

If you experience any symptoms of the virus, call your medical provider first before traveling to a doctor’s office, health center, or hospital.

How to Prepare

In addition to limiting exposure to the disease, the CDC recommends that at-risk populations prepare for an outbreak. If more people in a certain area are getting diagnosed with the disease, older adults should be prepared to stay at home as much as possible. The CDC recommends:

  • Refilling prescription medications.
  • Having over-the-counter medications available at home.
  • Monitoring supplies of medical items (oxygen, dialysis, wound care).
  • Buying household items and non-perishable groceries to prepare for staying at home for an extended period of time.
  • Communicating with caregivers and family to figure out who can help if a caregiver becomes ill.
  • Find out if your community has a protocol for an outbreak.

If you're concerned about your health or you're confused about the facts, the CDC released this video explaining the details of the novel coronavirus and providing strategies to keep yourself and your loved ones healthy.