The novel coronavirus has affected hundreds of thousands of people across the globe, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And while the majority of COVID-19 cases continue to largely affect older adults or those with preexisting health conditions, experts stress that the coronavirus can be extremely dangerous for the young and healthy, too.
“We’ve unfortunately seen very young people have severe cases of coronavirus,” said Aaron Glatt, chairman of infectious diseases and hospital epidemiologist at Mount Sinai South Nassau in Hewlett, New York. “There are people who are in their 20s, 30s, 40s, and certainly in their 50s who are unfortunately getting very sick. It is myth that healthy young people have nothing to be concerned about.”
Here’s why young and/or healthy people should be concerned about coronavirus, and what to do about it:
Early data is what led experts to believe young people weren’t as susceptible
COVID-19 is a new strain of coronavirus that we’re experiencing, making any data experts have to examine extremely limited.
“Early tracking reports of coronavirus from China showed that young people tended to get milder cases of the disease,” said Seema Sarin, director of lifestyle medicine for EHE Health in Washington D.C. “But we now know as we experience the virus first-hand there are cases of young adults and children getting extremely sick and even dying of the virus.”
Original guidelines showed that the focus should be on elderly and those who are immunocompromised, added Janette Nesheiwat, a family and emergency doctor based in New York. And it’s true that those individuals are the ones who are at risk the most and need protecting.
Because of that guideline, however, many people who are not in vulnerable groups dismissed the threat of coronavirus early on in the pandemic. Even now, many are calling for the removal of stay-at-home orders.
But as the virus continues to spread, there’s more data on who has severe COVID-19 infections. And young and/or healthy individuals are not as invincible as they may think.
“The CDC reported in March that 38% people who had been hospitalized due to coronavirus were between 20 and 54 years old,” Sarin said. “Half of the intensive care patients admitted during the CDC’s report period were under age 65.”
Young adults may have lifestyle habits that put them at risk for infection
“Data is still being collected, but it suggests that even though about 80% of coronavirus deaths are among older adults, young people can be at risk due to behaviors that can damage their lungs, like vaping,” Sarin said.
This supports a study published in the Chinese Medical Journal that found those diagnosed with coronavirus who were smokers were 14 times more likely to have pneumonia.
Alcohol can also weaken a person’s immune system, which may put them at a higher risk for infections.
The other factor that comes into play for any age group is whether a person is following CDC and state guidelines. Things like not practicing social distancing, skimping on good hand washing and not wearing a mask can all increase personal risk, no matter how young or old you are.
“Some people may also be asymptomatic carriers who can then unknowingly spread coronavirus to others who are more vulnerable,” Nesheiwat said.
Why young people are affected is still somewhat of a mystery
Here’s the kicker: experts can use the latest data and research to speculate on why young people are dying from coronavirus, but the virus is still too new to determine specific causes yet. But they do have a few theories.
“There are a lot of unknowns, and while it may be because a young person has an underlying disease and doesn’t know it, there are also instances where the patient was otherwise healthy,” Glatt said.
Molecular makeup and genetics may play a small role, Nesheiwat added, but it’s still unclear.
“It’s similar to when a young, healthy person dies from the flu and doctors can’t pinpoint a reason to why,” she said.
Even if cases aren’t severe, young and healthy people can still cause damage by spreading COVID-19 to others
It’s crucial that we reopen our society, but many are cautious that right now it comes at a risk to public health. It’s vital that everyone takes the disease seriously, no matter your age and health status.
As a young and/or healthy person ― even if you don’t end up in the hospital ― you risk transmitting coronavirus to someone else who then could wind up as a fatality. And this doesn’t just mean your grandparents ― young people often have invisible health conditions you don’t know about.
“Young people could not only infect older, at-risk relatives, but their younger friends who are at risk because of diabetes, heart disease, stroke, high blood pressure, asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), cystic fibrosis and kidney disease,” Sarin said. Other issues you can’t “see” ― such as autoimmune disorders like lupus or those who recently had cancer treatment ― also put people at a higher risk.
“Research from South Korea and Italy shows that although the majority of young people may not be getting sick enough to end up in the (intensive care unity), up to 30% of the people spreading coronavirus could be socially-active young adults ages 20-29,” Sarin said.
That’s why it’s important to remember that social distancing and following expert guidelines aren’t just for you ― they’re for everyone. Or, if you need to think about it as it relates to you, know that being young or healthy doesn’t automatically put you in the clear from getting coronavirus (be it be a mild or severe case).
And if you know you’re sick, take the appropriate actions.
“If you think you’ve been infected, it’s important to self-quarantine yourself,” Glatt said. “You then need to speak to a physician, and not necessarily in person. They will be able to evaluate you and decide on when/if you need treatment should your condition worsen.”
Correction: A previous version of this story stated that Sarin was based in New York, not Washington D.C.
Experts are still learning about the novel coronavirus. The information in this story is what was known or available as of press time, but its guidance concerning COVID-19 could change as scientists discover more about the virus. Please check the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for the most updated recommendations.
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