One third of young adults at risk for severe COVID-19 infection

SAN FRANCISCO – At the start of the coronavirus pandemic, it quickly became clear that older adults were at greater risk of suffering a more serious infection. A new study suggests, however, that young people may not be as safe as previously thought. Researchers in California now say a third of all young adults are now vulnerable to severe COVID-19 complications.

The study, by UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospitals, uses data from 8,400 people between ages 18 and 25. The results reveal more than 30 percent of that age group have a “medical vulnerability” to coronavirus.

The data comes from the National Health Interview Survey, a U.S. survey collecting information on health related topics since 1957. To find one’s medical vulnerability, the researchers referred a set of indicators from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. These include heart conditions, diabetes, asthma, immune conditions, liver conditions, obesity, and smoking.

Medical vulnerability skyrockets for smokers

According to the CDC, smoking in this study includes e-cigarettes, tobacco use, or cigars. Medically vulnerable individuals have at least one of these indicators.

Among young people, smoking contributes significantly to medical vulnerability. The study, published in the Journal of Adolescent Health, finds non-smokers have a vulnerability of 16.1 percent. When smokers are included in the results the medical vulnerability skyrockets to 31.5 percent.

“The risk of being medically vulnerable to severe disease is halved when smokers are removed from the sample,” says senior author Charles Irwin Jr. in a university statement. “Efforts to reduce smoking and e-cigarette use among young adults would likely lower their vulnerability to severe disease.”

Smoking a greater threat than asthma, obesity

The survey finds 19.8 percent of young adults are smokers. This number is higher than those with other medical vulnerability indicators such as asthma (8.6%), obesity (3%), immune disorders (2.4%), diabetes (1.2%), liver conditions (0.6%), or heart conditions (0.5%).

“Recent evidence indicates that smoking is associated with a higher likelihood of COVID-19 progression, including increased illness severity, ICU admission or death,” warns study author Sally Adams. “Smoking may have significant effects in young adults, who typically have low rates for most chronic diseases.”

The data also reveals gender differences in medical vulnerability to coronavirus. Women are more likely to have asthma, obesity, and immune conditions in comparison to men. Men, on the other hand, are more likely to be smokers. The greater prevalence of smoking among men results in an overall higher medical vulnerability among men (33.3%) than women (29.7%).

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