Updated on 21st March 2020, to include the latest advice from reputable sources, such as the WHO, the NHS, Versus Arthritis and the BBC.
In the space of just a few weeks, Coronavirus has gone from a side story unfolding at the other side of the planet, to a grave matter of life or death. This previously unknown strain of respiratory infections now totally dominates the airwaves and conversations, with seemingly little respite. A lot of the discussion - especially on social media - is rumour at best, including largely unsubstantiated links with arthritis. It is hard to know what to do.
In light of the seriousness of this virus and potential confusion surrounding how it transmits, what should people with arthritis do?
Does having arthritis make Coronavirus infection more likely?
Still, no proven link exists between COVID-19 (the current prevalent strain of coronavirus) and arthritis at present. Evidence suggests people with lung disease, diabetes and cancer are at higher risk, along with anyone over 70 years old. But nothing specific on arthritis is yet established. However, this is worth monitoring as new information becomes available every day.
Even if not specifically linked right now, there is cause for very mild concern for people with certain types of arthritis. Coronavirus is an ambient respiratory virus infection and a 2019 study - published in Arthritis Research and Therapy - did link this family of viruses with increasing the incidence of rheumatoid arthritis. Additionally, there may be a greater risk of complications for people with certain types of arthritis who contract Coronavirus. Dr Kevin Winthrop, an American specialist in infectious diseases, says "people with autoimmune or inflammatory arthritis (...) seem to have an increased risk of infections due to greater immune dysregulation."
There is also potential for people taking immune suppressant medication, commonly prescribed for arthritis sufferers, to be at greater risk of a COVID-19 infection due to lower immunity levels. However, the advice at present - as confirmed by Versus Arthritis - is not to stop taking this medication, as the repercussions are greater than the still low risk of infection.
What can people with arthritis sensibly do about Coronavirus?
1. Don't panic: the risk of infection is still low, but only if you take careful measures (if in doubt, play on the safe side)
2. Stay well informed: information is constantly changing, as authorities and researchers better understand this very new illness; make sure your sources are reputable and trustworthy.
3. Take precautions: wash your hands regularly with soap (for at least 30 secs), restrict close contact with other people to an absolute minimum (ideally zero) and do not touch your eyes, mouth or nose, unless your hands are spotlessly clean
4. Strengthen immunity: eat well (lots of health veg and fruit), consider boosting levels of immunity supporting nutrients, like vitamins C & D and Zinc, and stay hydrated. Get fresh air and exercise if you can, but ensure this avoids close contact with other people.
5. Consider vaccination: speak to your GP about a having flu jab (often given annually) and pneumococcal vaccination (not given routinely).