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Exploring research: Coronavirus risk for people with diabetes

While having diabetes does add to your risk of getting seriously ill or dying from coronavirus, we explain how to understand coronavirus risk and why everyone’s risk is unique to them.   

A picture of Faye, our Senior Research Communications Officer and the author of our series about the key things to know about coronavirus and diabetes research

Written by Faye Riley PhD, our Senior Research Communications Officer. This article is part of our series on the key things to know about coronavirus and diabetes research.  

How coronavirus affects people with diabetes

Most people, including those living with diabetes, will experience mild or moderate symptoms from coronavirus. Old age remains the biggest risk factor for developing a serious illness.  

However, there is evidence to show that people with diabetes are at higher risk of ending up in hospital with coronavirus or dying from it, compared to people without diabetes. This remains true after you’ve accounted for the impact of other coronavirus risk factors, such as age, sex, where you live and other health conditions. This tells us diabetes is a risk factor on its own. 

One of the biggest studies looking at this comes from NHS England. They looked at everyone who had died in hospital with coronavirus in England between March and May 2020 and found that a third of deaths happened in people with diabetes.

They then found that compared to someone without diabetes, people with type 1 had around a three and a half times higher risk of dying from the virus. For people with type 2 and other types of diabetes, this risk was around twice that of someone without the condition.  

Your coronavirus risk is unique to you

Despite these findings, it’s really important to remember that your risk is individual to you. Research has shown that factors like your age, bodyweight, HbA1c level, ethnicity or having other health conditions also have an impact on your risk of getting seriously ill with coronavirus. These, and possibly many more unknown factors, could all change your risk.  

When comparing risks between people with and without diabetes, we also need to make sure we understand what risk really means. In order to do this, we first need to know what the overall risk of dying from coronavirus is. This is called the absolute risk.  

For example, if we take a 40-year-old woman without diabetes, who doesn’t have any other risk factors that are linked with developing a serious illness from coronavirus, her absolute risk of dying from the virus could be around 0.0009%. 

If someone the same age and sex has type 1 diabetes, their absolute risk would be three and a half times greater than this, at 0.003%. We can see that while their risk of dying is higher because they have type 1 diabetes, it is still low overall. This shows why it’s important to remember that a higher risk does not always equal a high risk.

Watch our Head of Research Communications, Dr Lucy Chambers, explain more about the NHS England study and how to understand your risk.

Risk calculators

Risk calculators combine information on a range of different factors and give a more personalised assessment of risk. The NHS in England is now using a risk calculator called QCovid for this. This helps them pinpoint individuals who have a higher risk of becoming seriously unwell with coronavirus. It’s designed to let healthcare professionals identify people who would benefit from extra protection, including shielding and being offered their coronavirus vaccine earlier.

Understanding coronavirus

Lots of the research carried out so far also only tells us about the early stages of the pandemic in 2020. Since then, scientists and doctors have developed a better understanding of how to treat coronavirus and everyone with diabetes has been offered a vaccine. 

This means the risk of dying from the virus for everyone has become much lower.

More things to know about coronavirus research 

We know that you may have more questions about coronavirus and diabetes, so we’ve taken a look at the research to bring you the key things to know. Find out more about: 

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