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A new study found diabetic retinopathy may be linked to increased risk of severe COVID-19. San Francisco Chronicle/Hearst Newspapers via Getty Images
  • People who have diabetic retinopathy are more likely to develop severe breathing problems from COVID-19, according to a new study.
  • Those with the condition were five times more likely than others with diabetes to be intubated and put on a ventilator to help them breathe.
  • Diabetic retinopathy is a type of eye disease that develops when small blood vessels in the eye are damaged.

All data and statistics are based on publicly available data at the time of publication. Some information may be out of date.

A growing body of research suggests that people with diabetes are more likely than others to develop severe COVID-19. Those with difficulty managing their diabetes may be at particularly high risk.

In a study published earlier this month, researchers from King’s College London in the United Kingdom evaluated patients with diabetes who had been admitted to the hospital for COVID-19.

They found that patients who had a complication known as diabetic retinopathy were more likely than other patients with diabetes to develop severe breathing problems from COVID-19.

Patients with diabetic retinopathy were five times more likely than other patients with diabetes to be intubated and put on a ventilator to help them breathe.

“This is the first time that retinopathy has been linked to severe COVID-19 in people with diabetes,” lead author of the study, Dr. Antonella Corcillo, said in a press release.

“Retinopathy is a marker of damage to the blood vessels, and our results suggest that such preexisting damage to blood vessels may result in a more severe COVID-19 infection requiring intensive care treatment,” she added.

Diabetic retinopathy is a type of eye disease that develops when small blood vessels in the eye are damaged. It’s one of many potential complications of type 1 and type 2 diabetes.

Diabetic retinopathy itself may not cause more severe COVID-19. Rather, it’s possible that the underlying blood vessel damage that causes retinopathy also contributes to an increased risk of complications from COVID-19.

Over time, high blood sugar levels in people with diabetes can damage blood vessels in not only the eye but also other parts of the body.

Preexisting blood vessel damage may put people with COVID-19 at heightened risk of complications from the infection.

Dr. Mangala Narasimhan, SVP, director of critical care services at Northwell Health in New Hyde Park, New York, told Healthline that developing diabetic retinopathy may indicate that diabetes is affecting a person’s overall health.

“We know people with more comorbidities do worse with COVID, so this study would be consistent with that overall theme,” Narasimhan said.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) warns that people with type 2 diabetes are at heightened risk of severe illness from COVID-19. Those with type 1 or gestational diabetes might also be at increased risk.

To protect their health, it’s important for people with diabetes to manage their blood sugar levels and other risk factors — including blood pressure, blood cholesterol, and weight.

This can help reduce the chances of developing complications from diabetes, including blood vessel damage. It may also lower their risk of developing severe COVID-19 if they contract the novel coronavirus.

“Gaining control of [unmanaged] diabetes can be a daunting task, but it’s important for patients to remember that even small efforts can result in significant improvement and therefore a reduction in risk of complications from COVID-19,” Dr. Minisha Sood, an endocrinologist at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City, told Healthline.

To maintain healthy blood sugar levels, blood pressure, cholesterol, and weight, practicing healthy habits is key. It’s also important for people with diabetes to schedule regular health checkups and follow their doctor’s recommendations for blood sugar testing, said Narasimhan.

“Regular physician follow up, ophthalmology follow up, and control of diet and exercise, along with social distancing and mask wearing, are the best steps you can take to prevent severe COVID infection,” Narasimhan advises.

“The more you manage your diabetes, the better you will do with COVID,” she added.