When you can't cough ― extra COVID-19 precautions for people with physical disabilities

Last updated: 04-19-2020

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When you can't cough ― extra COVID-19 precautions for people with physical disabilities

Newswise — ROCHESTER, Minn. — People with conditions such as spinal cord injury, Lou Gehrig's disease and multiple sclerosis are at risk of developing severe respiratory problems related to COVID-19 because the muscles that help them breathe already may not function normally.

"When you have a condition that causes paralysis, or weakens muscles in the chest, abdomen or diaphragm, you may not be able to remove lung secretions by coughing," says Kristin Garlanger, D.O., a Mayo Clinic physiatrist. "You may have difficulty inhaling and filling the lungs with oxygen that is carried to the rest of the body.

"If you have a physical disability, now is the time to take extra precautions to protect yourself from this dangerous virus."

Be proactive to prevent illness, Dr. Garlanger says:

To protect yourself and others from COVID-19, everyone needs to follow Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidelines:

But people with physical disabilities are encouraged to take extra safety measures, says Lisa Beck, a Mayo Clinic advanced-practice provider in the Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation.

"When CDC guidelines talk about keeping at least 6 feet from another person, that's especially important if you use a wheelchair," Beck says. "Your head is lower than people who are standing, so you may be more vulnerable to respiratory droplets produced when an infected person coughs, sneezes or talks. Droplets drop."

Dr. Garlanger and Beck offer tips regarding wheelchair use, caregiver plans and respiratory devices:

Wheelchair users should consider these tips:

"If you use other assistive devices, like walkers or canes, be sure to regularly wipe those with antibacterial products too," Beck says.

Journalists: Sound bites with Lisa Beck are available for download on the Mayo Clinic News Network. Please courtesy "Lisa Beck/Clinical Nurse Specialist/ Mayo Clinic."

People with caregivers should consider these tips:

"Finding appropriate caregivers for your personal or your pet's needs can be difficult to coordinate, but it is so crucial to plan ahead to find someone who can help if your caregiver gets sick or isn't able to assist you," Beck says.

If your usual caregiver is unavailable:

"Some people with disabilities rely on ventilators every day," Beck says. "Making sure caregivers follow strict guidelines to clean and use these machines will help protect those who are vulnerable to respiratory illnesses."

Users of ventilators or other respiratory assistive devices

Users of ventilators or other respiratory assistive devices should consider these tips:

Mayo Clinic offers a COVID-19 self-assessment tool to help people assess symptoms. The tool also offers guidance on when to seek medical care and what to do in the meantime.

"If you do become sick and need medical attention, make sure you or your caregivers mention your disability and how it affects your respiratory system when you reach out to medical providers or emergency responders," Dr. Garlanger says. "They will be better prepared to help you."

For more information related to COVID-19, visit these online resources:

About Mayo Clinic Mayo Clinic is a nonprofit organization committed to innovation in clinical practice, education and research, and providing compassion, expertise and answers to everyone who needs healing. Visit the Mayo Clinic News Network for additional Mayo Clinic news and An Inside Look at Mayo Clinic for more information about Mayo.


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