What Does It Mean to Be “At-Risk” For Disease?

Reading Time: 3 minutes

When scrolling through the news, you will often see headlines like “How to lower your risk for heart disease” or “Are you at risk for being hospitalized for COVID?”. What does “at-risk” really mean? How can you lower your risk and improve your overall quality of life?

What does it mean to be at risk for a disease?

If you are at risk for a disease or condition, then you have certain risk factors that could increase the chance of it developing.

What is a risk factor?

A risk factor is anything that can increase the chance of developing a chronic disease or being infected by a virus, bacteria, or fungi. There are two types of risk factors: modifiable and non-modifiable.

Modifiable risk factors are things that a person can change to reduce their risk of developing a disease. These include lifestyle choices such as quitting smoking or making dietary changes and other preventive steps such as getting an annual flu shot or being prescribed cholesterol-lowering drugs.

Non modifiable risk factors include things that cannot be changed due to genetics, age, gender, or family history. An example is risk of developing certain cancers such as breast or colorectal cancer, as these can sometimes run in families. The good news about this type of risk factor is that there are ways to watch or “screen” for the development of disease. These screening tools include mammograms or colonoscopies and can help to diagnose and treat disease at an early stage.

How do you lower your risk?

First, learn what your risks are. Understanding your risk for a specific disease or condition is important for prevention and early detection. If you have a family history of chronic conditions like diabetes or heart disease, you may have an increased risk of having the same disease yourself.

Chronic medical conditions can become risk factors for infectious diseases. For example, if you have a condition that affects your lungs, like asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), you may have an increased risk of severe infections from viral illnesses like influenza, COVID, or RSV.

Here are several steps you can take to reduce your risk of developing infectious or chronic diseases:

There may be other situations outside of your day-to-day life when you will need to think about preventive measures to lower your risks.
For example:

  • Are you traveling to another country? Consider steps such as getting recommended travel vaccines or taking preventive medication before your trip.
  • Is there about to be a new baby in your life? Think about ways to lower baby’s risk of getting sick from you.
    • Wash your hands frequently. Postpone a visit if you are not feeling well. Babies are at a higher risk for some diseases like pertussis (whooping cough). Getting a Tdap before baby is born will protect you and baby.
    • Breastfeeding or feeding a baby human milk can also pass along antibodies that protect the baby from some illnesses.

Remember, it is always a good idea to consult with your healthcare provider on the types of screenings and other preventive measures you can take to reduce your risk of chronic and infectious disease and improve your overall quality of life.

Additional resources and information:

Understanding Health Risks

Making Sense of Your Health Risks

Person using Nicotine

Tobacco & Vapor Products “Talking Points” : COVID-19 Edition

Reading Time: 4 minutes


People who smoke may be more likely to develop serious health complications from COVID-19. Smoking weakens the immune system, making it harder for your body to fight off viral infections – especially those attacking the lungs, like COVID-19. Additionally, initial findings suggest that vaping may increase lung inflammation and exacerbate lung infections. Need help quitting? Call 1-800-QUIT-NOW or visit doh.wa.gov/quit


To say that our kids are dealing with a lot right now would be a grave understatement. Between figuring out remote schooling, the uncertainty of schedules and daily life at home, and the rising anxieties over health and safety, the mental well-being of our youth is of pressing concern. And while our inboxes are full of tips and tricks for keeping youth occupied, there are other—perhaps more troubling—issues that may not be getting as much attention.

While it may seem like decades ago, one of the most concerning trends we were seeing at the end of 2019 and beginning of 2020 was the youth vaping epidemic. Washington Healthy Youth Survey results were showing a dramatic spike in youth usage between 2016 and 2018, and the perceived risk associated with frequent use was alarmingly low among 8th and 10th graders in Skagit County.

In the fall of 2019, national media sources began reporting on the growing number of cases of vaping-associated lung disease, and these reports were causing many lawmakers to pursue legislation that would place stricter enforcements on vapor products. On January 1, 2020, Washington State officially raised the legal age for purchasing tobacco products to 21 years of age.

The seriousness of youth tobacco usage has not waned, though we now are living in much different times. If anything, our efforts to push forward with prevention efforts is all the more important now during the COVID-19 pandemic, while youth are grappling with so many new and unprecedented struggles, and may be relying on substances, like tobacco, to cope. Experts are still trying to gauge the impacts of COVID-19 on people using tobacco, but we do know that there is conclusive evidence that smoking weakens the immune system, increases the risk of infectious diseases and respiratory infections, and is a major cause of chronic health conditions and cancer. We also know that there is growing evidence that vaping can harm lung health, and nicotine can be extremely harmful for the brain development of teens and young adults.

For these reasons, parents must be extra vigilant about monitoring the mental health and substance use of their kids. Talking to children about tobacco use can be overwhelming—even without a global crisis taking place! It is best to begin the conversation early on, and continue these messages as they grow up. Expect that your child will have questions, and be prepared to answer these with facts, not fear-driven responses. Remember that parents can have a positive influence on youth’s behavior, so long as the conversation is honest, open and understanding. In order to help guide the conversation, we have created a list of helpful information that can inform your conversations:

  • Smoking/vaping and COVID-19

Currently, experts do not yet know if there is a direct correlation between COVID-19 infection and tobacco smoking/vaping. However, this is what the World Health Organization (WHO) has to say:

“Smoking impairs lung function making it harder for the body to fight off coronaviruses and other respiratory diseases. Available research suggests that smokers are at higher risk of developing severe COVID-19 outcomes and death. … There is no evidence about the relationship between e-cigarette use and COVID-19. However, existing evidence indicates that electronic nicotine delivery systems (ENDS) and electronic non-nicotine delivery systems (ENNDS), more commonly referred to as e-cigarettes, are harmful and increase the risk of heart disease and lung disorders. Given that the COVID-19 virus affects the respiratory tract, the hand-to-mouth action of e-cigarette use may increase the risk of infection.”

  • Signs of nicotine poisoning and withdrawal in youth

With school campuses closing abruptly and families at home practicing social distancing, some kids may have increased their tobacco use in order to deal with stress, while others may be dealing with withdrawal if they can no longer get access to tobacco products. It is important to be familiar with the signs of both nicotine poisoning (if someone is consuming too much), as well as nicotine withdrawal.

Nicotine poisoning (a.k.a. “Nic-Sick”)

  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Stomachache and loss of appetite
  • Increased heart rate and blood pressure
  • Headache
  • Mouth watering
  • Quick, heavy breathing
  • Dizziness or tremors
  • Confusion and anxiety

Nicotine withdrawal

  • Having cravings for tobacco products
  • Feeling down or sad
  • Having trouble sleeping
  • Feeling irritable‚ on edge‚ or grouchy
  • Having trouble thinking clearly and concentrating
  • Feeling restless and jumpy
  • Having a slower heart rate
  • Feeling more hungry or gaining weight

To find out more about the above symptoms, visit resources such as the American Lung Association or the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).  

  • Next steps: Cessation resources

If your child is using tobacco products, the best thing to do is to encourage them to quit, and support them throughout their journey. There are a host of resources available to youth dealing with tobacco dependence, many of which are free and easy to use without having to leave the house! Here are some great resources:

  • WA DOH 2Morrow: a free app to help teens and young adults quit vaping or smoking. There is also free cessation counseling for tobacco and vaping or marijuana dependency available
  • SmokeFreeTeen: free app services and texting services available for smoking, vaping, smokeless tobacco cessation
  • The Truth Initiative’s This Is Quitting program: text DitchJUUL to 88709 for free vape cessation support

Lastly, it is important to take care of yourself if you or your child smokes or vapes and is trying to quit.

  • Parents can text QUIT to (202) 899-7550 to sign up to receive text messages designed specifically for parents of vapers, and can find a community of support at BecomeAnEX.org.
  • Visit Smokefree.gov for a list of specialized free programs to help you quit smoking. Programs include: Veterans, Women, Moms,Teens, 60+, Spanish and others. Text, chat, and and a variety of other free supports available.

Want other “Talking Points” from Skagit County Public Health? Visit our webpage here!