Much of the public health focus during the COVID-19 outbreak has been on those at highest risk of dying from the disease, such as seniors and people with chronic conditions that affect the respiratory and immune systems. But experts say there’s another vulnerable group we should be thinking about: people who smoke and vape.
CapRadio received a question about whether millennials who vape are particularly susceptible to coronavirus. And experts say young, otherwise healthy people who regularly inhale THC, nicotine or tobacco are at higher risk for contracting COVID-19 than those who don’t, whether they’re using a cigarette or an electronic device.
Smokers will have a harder time fighting the virus off than non-smokers, according to Stanton Glantz, director of the UC San Francisco Center for Tobacco Control Research and Education.
“Everything we know about smoking and vaping suggests they make you more susceptible to COVID, and if you get sick you’re going to have a poorer outcome,” he said.
He says that’s the case for people who smoke or vape marijuana as well as those who consume tobacco.
That’s because the tiny particles in smoke and e-cigarette vapor can get deep in the lungs and damage the cilia, or hairlike-structures that help protect the respiratory system, Glantz said.
“Your whole pulmonary system is designed in a way to push viruses out,” he said. “Smoking and vaping destroy cilia that act like oars and push foreign material up out of your nose and out of your airways.”
There is some research showing that e-cigarette aerosols are safer for the respiratory tract than cigarette smoke, but both mechanisms reduce the lungs’ capacity to fight off infection.
A paper published in the New England Journal of Medicine looked at more than 1,000 COVID-19 patients in China and found that people who smoke are 2.4 times more likely to become critically ill and require ventilation than those who don’t.
Tenley Borchman of Sacramento said reading about some of that research convinced her to quit the habit this week
“I'm very nervous about what Covid-19 means for my respiratory health since I've damaged it in general,” she wrote in an email. “I've never been more motivated to make a meaningful change like this.”
She’s 31 years old and has smoked cigarettes for about 14 years. She said trying to make the switch while quarantined at home has been an added challenge.
“It makes it a little harder, because I haven't found something to do with my anxiety and because I have so much extra time to fill,” she said. “I've realized that some of my smoking is out of boredom and some out of dealing with stress.”
The California Department of Public Health offers a free help line where counselors can guide individuals through a quit plan by phone or chat. It also suggested nicotine patches, gums or lozenges, which can aid some people in quitting without damaging lung function.
Dr. Nora Volkow, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, wrote about the need to focus on smokers during the COVID-19 pandemic in a blog post this week.
“The research community should thus be alert to associations between COVID-19 case severity/mortality and substance use, smoking or vaping history, and smoking- or vaping-related lung disease,” she said “We must also ensure that patients with substance use disorders are not discriminated against if a rise in COVID-19 cases places added burden on our healthcare system.”
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