A woman smokes an electronic cigarette at the Grand-Place, in Brussels on March 3, 2020. (Photo by Kenzo TRIBOUILLARD / AFP) (Photo by KENZO TRIBOUILLARD/AFP via Getty Images)
The coronavirus pandemic has caused a considerable amount of stress in the zeitgeist. And what do we do when we’re overwhelmed? At least some of us reach for a cigarette or vape pen. Resist the urge: Many doctors and scientists believe that a nicotine habit could leave you more vulnerable to severe symptoms and infections if you contract COVID-19.
Although the research looking into the link between severe coronavirus infections and smoking is preliminary, there is evidence that the practice creates inflammation in the lungs, and that the toxins you inhale may suppress immune function.
“Smoking damages the lungs, and makes you more prone to respiratory tract infections overall,” Melodi Pirzada, MD, chief of pediatric pulmonology at NYU Winthrop Hospital on Long Island, tells Refinery29. “We [also] know for a fact that smokers get more significant respiratory tract infections compared to non-smokers. This is already out there… When it comes to COVID-19, it is yet to be determined if you’re going to have a more severe infection because you’re a smoker — but the COVID-19 is a respiratory virus, and we can only assume at this point that, yes, it’s going to be more severe for people who are smokers.”
The early research that’s starting to emerge from the recent outbreak seems to back this sentiment. For example, one study published in the Chinese Medical Journal looked at 78 patients who’d tested positive for COVID-19. Those who had a history of smoking were more likely to develop pneumonia.
Dr. Pirzada also points out that coronavirus mortality rates in China are higher in cis men than cis women and children — and studies show that men in the country are much more likely to smoke than women. “Only about 3% of women smoke in China versus over 25% of Chinese men,” she says.
Nicotine in cigarettes and e-cigs harms the cilia, hair-like structures found in the lungs and respiratory tract. “They’re either being paralyzed or killed or can be shortened, which causes a decrease in mucus clearance,” Dr. Pirzada says.
The buildup of mucus makes it harder to get rid of a viral infection (like coronavirus). “If it’s severe, you’re going to get acute respiratory distress syndrome, which is actually the leading cause for mortality in COVID-19,” Dr. Pirzada explains.
She notes that it’s not just nicotine that can harm your cilia. THC vapes may also contain harmful toxins. One Harvard University study, for instance, found that at least two chemicals widely used to flavor e-cigs impair cilia function.
So, now is as good a time as any to quit your vaping or smoking habit. But, we know — it’s no simple task. “Telling people [to stop], is a fair thing to say, but it’s also not a realistic thing,” Dr. Pirzada says. “It’s certainly not as easy as telling people to go wash their hands. We advise people not to touch their face, but we still do it because it’s a habit. It’s hard to tell someone to quit vaping, [especially] when they’re worried about everything, including their life as well as their finances.”
But it’s worth a try. To take a step toward breaking the habit, Dr. Pirzada recommends talking to supportive friends and family and seeking counseling, perhaps from a behavioral therapist who does Skype calls. “Try to curb the craving by talking,” she says. Dial back on your consumption of COVID-19 news to cut down on stress, and focus on living a healthy lifestyle and getting good sleep. Nicotine patches, lozenges, or gum can help you work through cravings as well.
It’s worth mentioning that right now, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advises avoiding close contact with others when possible. In that light, cutting out your visits to the store to pick up packs of cigarettes or vaping pods can only be a good thing. After all, we’re all in this together. Refraining from the habit now helps keep you safe — and others too.
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