Smokers urged to quit to reduce Covid-19 risk

Apr 12, 2020
People who smoke are being urged to be extra cautious right now. Source: Getty.

We all know that smoking is an unhealthy habit which could lead to serious health complications. For instance, smokers are generally at higher risk of developing respiratory tract infections, such as the common cold or influenza. So does this mean smokers are more likely to be infected with coronavirus or have more severe complications than non-smokers if they do contract the deadly virus?

Experts from the International Union Against Tuberculosis and Lung Disease said they are “deeply concerned” about the impact of coronavirus on the world’s 1.3 billion smokers, calling on the tobacco industry to do their part.

“The best thing the tobacco industry can do to fight Covid-19 is to immediately stop producing, marketing and selling tobacco,” Gan Quan, the director of the union said. “This is the absolute best time to quit smoking.”

Here’s what you need to know about smoking and coronavirus and whether you’re putting yourself at risk.

Is there a greater risk for smokers?

Medical experts from the University of New South Wales (UNSW) have said while there isn’t enough evidence to suggest that smokers are more likely to get Covid-19, we know they are at a higher risk of getting lung and chest infections in general. This means that smokers are likely to be more vulnerable to Covid-19. UNSW professor Freddy Sitas said there is a lot of research that suggests the cells in your lungs get damaged from smoking and become weaker and more prone to diseases like pneumonia and influenza.

“… the harm that smoking causes to the lungs include mild immune impairment and significantly impaired function of cilia in the lung. Cilia have the vital role of clearing foreign bodies in the lungs,” he said. “So, smokers get more respiratory infections and colds of greater severity than non-smokers. This includes respiratory syncytial viruses, which cause infections of the lungs and respiratory tract.”

Meanwhile, the university’s professor of respiratory medicine, Christine Jenkins, added that smokers have another habit that makes them more susceptible.

“Smokers may also be more vulnerable through bringing their hands to their mouths and inhaling repeatedly,” she said.

Will Covid-19 complications be more severe for smokers?

Smokers who get Covid-19 can probably expect a more severe infection, Jenkins warns. “We would expect smokers to be at greater risk of lung injury from a nasty respiratory virus and I don’t have any reason to think Covid-19 is different,” she said. “But we are, as yet, not fully informed about this and the published papers, as yet don’t identify smokers as being more at risk than non-smokers. However, I say that with a lot of reservations about what we’re seeing in the data.”

Meanwhile, Sitas went on to say that smokers are 50 per cent to 300 per cent more likely to die from respiratory diseases than non-smokers. “We have been underestimating the role of infectious lung disease deaths caused by smoking,” he said.

In fact, a Chinese Medical Journal report from Wuhan on 78 cases showed those who have more serious respiratory outcomes were nine times more likely to be smokers.

“We already know that people with pre-existing health conditions fare worse from Covid-19,” Sitas said. “These studies are not perfect but it’s simple logic to infer that smokers will do worse than non-smokers.”

Sitas concluded this a good opportunity for smokers to seriously consider quitting.

“There is a good opinion piece published in The BMJ Opinion about Covid-19 and quitting smoking during respiratory virus epidemics, while the United Kingdom’s Secretary of State for Health has urged smokers to quit based on research on previous coronaviruses that showed smoking made the impact of a coronavirus worse.”

IMPORTANT LEGAL INFO This article is of a general nature and FYI only, because it doesn’t take into account your personal health requirements or existing medical conditions. That means it’s not personalised health advice and shouldn’t be relied upon as if it is. Before making a health-related decision, you should work out if the info is appropriate for your situation and get professional medical advice.

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