Among the many misconceptions of COVID-19 is the idea that only the elderly are at risk of contracting it. As the disease continues to overwhelm hospitals in the U.S. at an exponential rate, doctors are beginning to warn that smoking and vaping may worsen infections.
This could be one reason why so many younger patients in their 20s, 30s, and 40s have required intensive care.
Much is still not known about the novel coronavirus and how it works. What is clear is that it attacks the respiratory system, and patients with preexisting medical conditions are especially vulnerable. Tobacco use, in that sense, may constitute such a condition in its own right.
Your Lung Health in the Age of COVID-19
Smoking traditional combustible cigarettes damages tiny hairs in the lungs called “cilia,” which help clean the respiratory tract and stave off infection. Over time, the loss of cilia can compromise the lungs’ ability to clean itself, leading to a condition called chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).
“The lungs are totally exposed to the environment,” Dr. Humberto Choi, a pulmonologist at the Cleveland Clinic, told WBUR. “The lungs and the airways have ways to defend themselves against anything that can cause injury, especially infections, and this cilia system is a big part of that.”
Smoking may also account for the disparity in death rates observed among COVID-19 patients in China, where significantly more men have died than women. In China, more than half of men smoke, compared to less than 3% of women.
It stands to reason, then, that smoking would seriously compromise the lungs’ ability to ward off a coronavirus infection. Now a growing number of doctors are warning that vaping, too, can do the same.
How Can Vaping Increase One’s Risk for COVID-19?
The U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH) recently updated its COVID-19 guidelines, claiming people who vape or smoke either tobacco or marijuana are more vulnerable because of the practice’s effect on the respiratory system. The NIH offered similar warnings with regards to methamphetamine and opioid use disorder (OUD).
Last year, the U.S. Surgeon General declared youth vaping to be an “epidemic” in the U.S. Between 2017 and 2019, e-cigarette use among high schoolers more than doubled, skyrocketing to a whopping 27.5% of all students.
While cigarette smoking has decreased in recent years, especially among young people, vaping is taking its place. This trend may pose a serious risk in combatting the coronavirus pandemic.
Younger Americans Account for Roughly 20% of All Cases
According to the Centers for Disease Prevention and Control (CDC), roughly 1 in 5 COVID-19 patients hospitalized in the U.S. are between the ages of 20 and 44.
This age group may face a much lower overall risk of dying, but serious infections nonetheless clog hospitals and make it harder for healthcare workers to save those who are most vulnerable — namely, the elderly and people with preexisting medical conditions.
There has been some evidence that vaping is less harmful than smoking when it comes to respiratory damage, but they are both nonetheless harmful. Director of the University of California San Francisco Center for Tobacco Control Research and Education Dr. Stanton Glantz told Capital Public Radio that smoking and vaping damage the only tool the lungs have to keep out pathogens:
“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.”
For some ex-smokers, e-cigarettes were the tool that helped them kick the habit. But it merely replaced one addiction with another. For some Americans, the heightened risk of infection amidst a global pandemic is its own incentive. One young woman wrote into Capital Public Radio, saying the new research convinced her to quit vaping entirely.
“I've never been more motivated to make a meaningful change like this,” she said.
A lot of people right now have something similar to say.