Written by SMH Copywriter Phil Lederer
If you’re a cigarette smoker — or have a loved one who smokes — you’ve no doubt wondered: Does smoking increase the risk of contracting COVID-19? Does the habit increase your chances of developing severe symptoms if they do have novel coronavirus?
The answer is “yes to both,” said pulmonary disease specialist Kirk Voelker, MD, a critical care pulmonologist at Sarasota Memorial Hospital.
Science in Progress
Granted, the sudden and recent appearance of the novel coronavirus means that experts have not yet been able to conduct the long-term studies necessary to confirm all of the details regarding the relationship between smoking and COVID-19, but Dr. Voelker is not alone in his conclusions.
- The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has reported that COVID-19 patients who smoke could be at higher risk for severe disease or death.
- The World Health Organization (WHO) published a scientific brief reporting that available evidence suggests smoking to be linked to both increased severity of COVID-19 and its symptoms, as well as death.
- Numerous medical institutions — from Sarasota Memorial to the University of Maryland Medical System to the Iowa Department of Public Health — endorse these conclusions as the best science available.
A Direct Flight & a Landing Pad
Two main factors lead doctors and researchers to conclude that smokers are at higher risk for COVID-19 transmission:
- The physical act of smoking presents a risk as smokers repeatedly bring a hand to their mouth, providing ample opportunity for virus transmission from the hand or the cigarette to the mouth.
- Smoking can increase activity in the lungs’ ACE2 receptors. “These receptors are what COVID binds to,” explained Dr. Voelker. “So, this may make you more susceptible.”
Combined, the factors support the commonsense argument that smoking increases one’s risk of contracting the disease, according to Dr. Voelker.
Making a Bad Situation Worse
As we’ve seen throughout the pandemic, COVID-19 symptoms and severity vary greatly from person to person — ranging from entirely asymptomatic to fatal. But it’s not just a matter of chance.
Doctors have identified a multitude of underlying factors and conditions that are believed to contribute to the severity of the disease in an individual. Smoking is one of them.
According to the CDC, smokers “might be at an increased risk for severe illness from COVID-19,” alongside those living with asthma, pulmonary fibrosis (damaged or scarred lungs) and a compromised immune system, including those with HIV. In fact, the CDC categorized smokers as “immunocompromised,” meaning they have a weaker immune system and are susceptible to developing complications or severe symptoms due to COVID-19.
For Dr. Voelker, the clear connection comes in those smokers already suffering from lung disease, or accumulating damage in the early stages. While he stresses that studies are still needed to determine evidence for concrete claims connecting tobacco use to severe COVID symptoms, the evidence connecting tobacco use to lung disease is plentiful.
“And people with lung disease do less well with the COVID virus,” he says. But, it isn’t too late to change behavior and avoid this risk.
“If you quit smoking without any real damage to your lungs, then you’re at normal risk for COVID,” says Dr. Voelker. “It’s always a good time to quit smoking, but that’s a good reason for people to quit smoking NOW.”
As a Sarasota Memorial copywriter and wordsmith, local journalist Philip Lederer crafts a variety of external communications for the healthcare system. He earned his master’s degree in public administration and political philosophy from Morehead State University, Ky.