People Who Vape May Face Higher Health Risks with COVID-19

  • Some experts are saying people who use e-cigarettes and regular cigarettes could face a higher risk of serious illness with COVID-19.
  • They say that’s because vaping and smoking damages the lungs and makes it more difficult for a person to fight off COVID-19.
  • The experts add that despite the potential serious consequences, people who vape or smoke might still not be considered high priority patients at medical facilities.
  • They say the best thing to do now is stop smoking and vaping.

If you smoke or vape, you might be increasing your health risks during the COVID-19 outbreak.

The National Institute on Drug Abuse has written on its blog that people who vape, along with those who smoke cigarettes and marijuana, or have substance use disorders, could have increased difficulty if they contract COVID-19.

Dr. Albert Rizzo, chief medical officer of the American Lung Association, wrote on his organization’s website that vaping or smoking can weaken a person’s ability to recover from COVID-19.

“What we do know for sure is that smoking and vaping causes harm to the lungs, leaving lung issue inflamed, fragile, and susceptible to infection,” Rizzo said.

There are established concerns about the long-term health problems caused by vaping, but the practice simply hasn’t been around long enough to produce much long-term evidence.

The same is true for COVID-19, which came to the attention of health officials in December 2019 after it surfaced in a food market in Wuhan, China. The illness is caused by an infection from SARS-CoV-2, the name of the coronavirus.

This make the effects of vaping and smoking with COVID-19 challenging for researchers.

“There is no evidence to date,” said Dr. Laura Crotty Alexander, an associate professor of medicine in the Division of Pulmonary Critical Care and Sleep at the University of California San Diego. “However, it’s difficult to track because we still do not have ICD-10 (the latest version of the International Statistical Classification of Diseases) codes to show which patients vape and which do not.”

“And many healthcare providers do not specifically ask about vaping,” she added.

The potential risks

Alexander told Healthline there’s data showing that inhaling the base chemicals found in vaping aerosols — such as propylene glycol and glycerin — predisposes the user to increased chance of lung infection during influenza.

Shortness of breath is one of the main symptoms of COVID-19, along with fever and coughing.

People with more severe cases need breathing assistance from ventilators, which are in short supply across the country.

Medical professionals say there’s plenty of evidence that suggests vaping and smoking is harmful to human lungs.

They say this makes it logical to assume people who vape or smoke could experience more serious health consequences from COVID-19.

“At the moment, we don’t know if COVID-19 affects vapers differently than other smokers,” Dr. Nate Favini, medical lead of Forward, a preventive primary care practice in San Francisco, told Healthline. “However, in general it’s worth noting how much smoking can impact your ability to fight off respiratory infections.”

“Both habits increase a person’s risk for developing severe disease,” added Dr. Dean Drosnes, medical director at Caron Treatment Centers in Pennsylvania.

“It’s likely that a history of chronic vaping could make someone more susceptible to COVID-19,” Drosnes said. “People who chronically vape are doing damage to their lungs and don’t realize it until they get an infection, such as an insult to their respiratory system, like COVID-19.”

Drosnes told Healthline that COVID-19 frequently progresses from cough and fever to interstitial pneumonia.

“For those who have died from COVID-19, ventilator assistance was not enough,” he said. “The number of virus particles that reached the lungs, the genetic strain of the virus, and other unknown factors all impact the severity of each case.”

“We know that patients with underlying disease and preexisting conditions, such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease caused by vaping, have an increased risk for developing severe COVID-19 because their lung functionality has been compromised,” Drosnes added.

It’s worse than the flu

COVID-19 is frequently compared to influenza (flu), as both show similar symptoms and are infectious respiratory illnesses, but they’re caused by different types of virus.

“In the most severe cases, COVID-19 causes much more inflammation in the lungs than your average influenza infection,” Favini said.

Dr. Nathan Do, a pulmonologist at AdventHealth Tampa in Florida, agreed.

“Unlike common respiratory viruses, COVID-19 can cause extensive cellular damage of the wall and lining of the lung’s air sacs,” Do told Healthline. “As the body responds to the infection, a cascade of inflammatory mediators is released. The lungs become even more inflamed and filled with fluid, which then leads to severe pneumonia or acute respiratory distress.”

And for those who vape or smoke?

“We know that the odds of disease progression, including death, is about 12 to 14 times higher among people with smoking or vaping history,” he said. “However, this does not place them at the top of any list as far as treatment is concerned and is not part of the screening for COVID-19.”

A good time to quit

Favini, who has been testing and treating people with COVID-19 in San Francisco, said it’s never too late to quit vaping or smoking.

Now would especially be a good time.

“Over the next few weeks and months, most hospitals will be facing really difficult decisions about how to prioritize caring for a number of people who will be ill,” he said. “The severity of illness and the likelihood of recovery will play a role in determining what kind of treatment each person receives.”

“Your best bet is to try to be as healthy as possible to reduce your chance of a severe COVID-19,” Favini said.

“Stopping smoking and vaping today is the single best thing you can do for your health right now,” he said.

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