Are you more at risk of getting COVID-19 if you are a smoker? Will it be more serious? With the continuous spread of the COVID-19 pandemic, this question resonates with over 1 billion smokers and their families worldwide. Here is all you need to know about the relationship and risks, of smoking in the COVID-19 era – and why smoking cessation is more common now.
Does smoking increase the risk of COVID-19?
Whilst the pandemic is still quite recent, and there have not yet been concrete evidence that directly connects cigarette smoking to having higher risks of contracting COVID-19, it is believed that smokers are more vulnerable to being infected due to the influence that tobacco smoke has on hindering healthy functioning of the lungs. According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), each year, over 8 million deaths occur in relation to the use of tobacco. The connection between smoking and cardiovascular diseases, lung disorders, cancers, diabetes is well established. Not only those who smoke are put at higher risk, those around smokers can also suffer from being exposed to secondary smoke.
COVID-19 is identified as an infectious disease that primarily attacks our lungs. There has been increasing data showing that smokers who become infected are more likely to develop severe complications and die. The process of smoking causes damage to lung tissues and can adversely impact the protective functions of the lungs in removing toxins and harmful substances, weakening the immune system. With reported cases of COVID-19 continuing to increase, many organisations including WHO, and the Centre for Health Protection HK (CHP) have issued recommendations for smokers to quit to minimise their potential risk of becoming infected.
How does smoking put you at higher risk?
Tobacco cigarettes are known to contain a wide range of harmful chemicals such as carbon monoxide, nicotine, nitrogen oxides and also NNK which is a major carcinogen found in tobacco smoke, and is found to promote the forming of cancers. The entering of these harmful chemicals into your body causes great damage to cell tissues as well as disrupts the regular chemical processes of the body. This drastically weakens your immunity, which is responsible for identifying and getting rid of substances that cause infections and disease. Without the effective functioning of the immune system, the body is at a higher risk of becoming infected.
How about waterpipes (shisha) and COVID-19?
According to the Tobacco & Alcohol Control Office, waterpipe (aka shisha) smoking involves being exposed to the same chemicals found in conventional cigarettes. Taking part in waterpipe smoking may give rise to infections spreading quicker because the design of water pipes increases the amount of toxins being inhaled. Regardless of the ingredients being smoked, it is said that the activities still cause harm to lung cells. On top of that, due to the complex designs and the many parts, the process of disinfection after each use is more difficult and time consuming. This may mean a higher chance that infectious diseases are transmitted.
Considering that water pipes are commonly used in a social setting, and involves sharing of the mouthpieces between various persons, the WHO says that there is much higher chance for transmission of COVID-19.
Is vaping a safer option than smoking?
There is currently no evidence that directly links the use of vaping, or the use of e-cigarettes, to the risks of contracting COVID-19. However, given that COVID-19 is a virus that affects the respiratory tracts, it is said that the hand-to-mouth actions of e-cigarette use can give rise to becoming infected.
Vaping has become increasingly popular in Hong Kong in the last several years. However, the local government has announced plans to issue a ban on the importing, manufacturing, selling or promoting of e-cigarettes in Hong Kong. The plans for this bill have yet to become official but the government has expressed that it was only due to lack of time for this Legco term, and that they plan to review the bill for proposal in the next term. This is in unison with the approach taking part in the US, where the FDA has prohibited the width of options to vaping that is currently available.
Have lots of people quit smoking due to COVID-19?
According to recent studies, the UK has seen the highest numbers of smokers quitting in a decade. Between February to June 2020, 41% of people who quit smoking have reported to have quit as a direct response to concerns regarding COVID-19.
Since COVID-19 began to spread in the UK, over 1 million people are said to have successfully stopped smoking, whether by personal means or entering programs that help to quit smoking (out of an estimate total number of over 7 million smokers pre-COVID-19).
Nicotine withdrawal is stressful. Is it really a good time to quit?
There is no disputing that quitting smoking is difficult and that nicotine withdrawal is uncomfortable. On top of the stress and anxiety in response to the current pandemic, having to quit seems to make getting through this period even more unpleasant. But there has never been a more appropriate and urgent time to stop using tobacco or other forms of smoking. The positive results to quitting tobacco are immediate, starting the second that the lungs are no longer exposed to toxic chemicals. Within 12 hours of stopping smoking, the blood’s carbon monoxide levels drop; after two weeks, circulation improves and lung function improves, and after one month, cilia, which move mucus out of lungs, begin to regain normal functioning! This will increase your lungs’ ability to self-clean and reduce infection risks, strengthening the wall of defence against respiratory infections.
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