HEALTH: Is there a higher risk of contracting the coronavirus if you are a smoker? The answer is yes, according to health experts. The World Health Organization (WHO) says in its FAQs that smoking is one thing people should not do during the coronavirus outbreak.
One study published in the New England Journal of Medicine in February looked at 1,099 patients in China with COVID-19, showing that of 173 patients who had severe symptoms, 16.9% of them were current smokers and 5.2% had previously smoked. Among the patients with less-severe symptoms, 11.8% were current smokers and 1.3% former smokers.
Smokers more vulnerable
Since the lungs and respiratory tract in smokers are already compromised to various extents, they are more prone to be severely infected by SARS CoV-2, which primarily attacks the respiratory system in human beings, and in severe cases leads to symptoms such as difficulty in breathing. “A new infection attacking the already compromised respiratory system is dangerous,” said Dr Harminder Singh Pannu, director, Internal Medicine, Fortis Hospital, Ludhiana. He suggested that now is the best time for smokers to quit. or at least stop until pandemic isn’t controlled.
“They (occasional smokers) cannot get away saying that I smoke just one or two cigarettes a day or after a gap of certain days. The fact remains that you are exposing your respiratory system to something that is damaging it. Chain smokers are anyway psychologically dependent on smoking and consume one cigarette after the other. But the COVID-19 risk stands equally for both chain and occasional smokers.”
He said cigarette smokers are at higher risk than tobacco smokers. “Tobacco causes more damage to oral health whereas cigarettes damage your lungs,” he said.
Dr Vikas Loomba, professor, medicine, Christian Medical College and Hospital, Ludhiana, said, “Though COVID-19 is a new disease and the virus is still being studied… the fact remains that the family of coronaviruses attacks respiratory functioning in humans. Any person who has a history of, let’s say, 10 pack-years or even less is at risk.” (Pack-years is a measure derived from the number of packs smoked in a day.)
Quit, a programme run by Cancer Council Victoria with support from Victorian Department of Health in Australia, says, ‘… If you previously smoked and have now quit, it’s likely you’ll have a lower risk of severe complications (if you were infected) than you would have if you were still smoking…It’s well-established that stopping smoking improves lung function within a few months. The best thing you can do for your health is to stop smoking.”
The WHO acknowledges that it is normal to feel sad, stressed, confused, scared or angry during a crisis, but advises not to use smoking, alcohol or other drugs to deal with one’s emotions. If you feel overwhelmed, talk to a health worker or counsellor, it says.
Until the time the pandemic is under control, experts advise that even one cigarette a day shouldn’t be an option. “Smokers should stop smoking immediately, at least till the pandemic is over and the threat of catching the infection is looming large. In fact, there cannot be a better time than the COVID-19 outbreak to quit smoking completely,” Dr Pannu said.
Stay at home if you feel unwell. If you have a fever, cough and difficulty breathing, seek medical attention and call in advance. Follow the directions of your local health authority during the coronavirus crisis.
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