Are smokers more likely to catch the coronavirus?

While anyone can become infected with COVID-19, we do know there are people who are more vulnerable than others – however, the question remains whether smokers are also at greater risk.

We know the novel coronavirus which has infected more than 850,000 people worldwide can be fatal for the elderly and individuals with underlying health conditions and it is common knowledge smoking is particularly bad for your respiratory health.

Professor of Respiratory Medicine at UNSW Sydney, Professor Christine Jenkins said it is uncertain whether smokers are more susceptible to catching COVID-19 compared to non-smokers.

“But on the basis of information we have about the nature of chronic lung disease, we know that when you have lung inflammation present already, you are more likely to be prone to invasion and severe damage from other causes of lung inflammation,” Prof Jenkins said.

A man in a protective mask and gloves as a preventive measure against COVID-19 smokes on street in Kyiv, Ukraine. Source: Getty

“Smokers may also be more vulnerable through bringing their hands to their mouths and inhaling repeatedly.”

She said the data is yet to come in to ultimately conclude if people who suffer from chronic lung disease, which she says many smokers have, are more likely to contract COVID-19.

However asssociate Professor Freddy Sitas, Conjoint Professor at the UNSW School of Public Health and Community Medicine, said smokers are more susceptible to infectious respiratory diseases, such as influenza, pneumonia and tuberculosis.

“This has been summarised by Cancer Council Victoria: the harm that smoking causes to the lungs includes: mild immune impairment and significant impaired function of cilia in the lung. Cilia have the vital role of clearing foreign bodies in the lungs ... (such as) viruses and bacteria,” he said.

The World Health Organisation has also warned smokers are more susceptible to the coronavirus, purely due to the act of smoking itself.

“The act of smoking means that fingers (and possibly contaminated cigarettes) are in contact with lips which increases the possibility of transmission of virus from hand to mouth,” WHO says.

Could smokers suffer more severe outcomes of COVID-19?

“We would expect smokers to be at greater risk of lung injury from a nasty respiratory virus and I don't have any reason to think COVID-19 is different,” Professor Jenkins said this week.

“But we are, as yet, not fully informed about this and the published papers, as yet don't identify smokers as being more at risk than non-smokers.

“However, I say that with a lot of reservation about what we're seeing in the data.”

Professor Sitas said there was convincing evidence to suggest smokers could suffer worse outcomes if they did contract COVID-19.

While the evidence is not conclusive, there is a strong argument to be made for smoker to suffer more from COVID-19. Source: Getty

“Risks of dying from other known infectious respiratory diseases in smokers are 50 per cent to 300 per cent higher than in non-smokers. We have been underestimating the role of infectious lung disease deaths caused by smoking,” he said.

“The COVID-19 pandemic is evolving but a breakdown of sex ratios shows that males (who smoke more in China, Iran and Italy), are more at risk of dying from COVID-19 than females.”

“We already know that people with pre-existing health conditions fare worse from COVID-19. These studies are not perfect but it’s simple logic to infer that smokers will do worse than non-smokers.”

Professor Sitas said now was a “good opportunity” for smokers to ditch the habit.

“We have evidence from mechanistic studies, examples from other respiratory diseases, emerging epidemiological data, and plain common sense that smoking may turn out to play a more serious role in COVID-19 deaths than previously anticipated.”

According to the Associated Press, the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control is urging research into smoking’s connection to COVID-19.

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