Why smoking puts you more at risk of contracting Covid-19

Thursday, April 16th, 2020 00:00 |
IILA policy development programme officer Elizabeth Mbugua. Photo/COURTESY

WHO warns of any condition that increases oxygen need or reduces the body’s ability to use it

George Kebaso @Morarak

Smokers have been warned that they are at risk of contracting Covid-19 because it mainly affects the lungs.

Elizabeth Mbugua, policy development programme officer at the International Institute for Legislative Affairs (IILA) said smoking has a huge impact on respiratory health, for instance, causing lung disease by damaging small air bags found in internal human organs.

Speaking to People Daily, she said smoking, and use of other tobacco products weakens the immune system and its ability to respond to infections. This, she said, makes tobacco users more vulnerable to infectious diseases.

“We are urging fellow Kenyans who are smokers to be aware that during this period of Covid-19, they are likely to die easily from its infection,” she said.

Coronavirus, being part of a large family of viruses, Mbugua said, like tobacco consumption, causes illnesses such as respiratory infections ranging from common cold to Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS).

Damage walls

The World Health Organisation (WHO) says despite being the single most preventable cause of death and illness, tobacco use remains the biggest public health threat in the world causing more than eight million deaths each year.

Out of these, seven million are as a result of direct smoking while about 1.2 million deaths are due to exposure to second-hand smoke.

“Your lungs are important as they help in the process of gas exchange where oxygen enters the blood and carbon dioxide and other waste products leave the blood.

Reduced function of the lungs therefore translates to their reduced ability to carry out this function...” she said.

 “Though new, just like other respiratory viruses, Covid-19 affects the movement of air into and out of the lungs.

It damages the walls of the air sacs found in the lungs making them thicker hence harder for them to transfer oxygen making it difficult for a person to breathe,” Mbugua says of the relationship between Covid-19, lungs and smoking.

Smoking, she said, also damages the lungs which naturally produce mucus.  Smokers have hard mucus which clogs the lungs making them more vulnerable to infections.

“COVID-19 attacks the whole lung instead of just a part of it and one of the ways the body reacts when fighting such an infection in the lungs is by destroying the virus and limiting its replication but this mechanism is greatly limited in people with underlying conditions, such as lung cancer and cardiovascular diseases, smokers and the elderly,” she added.

Reduce ability

Even though currently there is a gap in evidence to show the direct relationship between tobacco smoking and Covid-19, research in China, where the disease originated from, shows that patients with underlying conditions are at a greater risk of more severe symptoms.

A recent study conducted by Centre for Disease Control and Prevention in the USA between February 12 and March 28, 2020 revealed that among over 7,000 cases that were examined, about 71 per cent of those hospitalised due to Covid-19 and 78 per cent of those admitted to the intensive care unit  (ICU) had one or more underlying health conditions and some of them were smokers or former smokers.

Tobacco use is also ranked the highest cause of cancer contributing to about 22 per cent of cancer-related deaths in the world including lung cancer.

On March 23, 2020 WHO published an information note on Covid-19 and NCDs and mentioned smoking as among the risk factors that make people vulnerable to becoming severely ill with the virus.

Mbugua told People Daily on Tuesday that smoking would increase the risk of smokers transmitting the virus from hand to mouth as their fingers and possibly contaminated cigarettes would come into contact with their lips.

WHO warns in the note that any condition that increases oxygen need or reduces the ability of the body to use it properly will put patients at higher risk of the consequences of the virus.

Besides the WHO and Ministry of Health guidelines on social distancing and maintaining high levels of hand hygiene, she said it is important to maintain healthy lifestyles, such as quitting smoking, during these times.

“And quitting smoking is one of the ways of maintaining a healthy lifestyle and while at it, smokers should avoid using other coping strategies such as use of alcohol or alternative tobacco products,” she said.

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