As COVID-19 cases soar, health care officials are trying to get ahead of the worst by examining who is most at risk of being in intensive care and on respirators if they catch the virus.
At the top of this list are smokers.
There are already so many reasons not to smoke: increased risk of heart disease, stroke and cancer.
But now scientists are warning smokers that they must quit before COVID-19 attacks their lungs.
“Given the danger of this disease and the speed with which everything is progressing, all the evidence we see indicates that smoking (could) increase the risk of contracting the disease and, if you get it, make it worse, Said Stanton Glantz, director of the Center for Tobacco Research Control and Education.
Early research shows that among people with severe COVID-19 pneumonia in China, 12% of current smokers have been admitted to an intensive care unit, required a ventilator or have died, compared to less than 5% non-smokers.
Dr. Neal Patel, an intensive care specialist and pulmonologist at the Mayo Clinic, says that cigarette smoke damages the tissue of the lungs.
“It destroys the eyelashes in the lungs … as well as in the nasal pharynx,” said Patel. He explained that “eyelashes are tiny hair-like follicles that help trap damaged viruses, debris, and move that debris up out of your lungs so it doesn’t stay there and cause problems . “
These eyelashes “act as one of the main defense systems against infection,” he said.
Last week, Public Health Wales released a press release urging smokers to think about their weakened lung defenses and to stop smoking.
The press release said that hundreds of smokers had contacted hotlines for advice on how to quit since the start of the new coronavirus epidemic.
“We know that COVID-19 is primarily a respiratory disease and research on similar viruses shows that tobacco smoke increases the risks of this type of infection and its severity,” said Ashley Gould, public health consultant at Public Health Wales, in the press release.
The Cochrane Library, a collection of online databases of research and information on health care, published a special article in a series on COVID-19 which compiled information on the risks of smoking and strategies to help smokers quit – a task they recognize is huge for many.
Researchers also find that smoking increases the number of lung cells that have receptors that attract the new coronavirus.
The World Health Organization has also urged smokers to quit smoking to stay healthy in the fight against COVID-19. Even those who smoke sparingly continue to put their hands to their mouths more often than others – defying one of the main WHO recommendations against touching your face.
Many are already taking action. Oscar-winning actress Patricia Arquette tweeted in mid-March that “when COVID-19 attacks the lungs, one of the most important things you can do is quit smoking and vaping. I am on the third day. Do you want to join? “