The recent outbreak of COVID-19 has called for some considerable changes to our everyday lives. We have been instructed to adapt our habits in order to prevent the spread of infection. This involves refraining from touching our faces and mouths, only leaving the house when completely necessary and ensuring we wash and sanitise our hands more frequently than usual.
Information in recent studies has suggested that there is another habit which increases the likelihood of contracting a severe case of COVID-19 — smoking.
Coronavirus is a disease which affects the respiratory tract and, in some cases, causes viral pneumonia. This is a cause for concern in smokers as they often have decreased lung capacity due to the damage caused by tobacco. They might also have a pre-existing lung condition as a result of long-term smoking.
Some have argued that smoking increases your chance of infection as it requires your fingers to come into regular contact with your mouth. Others suggest that smoking methods requiring shared mouth pieces or pipes heighten your risk of contracting COVID-19.
Although there is limited definite evidence to directly support the correlation between smoking and COVID-19, there is some compelling data definitely worth noting.
The first outbreak of the virus was in Wuhan, China. With over 81,0001 recorded cases across the country, China’s Centre for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported that the mortality rate was much higher within men than women2. Specialists have since highlighted a study conducted by the World Health Organisation (WHO) in 2019 – its findings told us that 48% of men in China were smokers, compared to 3% of women2.
The UCSF Center for Tobacco Control Research and Education said, “Among Chinese patients diagnosed with COVID-19 associated pneumonia, the odds of disease progression (including to death) were 14 times higher among people with a history of smoking compared to those who did not smoke. This was the strongest risk factor among those examined.” 3
Similar data has been collected from countries such as Italy and South Korea, which have documented significantly high numbers of COVID-19 cases. The number of smokers in these countries are relatively high at an estimated 19-27% of the population2.
A past study into respiratory syncytial virus (a disease similar to COVID-19) revealed that inhaling tobacco smoke heightened the severity and rate of transmission of such viral respiratory tract infections in patients2. The similarities in the two viruses, as well as the figures surrounding gender, smoking and mortality rates around the world, has compelled people to extend this argument to COVID-19.
Smokers around the world have been encouraged to quit – effective immediately. For many, this may seem like an impossible task. Below we’ve outlined some effective ways to stop smoking for good:
- Set yourself achievable goals within realistic time frames. Try and get through two days without a cigarette to begin with, then steadily increase the number of days between smoking. Studies have shown that quitting cold turkey is only permanently effective for three in 100 smokers5, so don’t feel discouraged if you can’t quit straight away.
- Identify when your cravings strike and set yourself tasks to fill this time. People have specific triggers for smoking such as drinking coffee, alcohol or finishing a meal. These cravings typically last around 5 minutes6, so whenever the urge to smoke strikes, occupy yourself. Go on a walk, call a friend or read a book.
- Exercise! Scientific studies have shown that a 5-minute walk or stretch can cut cravings and may even help your brain to produce anti-craving chemicals6.
- Surround yourself with non-smokers where possible as this minimises the possibility temptation. In addition to many local support services for those trying to quit smoking, you can call the NHS Smokefree helpline on 0300 123 1044, Monday to Friday, 9am to 8pm and Saturday to Sunday, 11am to 4pm.
- Try nicotine replacement therapy (NRT). There are tablets, lozenges, nasal spray and gum which can help to cut cravings. Handheld products such as inhalers or e-cigarettes can be very effective as keeping your hands and mouth busy can double your chances of quitting6. However, take precautions as this hand-to-mouth contact could increase the chances of your contracting COVID-19.
- Don’t get discouraged! This process is a marathon, not a sprint. The chances are, most people will have relapses along the way – but the important thing is to keep trying. Make yourself a list of reasons you want to quit, then remind yourself of these any time you get the urge to smoke.
This article was written by Brunel Employee Benefits to offer advice and insight into current research and does not guarantee definite results.
4 World Health Organization. WHO report on the global tobacco epidemic 2019: Offer help to quit tobacco use. 2019.