Despite the coronavirus pandemic, there has been no rush by smokers to quit the habit and boost their ability to fight the virus.
It is becoming clear that smoking is a risk factor for coronavirus infection and, just like flu, it may be more severe in people who smoke.
However, people wanting to quit because of Covid-19 have not been using quit.ie, Ireland’’s smoking cessation service, in the kind of numbers hoped for.
The HSE’’s lead for the Tobacco Free Ireland Programme, Martina Blake, said it appears that the health risk message has not got across to many of the 17% of people in Ireland who smoke: “There hasn’’t been a surge in calls to quit.ie. In fact, there has been a drop in calls. I think people do not recognise that they are at an increased risk of being infected because they smoke.”
Quitting smoking helps build a person’’s natural resistance to all types of infections including coronavirus. Ms Blake said: “When you stop, the natural hairs in your airways (cilia) begin to work again. Within one to two days the oxygen levels in your body will improve. Your blood pressure and pulse reduces, which in turn decreases the overall stress on your body. All these things are a good defence against coronavirus."
Also, Covid-19 is spread in sneeze or cough droplets and everybody is being advised to stop touching their face to avoid being infected: “But if you smoke, you are more likely to touch your face, especially your mouth. This increases your risk of being infected."
People are more likely to be physically close while they smoke. By stopping smoking, you reduce this risk that you may become infected. With more people staying at home, smokers may be smoking indoors, putting those closest to them at risk because exposure to secondhand smoke affects the body’’s natural resistance to fighting infections such as coronavirus.
Ms Blake said children are especially vulnerable to secondhand smoke because they breathe more rapidly and their lungs and their airways and immune system are still developing.
Research from Wuhan in China, the source of Covid-19, suggests that smokers are twice as likely to develop a severe form of coronavirus compared to non-smokers.
“Your risk of being put on a ventilator is four times higher if you are a smoker. We have the services; we have the staff. We’’re ready to support people who want to quit,” Ms Blake said.
Ms Blake said they do not recommend vaping — it has not yet been studied in a large population group over a long period.
People wanting to stop smoking should use evidence-based medications, such as nicotine replacement therapy or a drug called Champix.
The Irish Heart Foundation’’s medical director, Dr Angie Brown, said nicotine itself might increase the risk of Covid-19 as it potentially affects lung tissue making it easier for the virus to enter cells.
There is concern that vaping might also increase the risk of complications with Covid-19, she pointed out: “In the US, the question of vaping as a cause of the high prevalence of illness in young adults has been raised but full data to confirm this is not available yet.”
Dr Brown said the lungs do heal relatively rapidly when people stopped smoking: “For most smokers who don’’t already have serious lung injury, they will see immediate improvements in their health and less opportunity for severe diseases including Covid-19.”