Smoking “may damage the body’s ability to fight infections” like COVID-19, says pulmonologist Dr. S. Christy Sadreameli

By Julie Mazziotta
April 10, 2020 01:47 PM
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While there are still many unanswered questions about the new coronavirus, COVID-19, what is clear is that the symptoms put a serious strain on patients’ lungs. People with mild to severe cases of the virus experience shortness of breath and dry coughing, and may develop pneumonia or require a ventilator to breathe.

People with preexisiting conditions are also at a higher risk of developing severe cases of COVID-19 or dying. The conditions include lung problems such as asthma, chronic bronchitis and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). All of those factors are pushing experts to warn against any kind of smoking, from traditional cigarettes to e-cigarettes, from tobacco to marijuana.

“Anything that you’re inhaling into the lungs chronically from a vaping device or from traditional cigarettes is doing some damage to the lung, and it could potentially put someone at higher risk of developing a more severe illness,” Dr. S. Christy Sadreameli, assistant professor of pediatric pulmonary medicine at Johns Hopkins and a volunteer spokesperson for the American Lung Association, tells PEOPLE.

Vaping, for example, “can hurt the epithelial cells, which are the cells that line the airways,” she says. “We know that vaping can damage some of the receptors in the lungs, and lead to decreased mucociliary clearance. And we know that e-cigarettes can cause pulmonary inflammation.”

“It may damage the body’s ability to fight infections that they do get, and this could be bacteria or viruses that are in the lungs.”

Sadreameli says that pulmonologists don’t yet know for sure if these issues would be compounded by COVID-19, but that they believe people who vape would be “at a higher risk.”

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This is also true of smoking marijuana, Dr. Albert Rizzo, chief medical officer for the American Lung Association, told CNN.

“What happens to your airways when you smoke cannabis is that it causes some degree of inflammation, very similar to bronchitis, very similar to the type of inflammation that cigarette smoking can cause,” Rizzo said.

Sadreameli says that along with social distancing and washing hands, this is a good time to quit any kind of cigarette use.

“I don’t say it lightly. It’s probably a stressful time to quit if you’re using to nicotine containing devices, whether that’s through vaping or with cigarettes,” she says. “But at the same time, it may be a good time because people want to do everything they can to protect their health. Maybe this is just the motivation they need.”

People who decide to quit can talk to a doctor (through telemedicine, ideally) about using FDA-approved cessation products like nicotine gums or patches, and reach out to text support lines like SmokeFree.gov or Truth Initiative’s This is Quitting, an anonymous messaging program for teens and young adults looking to stop vaping.

“You can’t control that the virus is out in the community, but you can control what you’re doing,” says Sadreameli.

As information about the coronavirus pandemic rapidly changes, PEOPLE is committed to providing the most recent data in our coverage. Some of the information in this story may have changed after publication. For the latest on COVID-19, readers are encouraged to use online resources from CDC, WHO, and local public health departments. To help provide doctors and nurses on the front lines with life-saving medical resources, donate to Direct Relief here.