If you’re washing your hands thoroughly, staying home and maintaining social distancing, you may be wondering if there is anything else you can do to protect yourself from COVID-19. According to American Lung Association’s Chief Medical Officer Albert Rizzo, M.D., an important step to immediately improve your health and possibly avoid the most serious symptoms of this scary disease is to consider quitting smoking and vaping. In fact, the CDC has identified smokers as a group of people at higher risk for severe illness if they contract the disease.

Dr. Albert Rizzo

“COVID-19 is a lung infection that aggressively attacks the lungs and even leaves lung cells and tissue dead,” Dr. Rizzo said. “While it’s important to prevent getting COVID-19 in the first place, it’s also essential that we do all we can to keep our lungs healthy to avoid the worst affects of the disease.”

Our lungs rely on the normal defenses in our airways to keep bacteria and viruses from getting a foothold.  This includes the normal mucus layer on our airways along with the fine thin hairs or cilia that beat in a pattern to move mucus and debris up and out of our lungs as well as the normal immune cells that live in our airways.

We know that inhaling irritating substances like tobacco smoke and vape emissions affects the ability of this muco-ciliary ladder to function well and disrupts the immune system causing a chronic degree of inflammation in our airways.

The presence of this inflammation in the face of an additional insult like SARS-CoV2 makes it harder for our lungs to combat the invading virus and sets up the risk for many severe complications of the infection.

“It would be reasonable to think that any condition that potentially affects the lungs, be it chronic or acute affects from such behavior as smoking or vaping, regardless of the ingredients inhaled, could play a role in making someone more susceptible to complications from the disease.” Dr. Rizzo said 

Dr. Rizzo went on to emphasize that, though at the moment, we really don’t know if smoking can increase the likelihood of contracting the disease, but recent evidence shows that smokers are more susceptible to severe symptoms if they do contract COVID-19. In a recent study published by the New England Journal of Medicine, people who smoke were 2.4 times more likely to have severe symptoms from COVID-19 compared to those who did not smoke.

What we do know for sure is that smoking and vaping causes harm to the lungs, leaving lung tissue inflamed, fragile and susceptible to infection. In addition, tobacco use has been proven to harm immune system and airway lining cells that contain cilia on their surface. which are our essential defenders against viruses like COVID-19. Without them working properly, the lungs are more vulnerable.

“We have long known that quitting smoking is the single best thing you can do for your health. And it’s especially important now,” Dr. Rizzo said. “Quitting smoking and vaping can better equip your body to fight off this disease and reduce the chance of the most severe symptoms.

“As a physician, I know how hard it can be for many people to quit smoking. And it may take several quit attempts to be successful. Right now, as many people are sitting at home or even in quarantine, it may be the perfect opportunity to make that quit attempt,” he said.

In a pandemic where a virus is spreading rapidly, we encourage everyone to do all they can to keep themselves, their loved ones and their community safe. And we are here to support you in those effort. “While you may be isolated due to social distancing, you’re not alone. The American Lung Association has proven quit smoking support that can help you beat your tobacco addiction once and for all,” Dr. Rizzo said.

For those that are hunkered down, this might prove to be the best time to quit smoking.

  • Identify your smoking triggers.  You may be more apt to light up when you’re out with friends or on a long commute to or from the office.  Social distancing and working from home could provide the perfect opportunity to lay low for a little while and focus on your quit.  
  • Refresh your space and day.  Whether it’s a specific chair on the porch or at the dining room table after a meal – doing a little Feng Shui with your living space can help you relearn certain rituals to avoid smoking. And hey – you’ve got more time on your hands to play interior decorator!
  • Stay connected.  Our hangouts are going virtual – which is the perfect time to connect with others that are quitting smoking.  Join our online support community and join the Quarantine Quitters!  
  • Get proven support.  Join Freedom From Smoking - our quit smoking program that walks you through the step-by-step process of quitting smoking.   Through the program, you’ll have access to tobacco cessation counselors who can counsel and support you one-on-one. 

Albert A. Rizzo, M.D., as Chief Medical Officer for the American Lung Association, is the organization's senior medical authority. Dr. Rizzo has long been a key medical advisor to the American Lung Association, a member of the Lung Cancer Expert Medical Advisory Panel and a leading media spokesperson for the Association. Read More.

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