Two UNSW Sydney academics discuss how coronavirus – primarily a respiratory virus – affects smokers.
Professor Christine Jenkins, AM, is Conjoint Professor of Respiratory Medicine at UNSW Sydney, Head of the Respiratory Group at The George institute for Global Health and Chair of the Lung Foundation Australia. She has led many clinical trials in airways disease and held major roles in advocacy and leadership for lung health in Australia.
Associate Professor Freddy Sitas is the Director of the Centre for Primary Care and Equity at UNSW Sydney and Conjoint Professor at the UNSW School of Public Health and Community Medicine. A/Prof Sitas has more than 20 years’ experience researching smoking-related hospitalisations, cancers and deaths, including working with the World Health Organization and Clinical Oncology Society of Australia on smoking cessation.
Are smokers more susceptible to catching COVID-19?
Professor Jenkins said we don’t know for certain.
“But on the basis of information we have about the nature of chronic lung disease, we know that when you have lung inflammation present already, you are more likely to be prone to invasion and severe damage from other causes of lung inflammation. Smokers may also be more vulnerable through bringing their hands to their mouths and inhaling repeatedly,” Prof Jenkins said.
“We are waiting to see the data, however, that convincingly tells us that people with chronic lung disease – which many smokers suffer from – are more vulnerable to picking up COVID-19.”
Associate Professor Sitas said there was a lot of peer-reviewed literature on the mechanism of how smoking harmed cells in the lungs and how that made smokers more susceptible to infectious respiratory diseases, such as influenza, pneumonia and tuberculosis.
“This has been summarised by Cancer Council Victoria: the harm that smoking causes to the lungs includes: mild immune impairment and significant impaired function of cilia in the lung. Cilia have the vital role of clearing foreign bodies in the lungs; i.e., viruses and bacteria,” A/Prof Sitas said.
“So, smokers get more respiratory infections, and colds of greater severity than non-smokers. This includes respiratory syncytial viruses, which cause infections of the lungs and respiratory tract. Their rate of transmission is greater in smokers than in non-smokers.”
Will smokers have a worse outcome if they catch COVID-19?