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Can vaping make coronavirus infections more severe? 3 doctors weigh in

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Researchers are just beginning to investigate a link between vaping and serious complications from the coronavirus.

As the coronavirus pandemic continues to wreak havoc across the globe, scientists are looking into any factors that may exacerbate the spread of the virus and the illness it causes. We know that the immunocompromised and the elderly are at higher risk, but researchers are starting to turn their attention to another potential risk factor: vaping.

We don’t know much about a possible link between the novel coronavirus and vaping — there hasn’t been enough time to design reliable studies and collect data. But medical expertise and common sense can tell us a little bit about the association, so I spoke to three doctors to get the lowdown: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention vaccine provider Dr. Michael Hall, tobacco-cessation specialist Dr. Elisa Tong and Yale Medicine pulmonologist Dr. Stephen Baldassarri. Read on for everything you need to know about a potential link between the novel coronavirus and vaping. 

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Let me be clear — we do not currently have any research that proves there is a link between vaping and the novel coronavirus. “We are awaiting studies in COVID-19 patients to determine definitively whether smoking, vaping and/or other substance use are risk factors for complications from COVID-19 infection,” Dr. Baldassari says. 

Dr. Tong echoes this caution, saying, “Whether we can examine the association of smoking or vaping with COVID depends on whether any data is collected.” We just won’t know more until enough time has passed for researchers to collect more data.

We know enough, however, about the effects of vaping on the lungs and immune system to make some educated guesses.

Cigarettes are unequivocally bad for your lungs, but the effect of vaping on lung health is a little less clear. You may remember the prepandemic headlines about the rise in vaping-related illnesses, which ended up with more than 2,500 people in the hospital with severe lung illnesses and other health problems after vaping, and at least 64 people dead.

Researchers were unclear whether it was the vaping itself, however, or the vitamin E acetate in black-market marijuana vaping products causing the lung illnesses.

If vaping does damage the lungs, it’s likely due to contaminants that are breathed in along with the vapor. Hall says that, when vaping, “a variety of things can enter deeper into the lungs and cause irritation,” which will then “cause problems with the protective nature of the lungs.”

Dr. Tong was clearer on the adverse effects of vaping on the lungs, saying, “There is evidence that vaping also can harm lung health, from the cellular to organ level, based on studies in humans, animals and in vitro in the lab.”

If vaping damages the protective lining of your lungs, it’d be even worse news in light of the coronavirus pandemic. “A person with compromised lung lining would suffer a worse case of COVID-19,” Dr. Hall says, because “if you’ve got impaired defense mechanisms in your lung tissue, the infection could spread more rapidly and the body can’t keep up.”

It’s also been suggested that e-cigarettes can weaken the immune system. One experimental study showed that e-cigarette vapor increases the production of inflammatory chemicals and weakens protective cells in the lung that keep the air spaces clear of potentially harmful particles. The researchers cautioned that more research is needed to make any declarative statements, which is common with studies concerning vaping — we simply haven’t had enough time to do adequate research.

Another study from the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health showed that mice who were exposed to e-cigarette vapor over time had weakened immune systems.

If e-cigarette use does weaken the immune system, it’d certainly be a factor of note in the coronavirus pandemic. We already know that immunocompromised people are at a higher risk of developing a serious or even fatal illness if they are infected with COVID-19.

The bottom line? While there’s certainly plenty we don’t know about vaping and its link to COVID-19, all available evidence suggests that it’d be a better idea to avoid e-cigarettes for now. Baldassarri echoes this approach, saying, “A great way to protect our health is to engage in healthy lifestyle behaviors every day the best we can.”

The information contained in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended as health or medical advice. Always consult a physician or other qualified health provider regarding any questions you may have about a medical condition or health objectives.

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