UNC Health Care
illustration of hand stamping out cigarette butt

Why COVID-19 Makes It More Important Than Ever to Quit Smoking

If you smoke, you already know there are many reasons to quit. Here’s a new one: Researchers have found that people who smoke are at higher risk of severe illness from coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19).

COVID-19 causes respiratory illness and sometimes dangerous breathing complications. Complications including hospitalization, requiring a ventilator to breathe and even death increase for people whose lungs or hearts have been damaged by smoking and other chronic health conditions.

That’s why doctors are urging people who smoke to quit, with the help of professionals who can help ensure they do not relapse or go through withdrawal.

“Smoking traditionally impacts immunity on a cellular level, preventing your lungs from fighting off infections like pneumonia,” says Adam Goldstein, MD, MPH, director of UNC Tobacco Intervention Programs. “It is well established that smokers are more at risk for these infections and, compared to nonsmokers, are more heavily impacted by these illnesses.”

Doctors have long known that smoking is related to a higher risk of hospitalization for the annual flu. Now, that increased risk is manifesting with COVID-19 as well.

Smoking damages the defense mechanisms of the lungs. It makes them produce more mucus, which is difficult to clear out of your airways and leads to coughing, difficulty breathing and chronic bronchitis. This chronic damage makes it easier for bacteria and viruses to invade and destroy lung tissue and many other organs.

And in these times of increased vigilance about hand hygiene and touching your face, think about the act of smoking. Every time a cigarette is lifted to the mouth, you are increasing the chances of spreading or contracting germs.

Secondhand Exposure to Smoke Is Also Dangerous

In practicing physical distancing, people are spending more time at home, where they might live with one or more people who smoke. Secondhand smoke inhalation is also a documented health risk, especially in the very young and older populations.

“There’s no safe level of exposure to secondhand smoke,” Dr. Goldstein says. “The more you are exposed, the more risk there is. Just being around secondhand smoke can have similar negative effects on your lungs or heart as if you were smoking.”

If you smoke and live with others, please do not smoke around them.

“You need to limit others’ exposure to secondhand and thirdhand smoke—smoke residue that is left on surfaces and contains irritating and cancer-causing chemicals,” Dr. Goldstein says. “Don’t smoke inside. The smoke can spread throughout the house or apartment by the ventilation system. After smoking, take a shower and change clothes. Make sure you are washing the smoke-laden clothes often.”

Quitting Now Will Help

No matter how long you have been smoking, there are immediate positive effects when you quit.

“The longer you’ve stopped smoking, the more benefits there are,” Dr. Goldstein says. “But within just a day of quitting, your heart rate and blood pressure improve. Within a week, your lungs have done a tremendous amount of healing. Within a year of quitting, your chances of having a heart attack drop to that of a nonsmoker.”

Allowing your lungs to heal from smoking will make them healthier and in better shape to withstand multiple viruses, including COVID-19 and the flu.

It’s important to understand that smoking is not allowed in or around hospitals to protect everyone’s health, Dr. Goldstein says. If you are hospitalized with COVID-19 complications or any other illness, you will not be allowed to smoke on hospital property, but you can get free access to medications to help prevent withdrawal and help cure nicotine addiction.

At UNC Hospitals, patients who smoke receive treatment from the UNC Tobacco Intervention Programs, which is available to anyone in the local community wishing to quit smoking or vaping. There is also a national hotline that will direct you to services in your state.

While you may think now is too difficult a time to quit, it could also be the perfect moment to greatly improve your lung health. There are many quitting methods available, including pharmacotherapy (nicotine replacement), behavioral therapy, mindfulness and relaxation techniques. Quitting now is a huge step you can take to make sure you and your loved ones are as healthy as possible during this pandemic.

“We are seeing people every day now who want to quit smoking, and we have tools to help them quit now and quit for good,” Dr. Goldstein says.


Want to quit smoking? Contact the UNC Tobacco Treatment Program.