Can smoking, drinking increase your chances of getting COVID-19? What you should know

Several states in India have already enforced a strict ban on alcohol and tobacco sales during the lockdown.
Can smoking, drinking increase your chances of getting COVID-19? What you should know
Can smoking, drinking increase your chances of getting COVID-19? What you should know

Across the world, several health experts have taken to caution against smoking and the consumption of alcohol in view of the coronavirus pandemic. Many studies show that alcohol and smoking both have a severe impact on the immune system, and in light of the current health emergency, doctors and medical personnel are advising people to cut down on their alcohol and tobacco use.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) earlier dismissed rumours that alcohol consumption could prevent someone from falling sick with COVID-19. Closer home in India, several states have enforced a ban on the sale of alcohol and tobacco products amid the lockdown, as advised by health experts.

So how do smoking and drinking affect someone’s health and why does this put them at risk of getting coronavirus disease?

The novel coronavirus, identified by its scientific name SARS-CoV-2, has a unique structure that allows for it to enter the lung cells and securely attach itself to the cells. It has a protein spike that allows it to easily enter cells in the host (in this case, a person) and take over the functions of the cells to replicate its own genetic material using the infected cell.

Smoking cigarettes (tobacco), and even marijuana, has been known to cause an immune response that can damage the lungs.

“Cigarette smoking and vaping have been known to increase the inflammatory response in the lungs. This causes a release of cytokines, which can aggravate the lungs if excessive,” explains Chennai-based pulmonologist Dr Roshan Santosh.

Cytokines are substances naturally found in the body, which are released as part of the immune system’s response to invading pathogens. These proteins work by drawing white blood cells to the site of infection, which then, in turn, can help fight off the infection.

Inhaling tobacco prompts an increase in cytokine activity, and this is called a cytokine storm. A cytokine storm refers to what occurs when there is an exaggerated immune response, which causes the cytokines to be released in excess, thereby worsening the inflammation at the site of infection.

“This can then cause damage to the liver, and other organs in the body, which can become triggered by the immune system’s reaction to the invading organism,” adds the doctor.

Individuals who are smokers are at a higher risk of developing a severe form of coronavirus disease because of this. Dr Roshan notes that a cytokine storm can cause damage to the lungs and contribute to the development of pneumonia, which has been pointed out as a big red flag for coronavirus.

Cytokine storm has been noted to be commonly associated with COVID-19 patients. It can also contribute to liver damage.

This is not all, smokers have also been found to have extensive lung damage. Should these individuals be exposed to the virus and contract it, there is a high chance that their bodies will not be able to fight off the infection. Several concerns have been raised that the rising number of young people falling ill with COVID-19 may be linked to smoking tobacco.

“Cutting down smoking will significantly impact the ability of your lungs to fight off an infection,” adds Dr Roshan.

So how does alcohol play a role in coronavirus disease?

The WHO had earlier stated that the consumption of alcohol does not kill the virus or prevent the disease. This came after several fake messages were spewed across various social media platforms with the news that drinking alcohol would prevent the infection.

More recently, the organisation’s regional office in Europe had also added that alcohol intake can lead to compromised immunity, in view of which it was asking people to cut down their intake of alcohol.

“Drinking keeps the body busy. There is a lot that is happening on a micro level, several processes are at work to ensure that the alcohol is broken down in the body. When we consume food, it is broken down by the body into fats, proteins and carbohydrates. Alcohol isn’t metabolized in the same way and has to be expelled out of the body, as the body cannot store it. The liver plays an important role in detoxification following alcohol consumption,” explains Dr Srinivas N, a gastroenterologist from Apollo Hospital in Hyderabad.

Gut microorganisms which are naturally found in the body are essential in fighting off infections. Drinking alcohol can affect these organisms, which then makes it easier for pathogenic invaders to cross into the bloodstream and cause an infection. Binge drinking has also been known to reduce the presence of certain white blood cells, which play a significant role in the immune system in fighting off infections.

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