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Quitting smoking could help protect against coronavirus, experts say

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Editor’s Note: This story was published before the World Health Organization declared novel coronavirus a pandemic and Canada’s chief health officer labelled the virus a “serious public health threat.” For the latest coronavirus news, click here.

Amid rising concerns about the novel coronavirus outbreak, public health officials recommend several ways for Canadians to improve their immune system and protect themselves against the virus.

Among the recommendations: quit smoking.

A recent study of more than 44,000 confirmed coronavirus cases in China showed that men (2.8 per cent) are more likely than women (1.7 per cent) to die of the virus. Men represented 51 per cent of confirmed cases. Some researchers believe smoking could be the reason for the disparity.

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Chinese men smoke more than Chinese women — a 2010 national survey on smoking found that 62.4 per cent of Chinese men had been smokers at some point, compared to just 3.4 per cent of women — and smoking has been proven to damage a person’s health.

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A 2016 study found “ample evidence” that cigarette smoke weakens the defensive function of the immune system.

Another 2017 study found that even social or occasional smoking can cause immense damage to a person’s body, leading to problems like high blood pressure, high cholesterol and hypertension.

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It may even be possible that smoking makes a person more susceptible to catching viruses like COVID-19. There is “conclusive evidence that smoking is associated with an increased risk of respiratory viral infection,” per the results of the Surgeon General’s 2014 report.

There’s currently little data to prove that smoking is a risk factor for COVID-19 specifically, but the World Health Organization (WHO) says it’s a possibility.

“There is a marked difference between males and females in this outbreak in terms of severity, and there’s certainly a marked difference in [smoking] habits in China,” Michael Ryan, executive director of WHO’s Health Emergencies Programme, said in a news conference on Feb. 14.
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“It goes without saying that smoking is a risk factor for severity of any lower respiratory tract infection, and we would expect it to be no different here.”

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Robert Schwartz from the Dalla Lana School of Public Health at the University of Toronto agrees.

“It’s very well-known and scientifically-proven in many studies that tobacco smoking oppresses the immune system,” he told Global News.

“Smokers of tobacco are much more prone to becoming infected.”

Quitting smoking can have almost immediate positive effects on a person’s body, generally to do with heart health, according to Schwartz.

“We know that when people stop smoking, their chance of cardiac arrest or any type of cardiac event decreases,” he said.

Smoking side effects

Smoking tobacco is linked to more than 24 diseases and conditions, according to Health Canada, and most of these risks start to reverse once a person quits.

Smoking regularly has been linked to: problems with the heart and blood vessels, certain types of cancers, lung and respiratory problems and premature death.

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Quitting is proven to have immediate benefits for a person’s health, per Health Canada. Within 20 minutes, your blood pressure drops to a level similar to what it was before your last cigarette.

Within eight hours, the level of carbon monoxide (a toxic gas) in your blood drops to normal, and within 24 hours, your risk of heart attack begins to drop. After 10 years of not smoking, your chance of dying from lung cancer dramatically decreases.

During outbreak, hygiene is key

Washing your hands regularly is one of the first tips recommended by Canadian public health officials for preventing the spread of COVID-19.

“You can stay healthy and prevent the spread of infections by … washing your hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds,” says the Canadian government’s website.

“Individuals can practice everyday prevention measures like frequent hand washing, staying home when sick, and covering coughs and sneezes,” the Centers for Disease Control’s page says on how to prevent COVID-19 spread in communities.

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Jason Tetro, microbiologist and host of the Super Awesome Science Show podcast, likened it to washing your dishes after getting them greasy.

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“You use a surfactant [like soap] because surfactants break down lipid layers, and so the coronavirus is no different than other envelope viruses, like the flu, when it comes to being exposed to soap and water,” he previously told Global News.

How many times a person usually washes their hands can vary, Tetro said.

“The most important thing is that if your hands have touched a surface or have been in an environment where you cannot tell what the microbial composition probably is, then it’s a very good likelihood that you want to wash your hands,” he said.

Other recommendations include coughing and sneezing into your elbow and avoiding touching your face.

The WHO also advises keeping a distance of at least three feet between yourself and a person who is coughing or sneezing, to prevent exposure to droplets. “When someone coughs or sneezes they spray small liquid droplets from their nose or mouth which may contain virus.”

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The new coronavirus was first reported in Wuhan, China. As of Thursday, there were more than 97,000 reported cases worldwide and more than 3,300 deaths, according to researchers from Johns Hopkins University.

— With files from Global News reporter Maryam Shah

Meghan.Collie@globalnews.ca