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Coronavirus and smoking: know the risks

We all want to protect ourselves and others right now. But if you smoke, you could be putting yourself and your loved ones at risk. Here we answer commonly asked questions about smoking and coronavirus.

Are people who smoke more at risk of coronavirus?

Coronavirus (COVID-19) is a respiratory infection that affects the lungs and airways and can cause life-threatening complications. People who smoke tobacco generally have a higher risk of developing these infections and are more likely to suffer worse symptoms or face severe complications if they end up in hospital. This is because smoking damages your lungs, your heart and weakens your immune system, making it harder for your body to fight infections.

Smoking not only increases your risk of developing life-threatening complications from COVID-19, but it also increases your risk of many other potentially fatal and life-limiting health conditions, including heart attack, stroke, diabetes, lung disease and 16 different cancers.

If you have an existing health condition that is caused by or made worse by smoking, such as poor lung health (asthma or COPD), high blood pressure (hypertension) or diabetes, then the best thing you can do for your health is quit smoking.

Anyone with an existing health condition is considered at a higher risk of coronavirus (“clinically vulnerable”) should keep up to date with the government’s advice.

For more information please read Public Health England’s advice for smokers and vapers.

I thought nicotine can help protect against COVID-19, so how can smoking increase the risk?

COVID-19 is a new illness and therefore evidence is still emerging. Early data suggests that the percentage of smokers attending hospital with COVID-19 is less than we would expect given the population level smoking rates, however those who are admitted may be at higher risk of severe illness.

A study in France is looking into whether nicotine patches, not smoking, can help prevent or lessen symptoms of COVID-19. Nicotine is an addictive substance found in tobacco. In the UK, nicotine replacement therapy, or ‘NRT’, is licensed by the UK’s medicines regulator, the MHRA, for long-term use to help smokers quit. These reports shouldn’t put you off trying to quit, but encourage you to use alternative sources of nicotine, which are far less harmful than cigarettes, to help you quit smoking.

Don't tobacco taxes help pay for the NHS?

Smoking costs society substantially more than it raises through tobacco taxation, with estimated costs of £12.5 billion a year to society – including £8.9 billion in lost productivity, £2.4 billion to the NHS and £880 million in social care costs. When smokers quit, they spend the money they would have spent on tobacco on other products and continue to pay tax. However, they are more likely to be buying products which benefit their local economy and don’t harm their health.

If I quit smoking now, will it reduce my risk?

If you’re a smoker and are worried about the risks, then now would be a good time to think about quitting for good. From the moment you quit smoking your body starts to heal itself, which will help your ability to fight off the illness. And that’s not all. Breathing gets easier, you cough less, feel less stressed and anxious, your mood improves, and you’ll have more energy.

In as little as 48 hours after your last cigarette, carbon monoxide will have left your body and your lungs will have started to clear out mucus. After 72 hours your breathing will get easier and after two weeks your blood circulation improves, making physical activity like walking and running easier.

What is the advice for people quitting during pregnancy?

If you are expecting a baby, you should quit smoking as soon as possible. When a pregnant woman smokes or is exposed to second-hand smoke, oxygen passed to the baby is restricted, making the baby’s heart work faster and exposing the baby to harmful toxins – increasing the risk of stillbirth, miscarriage and birth defects.

Nicotine replacement is safe to use during pregnancy and can increase the chances of quitting successfully, especially when combined with expert support. It can be hard to quit smoking at the best of times, so ask your midwife or local stop smoking service for help.

Am I still at risk if I used to smoke?

It’s not yet known how long is long enough to reduce the risk to the same as someone who has never smoked. But the lungs do heal relatively rapidly when you stop smoking, which could lower your risk of severe complications. It’s important to remember that stopping smoking has many health benefits, even beyond a link with coronavirus. After you stop smoking, the chances of getting other chest or lung infections, heart disease and cancer will also reduce.

How can I protect others if I'm still smoking?

Second-hand smoke in the home and other enclosed spaces poses a risk to others. Unborn babies and young children are particularly at risk from second-hand smoke, as well as older children and adults with existing health conditions. If you smoke, you should take every effort to protect those around you from exposure. You should take at least seven steps from your home to prevent smoke from drifting back into the house and stay away from other people’s open windows, doorways and balconies as much as you can.

Fires caused by cigarettes can start very easily in homes when cigarettes aren’t fully extinguished before they’re disposed. Please follow safety advice from Greater Manchester Fire and Rescue Service and make sure cigarettes are fully out before disposing of them.

Please be mindful of smoking around others if you are in public areas such as parks or in queues outside shops or supermarkets. Although these may be open spaces, other people may not be able to move away from the smoke.

Is it still safe to use nicotine replacement or an e-cig/vape?

There is no evidence that COVID-19 has an impact on the safety or effectiveness of nicotine replacement. If you are already using, or want to start using, nicotine replacement to help you stop smoking then it is safe to do so, as long as you don’t share any devices that enter the mouth (such as e-cigs/vapes) with other people as this could increase the risk of spreading the virus.

Using nicotine replacement is a very popular and effective way of reducing cravings and managing withdrawal symptoms. When combined with expert support from stop smoking advisors, you are much more likely to quit smoking.

Where can I get nicotine replacement or vape supplies right now?

Nicotine replacement is available in many supermarkets, pharmacies and news agents. Vape shops are reopening and many offer the same level of service online. We’d recommend using a retailer that’s a member of the Independent British Vape Trade Association (IBVTA) . Stop smoking services can also help you get nicotine replacement.

I want to quit smoking but I'm too anxious and stressed

Understandably, quitting smoking might be the last thing on your mind right now, especially if you’re feeling worried, anxious or bored. You might even be wanting to smoke more than usual if you’re out of your normal routine. But quitting smoking is proven to help boost your mood by relieving stress, anxiety and depression – and there’s lots of support available to help you.

For help with your mental wellbeing while staying at home visit Every Mind Matters

What will happen when I stop smoking?

When you first stop smoking, you may have a few side effects. You might feel restless, irritable or low. You might eat more, feel tired, or struggle sleeping. That’s perfectly normal and these are all signs of withdrawal that will usually go away after two to four weeks. Less common symptoms include a cough and sore throat, which are also usually temporary. These withdrawal symptoms may be confused with the symptoms of COVID-19. It’s important to note that a fever isn’t a symptom of nicotine withdrawal.

Using alternative forms of nicotine – such as patches, gum and e-cigarettes – can relieve the worst of the nicotine withdrawal symptoms. This will not only greatly improve your chances of quitting successfully, but it may also help you avoid confusing symptoms of nicotine withdrawal with coronavirus.

If you think you have coronavirus please follow the advice from the government and the NHS.

I have stopped smoking during lockdown, but I’m worried I might start again

If you have quit smoking during lockdown then well done, that’s a huge achievement. However, you may be worried that you’ll start smoking again when you return to your workplace or spend more time with friends that also smoke. For many smokers and exsmokers, it’s easy to associate certain activities with smoking and to see it as part of your daily routine. That’s why so many people have managed to quit smoking during lockdown.

If you're concerned you might start smoking again, make a promise to yourself to follow the ‘not-a-puff’ rule. You can also use other sources of nicotine and the Smoke Free app to help manage your cravings and stay motivated. Get six months’ free when you sign up online through (“clinically vulnerable”).

Where can I get the best support to stop smoking right now?

The best thing you can do for your health is to stop smoking, and the best way to stop smoking is with support. Many stop smoking services across Greater Manchester are now offering more support online and over the phone and many can even help you get nicotine replacement.

Contact your local stop smoking service or call the NHS Stop Smoking helpline free on 0300 123 1044. Lines are open Monday to Friday 9am to 8pm and Saturday and Sunday 11am to 4pm. Stop smoking services are an inclusive and safe space for all, including the LGBT+ community. If you’re pregnant, specialist support is available from your midwife to help you quit during pregnancy.

If you have a smartphone or tablet, you can also get six months’ access to all Pro features of the Smoke Free app for free when you sign up online.

For more tips and motivation, or to reach out with any questions, send us a message on Facebook or Twitter

Sources

Simons D., Brown J., Shahab L., Perski O. The association of smoking status with SARS-CoV-2 infection, hospitalisation and mortality from COVID-19: A living rapid evidence review. Updated 23 April 2020.

The YouGov survey was conducted between 15 - 21 April 2020 online survey using the YouGov panel with 1,004 respondents. Calculations are by Dr Leonie Brose at National Addictions Centre, King’s College London. The proportions in the YouGov survey are applied to the most recent available ONS population estimates for UK, England and Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.