One in three young adults at a higher risk of severe COVID-19 due to smoking, vaping

The coronavirus pandemic is raging across the globe, infecting more than 13.25 million people and killing at least 576,000.

Previous data show that certain people are at a higher risk of developing severe coronavirus disease (COVID-19), including the elderly, those with underlying health conditions, and those with weakened immune systems. Smoking has also been flagged as a risk factor that may heighten the likelihood of experiencing worse symptoms.

Now, a new study shows that about one in three young adults may be at risk of severe COVID-19 due to smoking and vaping habits.

Medically vulnerable percentage

A team of researchers at the University of Carolina, San Francisco (UCSF) examined more than 8,400 respondents to the National Health Interview Survey, who included those who are between the ages of 18 and 25 years old.  The researchers studied the COVID-19 risk factors identified by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) that are present in the respondents.

Specifically, the study focused on smoking-related behavior as a risk factor for developing severe COVID-19 illness. The team found that 32 percent of the total study population was at risk for severe COVID-19, but when the participants who smoked cigarettes or used vaping devices were taken out of the analysis, the medically vulnerable percentage dropped by half to 16 percent.  

Also, the impact of smoking exceeded other less common risks, according to the researcher who published their findings in the Journal of Adolescent Health.

"The risk of being medically vulnerable to severe disease is halved when smokers are removed from the sample. Efforts to reduce smoking and e-cigarette use among young adults would likely lower their vulnerability to severe disease," Dr. Charles Irwin Jr. of the UCSF Division of Adolescent and Young Adult Medicine, said.

Vulnerable populations

The CDC reports that while patients who are more than 65 years old are significantly at a higher risk of being admitted to the hospital due to the coronavirus disease than younger individuals, the gap is narrowing. Data shows that by April 18, there were 8.7 hospitalizations per 100,000 of the population for young adults aged 18 to 29 years old, compared to 128.3 per 100,000 for patients more than 65 years old. However, by June 27, the figures were 34.7 and 306.7, respectively, which is a 299-percent increased in hospitalizations for young adults, compared to 139 percent in the elderly.

In the current study, the researchers determine the susceptibility or risk of young adults based on the indicators by the CDC, which included liver conditions, heart problems, diabetes, current asthma, immune system diseases such as lupus, rheumatoid arthritis, and gout, obesity, and smoking in the past 30 days. Further, the team also included other forms of smoking, such as vaping or e-cigarette use.

Smoking and COVID-19

Smoking has been identified as a risk factor for developing severe symptoms of COVID-19, which is caused by severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2). The researchers said that recent evidence shows that smoking is tied to a higher risk of COVID-19 progression, which is used to describe the worsening of a patient's condition and may lead to ICU admission or death.

Evidence also reveals that young adults are starting to smoke at higher rates than teens, making them more susceptible to chronic diseases tied to cigarette smoke.

In the study, 10.9 percent had smoked a cigarette, 4.5 percent had smoked a cigar, and 7.2 percent smoked an e-cigarette over the past 30 days. Also, for risk factor assessment, 19.8 of the respondents were smokers, compared to just 8.6 percent who had asthma, 3 percent who were obese, and 2.4 percent who had immune disorders. There was also 1.2 percent who had diabetes, 0.6 percent who had a liver condition, and 0.5 percent who suffer a heart condition.

"This suggests that factors other than the CDC's medical vulnerability criteria play a role in the risk of severe COVID-19 illness in the young adult population," the researchers wrote in the study.

The findings of the study came just days after the World Health Organization (WHO) warned about the link between smoking and severe coronavirus cases.

"Smoking kills 8 million people a year, but if users need more motivation to kick the habit, the pandemic provides the right incentive," Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO director-general, said at a press briefing.

"Evidence reveals that smokers are more vulnerable than non-smokers to developing a severe case of COVID-19," he added.

Journal reference:
Angela Betsaida B. Laguipo

Written by

Angela Betsaida B. Laguipo

Angela is a nurse by profession and a writer by heart. She graduated with honors (Cum Laude) for her Bachelor of Nursing degree at the University of Baguio, Philippines. She is currently completing her Master's Degree where she specialized in Maternal and Child Nursing and worked as a clinical instructor and educator in the School of Nursing at the University of Baguio.


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