The new coronavirus responsible for the current pandemic causes mild symptoms for many. But those with underlying health concerns — including respiratory problems related to smoking or vaping — may be at higher risk for severe symptoms.
If you smoke or vape, you might feel as if you’re between a rock and a hard place.
On the one hand, quitting may lower your risk of serious COVID-19 symptoms. On the other, you’re probably dealing with a ton of added stress and the thought of quitting right now feels pretty daunting.
Here’s a closer look at what we do and don’t know about smoking and vaping-related COVID-19 risks, as well as things you can do to reduce some of these risks — even if you aren’t ready to quit.
E-cigarettes were originally marketed as a smoking cessation aid. They contain fewer toxic chemicals than ordinary cigarettes, so many people see them as a safer alternative (aside from the whole lung injury thing).
Separating myth from fact
There are claims circulating online that vaping might threaten COVID-19 recovery even more than smoking. If you switched to vaping to cut back on smoking, you might be wondering if it’s safer to go back to cigarettes at this point.
While research around COVID-19 is still emerging, there’s no evidence to suggest that vaping is more harmful than smoking in this context.
There’s no ‘safe’ option
Both vaping and smoking are harmful to your health, so the larger issue is determining whether one causes less harm than the other.
Both smoking and vaping affect your respiratory system and have the potential to damage your lungs. Plus, both can weaken your immune system.
This combination of effects means you may be both more likely to experience severe symptoms and less able to fight off the virus.
In general, medical experts agree while vaping isn’t entirely safe or risk-free, it may have benefit for people who can’t quit smoking otherwise. If vaping did help you quit regular smoking, you’re better off not switching back.
Italian scientist Riccardo Polosa emphasizes this in an interview for Filter magazine, explaining that e-cigarettes are a “reduced risk product” that help improve health for people with a history of smoking.
At this time, there’s almost no scientific evidence looking at the impact of cannabis use on COVID-19 symptoms, though experts are beginning to explore this topic.
Existing knowledge offers two key facts, though.
Smoking anything can damage your lungs
Smoking cannabis releases many of the same toxins and carcinogens as smoking cigarettes.
If you’re experiencing any flu-like symptoms, especially coughing or shortness of breath, avoid smoking, since this can worsen those symptoms.
Sharing is a no-go
In light of guidelines on handwashing, disinfecting surfaces, and physical distancing, now is not the best time to pass that joint or pipe — even to those you live with.
COVID-19 can easily spread through indirect oral contact.
Same goes for lighters, vape pens, and anything else that you might usually pass around.
If you’ve thought about quitting smoking or vaping, now might be an ideal time to give it a shot for several reasons.
Physical distancing means fewer social cues
While stuck at home, your exposure to other people who smoke or vape has likely decreased quite a bit.
This can make it easier to escape social triggers that usually reinforce these habits, like:
- drinking at a bar
- hanging out with friends who smoke
- taking a break at work with co-workers who smoke
- being stuck in traffic
Losing even a few of them can make your journey to quitting easier. Not having anyone to smoke with can help, too.
Changing your routine is easier
While you might have fewer social triggers to contend with, you’re probably still encountering plenty of triggers at home.
Experts recommend making small changes to your routine to avoid triggers. If your schedule has already been flipped on its head during quarantine, now might be the perfect time to change it up.
If you usually smoke first thing in the morning, for example, try taking a physically-distanced walk around the block or checking in with a friend over the phone.
By the time things get to a point where you can return to your usual routine, you might already be used to not smoking.
Your support system has more free time
Positive reinforcement from loved ones who support your decision to quit can make a huge difference in your success.
One good thing about physical distancing? Your loved ones may have just as much time on their hands right now as you do.
So when a craving hits, you have a pretty good chance of connecting with someone who can offer encouragement.
You have a pretty compelling reason
You probably know smoking and vaping have plenty of long-term health consequences. But you might not feel too worried about those potential outcomes. Surely you’ll get around to quitting before then, right?
Reducing your risk of serious COVID-19 symptoms in the near future may feel like a more powerful motivator.
If you’re already coping with more stress than usual — and let’s be real, who isn’t? — you may not feel up to trying to quit. And that’s absolutely okay right now.
We’re facing a pandemic. Your life as you know it has been disrupted, perhaps to the point where you barely recognize it. You might already be at your limit, just holding on, trying your best to make it through.
Even if you and your loved ones are healthy, you might have other worries, like how to pay rent and buy groceries when you can’t work.
If you’re in recovery from alcohol use or other addictions, you might already be having a hard time in the absence of social support. It’s understandable to want to wait to attempt another challenge, like quitting smoking or vaping, until you have more emotional capacity.
All you can do is your best, and that may look different for everyone.
Even before coming to this article, you probably already knew that quitting is the most effective way to reduce smoking-related risks. While that’s still true, that doesn’t mean there aren’t other things you can do to reduce some potential harms.
If you smoke or vape nicotine products
Nicotine can affect immune system function as well as cardiovascular health. If you aren’t ready to quit, cutting back can still do your body a lot of good.
- Spacing out smoke breaks. Do you tend to smoke at regular intervals? Try cutting out one of them for a week, and then cutting out another.
- Calling in backup. Nicotine replacement therapies, like patches or gum, can make cutting back easier. To do this safely while smoking, its best to set up a virtual visit with your healthcare provider to determine which products are best for you.
- Watching your inhale. Try to inhale less deeply and exhale as soon as you can. Avoid holding the smoke in.
- Skipping the flavors. According to Massachusetts General Hospital, some evidence says that flavorings, including menthol, may affect your ability to fight infections, including COVID-19.
If you smoke cannabis
As with nicotine and tobacco, cutting back on the amount you smoke is a wise move.
A few other pointers:
- Consider alternative methods. If you smoke weed pretty regularly, now might be a good time to switch to edibles or oil (and if there was ever a time to try your hand at making your own edibles, this just might be it).
- Take shallow inhales. Inhaling deeply and holding the smoke in, which people tend to do when smoking cannabis, can have even more of a negative impact on your lungs. Reduce this risk by taking more shallow breaths and letting the smoke out sooner.
- Practice physical distancing. Yep, those guidelines apply here, too. Avoid smoking around others, as exhaling or coughing could spread virus droplets.
- Limit dispensary trips. If possible, try getting your supply delivered so you don’t have to go out. Whether you get it delivered or pick it up locally, it’s wise to stock up on a few weeks’ worth of supply so you don’t put yourself (or others) at risk by going out to purchase more.
Tips for everyone
These practices can help reduce COVID-19 risk overall:
- Disinfect. Take care to wash and sanitize smoking equipment, like vape devices, pipes, and bongs. It doesn’t hurt to disinfect the packaging of any products you purchase, either.
- Wash your hands. The act of smoking or vaping inevitably involves some mouth-to-hand contact. Be sure to wash your hands thoroughly before and after.
- Don’t share. We’ve said it before but it bears repeating: Don’t share pipes, vape pens, joints, or anything else that’s been in your mouth.
- Don’t skimp on the rest of your health. Healthy bodies have an easier time fighting off infections, so boost your immune system with self-care. Aim for 8 to 9 hours of sleep each night, eat balanced meals, stay hydrated, and make time for exercise. While these won’t totally offset the effects of smoking, they’ll give your body a better chance of defending itself.
Quitting smoking or vaping can help lower risk of serious COVID-19 symptoms and support your immune system.
If you’re ready to quit, “quit hotlines” and apps can offer social support during physical distancing.
If you’re just not up to the task of quitting right now, don’t be too hard on yourself. Remind yourself, compassionately, that you know your own limits, and try risk-reduction strategies until you’re ready to quit.
Crystal Raypole has previously worked as a writer and editor for GoodTherapy. Her fields of interest include Asian languages and literature, Japanese translation, cooking, natural sciences, sex positivity, and mental health. In particular, she’s committed to helping decrease stigma around mental health issues.