A month ago we had no idea that life as we previously knew it was starting to change in a drastic way, and that public spaces would close indefinitely. Then COVID-19 came. We are flooded with news articles, videos, and interviews talking about the social and health implications of such a pandemic– so COVID-19 might be the last thing that you want to read about right now. But I believe that we need to fully understand the implications that this virus has on people who smoke, and what can be done to protect yourself if you do smoke. In order to understand why COVID-19 should be a concern for people who smoke, it is important to understand how tobacco affects your immune system.
Tobacco use and your body
Tobacco use causes damage to nearly every organ of your body, and is especially harmful to your upper and lower respiratory systems due to the smoke and many chemicals that are inhaled through your mouth, down your throat and into your lungs. As the various gases (ammonia, formaldehyde, and carbon monoxide to name a few) make their way to your lungs, they cause cell damage and abnormalities.
Even more, as soon as you inhale the smoke from a cigarette, those chemicals cause irritation to your whole upper airway. This causes your nose and sinuses to produce more mucus. With healthy mucus production, the mucous we produce daily drains healthily down our throats and helps to rid our body of bacteria. When we produce an excess that is caused by irritation, our body does the reverse. It starts to build up this mucous in our sinuses and makes us more susceptible to colds and allergies. This can even eventually lead to cancer of the throat and lungs over time.
Also worth noting, is the fact that cigarette smoking suppresses your immune system by damaging important organs in your body. This causes your organs to have to work harder and less efficiently than if they were not damaged, in order to carry out normal functioning within your body such as breathing, hormone regulation, and the ability to fight off infections.
What you need to know about COVID-19 if you smoke
Given the facts that smoking causes significant damage to your lungs and other airways, as well as suppresses your immune system there is validity in being concerned about COVID-19 if you smoke and you should be more cautious during this time.
In an article by the American Lung Association, Dr. Albert Rizzo states “COVID-19 is a lung infection that aggressively attacks the lungs and even leaves lung cells and tissue dead,” Dr. Rizzo said. “While it’s important to prevent getting COVID-19 in the first place, it’s also essential that we do all we can to keep our lungs healthy to avoid the worst affects of the disease.”
The bottom line: If you do get COVID-19, you are at an increased risk for developing more severe symptoms as well as having symptoms for a longer period of time due to tobacco use decreasing the body’s ability to heal itself efficiently. You can read more about COVID-19 here.
What you can do to protect yourself
The important thing to know and remind yourself in the midst of this pandemic is knowing that there’s hope. If you smoke, you can begin to take your health into your own hands by making the decision to quit smoking. This task is difficult, though definitely not impossible. Here are some tips to help you get started:
- Think about your “why.” What are some reasons today that you would want to quit smoking? Give this some thought and create a list of all of your reasons. Go a step further, and hang that list in a visible spot so that you can see it every day.
- Keep track of your triggers and plan ahead. One of the most important parts of planning to quit smoking is identifying the moments when you are the most likely to smoke or want to smoke. Do you always seem to smoke after a big meal? Do you get a craving every time you feel worried about something? Take a day or two, before you quit smoking, to keep a journal on you and log each time that you smoke. Before you light up, record what time it is, what you are doing (or just did) and how you feel. Once you’re aware of your smoking triggers, create a plan for alternatives to smoking when these situations arise. For example, common alternatives people direct themselves to after eating instead of smoking are to go for a walk, chew gum, have a mint or brush their teeth.
- Set a quit date. Once you feel comfortable with an alternative for your smoking triggers, it’s time to set a date within the next month of when you will smoke your last cigarette. Be mindful to set your quit date for a time when you have no foreseeable stress, as well as big celebrations, in order to set yourself up for success.
- Maximize your social support. Tell the people in your life that you are quitting and ask them to help keep you accountable. If you don’t have support from your friends or family, look for support in the form of a quit smoking group. Here are some free online communities with the common goal of becoming and remaining tobacco-free:
- Freedom From Smoking sponsored by the American Lung Association
- Call the Michigan Quitline at 1-800-784-8669 or enroll in their online program to see if you qualify for free Nicotine Replacement Therapy to assist you with quitting. NRT can help significantly ease the feeling of withdrawal symptoms and ween you off of nicotine.
- Practice mini quits! Pick one day or a few days where you won’t smoke, and take note of how that felt, what you needed to get by, etc. It’s a less intimidating way to get a feel for a tobacco-free life as you prepare for your quit date. This article details more about the benefits of practice quits.
Things you can do right now
In addition to following the recommendations from the CDC (hand-washing, social distancing) wherever you are in your quit smoking journey, here are some tips to help you stay healthy and build your immune system:
- Focus on your sleep hygiene. Set a consistent time to go to sleep and wake up each day. This not only helps keep your body physically healthy, but it will help eliminate stress and mild depressive symptoms as well as the anxious feeling of being on quarantine.
- Move! From walking to jumping, or doing at home workouts in your living room, any form of moderate exercise is beneficial for your immune system as well as your mental health.
- Stay hydrated. Drinking water throughout the day won’t only keep you feeling awake and replenish hydration throughout your organs. Drinking fluids also helps flush out bacteria and viruses that could be lingering in your body.
- Eat your vitamins. Literally. While it’s important to incorporate a daily multivitamin to make up for gaps in nutrition, the best way for your body to absorb vitamins and other micro-nutrients is by eating nutrient rich foods such as vegetables and fruit. Organ meat also has a high amount of vitamins, so if you’re feeling adventurous try my personal favorite: liver and onions!
- Warm your body up by drinking hot tea and honey. Honey is proven to help rid the body of bacteria. Another added bonus- honey helps to break down mucous build up! Many herbal teas also have beneficial affects on the immune system.
- Laughter is good for the soul (and immune system). Last but never least… LAUGH! During stressful times and when you’re undergoing changes within your routine (such as reducing or quitting smoking), it never hurts to make time for a good laugh- whether that means joking with friends and family, watching stand up comedy, a feel good sitcom, or finding something else to make you giggle a little. It is scientifically proven that laughter is good for your mental and physical health. Read this article by the Mayo Clinic that details all of the long-term and short-term health benefits of laughter.
As we continue to navigate these confusing and uncertain times, please continue to refer to the CDC for information on how to navigate the changing status of the pandemic in your community.
Interested in finding out more about Unified’s Tobacco Reduction services? Contact your local Tobacco Treatment Specialist:
Amber Jager – (313) 446-9800
Caitlyn Clock – (734) 961-1077