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Smokers May Be at Higher Risk of Severe COVID-19 (Novel Coronavirus)

Medically reviewed by Susan Kerrigan, MD and Marianne Madsen

Smokers have a higher risk of developing more severe COVID-19 symptoms than non-smokers, according to a growing body of evidence.


“There’s not very much data at this point on COVID-19 in smokers, but we do know from reports from China, smokers seem to be over-represented in groups of people who have severe or critical COVID-19,” said J. Taylor Hays, Professor of Medicine at the Mayo Clinic College of Medicine and Director of the Nicotine Dependence Center.

Hays may be referring to a February study published in the New England Journal of Medicine. The study examined 1,099 Chinese COVID-19 patients, focusing on those with severe symptoms. It found that among 173 patients with severe symptoms, 16.9% of them were current smokers, while 5.2% were smokers in the past. Only 11.8% of patients with less severe symptoms were smokers and 1.3% were former smokers.

The study also found that in the group of 173 patients with severe symptoms, 44 patients needed to be admitted to intensive care, required mechanical ventilation, or died. Among the 44, all of them were smokers. 


Hays could also be referring to another study, which showed that smokers who contracted COVID-19 were 14 times more likely to develop serious symptoms from the virus than non-smokers.

78 Chinese patients with COVID-19 were examined. Two weeks after hospitalization, the condition of 11 patients was severe, while the condition of the remaining 67 patients had improved. The 11 patients were significantly older than the others. However, 3 of the 11 were also smokers.


These startling statistics may be due to the fact that smokers generally have a higher risk of getting lung or chest infections. COVID-19 is a respiratory illness and smokers who contract it will have a harder time fighting it off due to their decreased lung capacity. Does this mean smokers have a higher chance of getting COVID-19? Not necessarily, but if they do get it, they are at a higher risk of developing complications from the illness.

Those with asthma should also be concerned about contracting the virus. Because asthma is a respiratory condition, asthmatics are at a higher risk of developing complications from COVID-19. The American Lung Association recommends that asthma sufferers stay inside to prevent getting COVID-19. If you have asthma and happen to get the virus, closely monitor your symptoms and call an emergency line (911) if they worsen.

If you’re a former smoker, or current smoker and want to quit, now’s the time. Smokers who quit regain a significant amount of lung function after only a few months without tobacco. Their rates of developing lung infections, such as pneumonia, also decrease.


“People who quit for even a short time see an improvement in lung health quite quickly. For most smokers who don’t already have serious lung injury, they will see immediate improvements in their health, and less opportunity for severe diseases including COVID-19,” said Hays.

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