Smoking cigarettes, vaping or inhaling other substances regularly into the lungs is likely to put people at a higher risk for complications from COVID-19, a Mayo Clinic doctor said.

Dr. J. Taylor Hays, a physician at Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., said Tuesday that data from China indicates smokers experienced serious illness and death from the coronavirus at a higher rate than nonsmokers.

“There probably was a higher mortality rate in smokers,” Hays said. “At least, they are overrepresented in those people who had complications and death as a result of SARS-CoV-2 infection.”

Since the virus is new, data on smoking and COVID-19 hasn’t been widely studied yet. But data from the Middle East respiratory syndrome, or MERS, outbreak in the early 2010s also indicates infected smokers had a higher mortality rate than nonsmokers, Hays said.

People who vape, use e-cigarettes, smoke marijuana or regularly inhale other substances are likely also at risk, he added.

The increased danger of complications comes from two factors.

The first: Smoking reduces our lungs’ defenses against infection. The lungs’ cilia — hair-like projections that “beat” to clear mucus and infected particles from the lungs — become paralyzed or beat without coordination when a person smokes, Hays said.

Smoking also causes increased mucus production, which can pool in the lung, and inflammation in the bronchial tubes that carry air into the lungs, Hays said.

“The first line of defense in the lungs (is) down, and secondly, people who smoke are more likely to have some of the risk factors: chronic lung disease, emphysema, chronic cardiovascular disease and diabetes,” Hays said.

Those factors are also believed to raise the risk of serious COVID-19 complications, according to the CDC. (For more information go to tinyurl.com/uyrrx63.)

The CDC also noted that people at “high risk for severe illness from COVID-19” include people 65 and older, people who live in nursing homes and people with underlying medical conditions or who are immunocompromised.

Smokers might also have a harder time recovering from COVID-19, Hays said: “We don’t have any data from COVID-19 because we haven’t had enough time to follow people who’ve recovered, but there is data to suggest people who are smokers ... may have more risk of long-term complications such as (lung) scarring, or fibrosis, after the recovery.”

While the medical community doesn’t know if vaping impairs lung function, “we’d just guess there’d be a higher risk of complications if you inhale any substance regularly,” Hays said. “It’s probably producing some change in the lining of the lung.”

The best way to protect your respiratory system is not smoking, but other things that boost immune function are exercise, eating healthy food and getting enough sleep, he said.

Hays recommended people consider stopping smoking as soon as they can, and consult resources like their state’s tobacco quitline at 800-784-8669, the National Cancer Institute’s quit plan at cancer.gov or another nicotine dependence resource.

“We’re under this stay-at-home order, and people are probably smoking indoors more than they used to. People exposed to secondhand smoke are also at risk for COVID-19 complications,” Hays added.

COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus SARS-CoV-2, has sickened over 823,000 people worldwide and caused nearly 41,000 deaths, according to data from a Johns Hopkins Center for Systems Science and Engineering map. In the U.S., there are over 163,000 COVID-19 cases, and 2,860 people have died, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Wisconsin has over 1,350 positive cases as of Tuesday, according to the state Department of Health Services. There are at least 25 confirmed deaths in the state by Tuesday based on state and local health department reports, the Associated Press reported.

Contact: 715-833-9206, sarah.seifert@ecpc.com, @sarahaseifert on Twitter

Sarah Seifert is the L-T's education and health reporter. She has worked as a journalist in the Chippewa Valley since 2017 and joined the L-T in 2019. Get in touch at sarah.seifert@ecpc.com or on Twitter @sarahaseifert.