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COVID-19 & The Lungs

Although we currently know very little about the SARS-CoV-2 virus (the virus responsible for the COVID-19 epidemic), the CDC has outlined certain sub-groups who are at higher risk for severe illness. Of those groups, perhaps the most well-known is older Americans, whose aged immune systems may be less capable of fighting back the infection. 

Other at-risk populations include:  

  • People with chronic lung disease or severe asthma 
  • People with serious heart disease 
  • People who suffer from HIV, or are otherwise immunocompromised

Under the CDC’s section for those with severe asthma, it is stated that such risks arise from COVID-19’s effects on the lungs.  

Dr. Laura E. Evans, a member of the Society of Critical Care Medicine Leadership Council and an associate professor of pulmonary at the University of Washington Medical Center in Seattle, spoke with an author from Healthline (Author’s name not listed) about the specifics of COVID-19’s effects on the lungs.

Dr. Evans noted that patients she and her co-workers have worked with experienced symptoms of Acute Respiratory Distress Syndrome, or ARDS. ARDS can cause significant lung damage, leading to leakage of fluids from small blood vessels inside of the lungs. A buildup of this fluid can make it more difficult for a patient’s respiratory system to transfer oxygen to the blood. 

Dr. Evans’ report is supported by the findings of a hospital study published on February 7th, 2020. Conducted by Dr. Dawei Wang & colleagues, this study collected and analyzed data from 138 COVID-19 infected hospital patients in Wuhan, China.  

On average, the researchers noted that patients began experiencing difficulty breathing 5 days after infection. Symptoms of ARDS were recorded an average of 3 days after that.  

This information suggests that any person with impaired lung function may be at greater risk for severe COVID-19, which is bad news for those with a history of substance use disorders.

An article from the National Institute on Drug Abuse further details these risks. 

The article lists and briefly overviews several commonly abused substances that could cause damage to the lungs. All forms of tobacco use (including vaping) are the first of the listed substances, perhaps because many Americans are at least aware that excessive tobacco use can result in lung damage. 

However, the article later discusses risks for those who use high doses of opioid painkillers. Since such substances act in the brainstem to slow breathing, they could further restrict the body’s ability to transfer oxygen to the bloodstream.  

In addition, it notes that methamphetamine use may also contribute to worse outcomes of COVID-19 infection. Methamphetamine constricts the blood vessels, which contributes to pulmonary hypertension in people who use it. 

Not mentioned in the article is the effects of alcohol on the lungs. Published in 2008 in the Jornal of Alcohol Research & Health by Drs. Corey D. Kershaw and David M. Guidot, Alcoholic Lung Cancer is a review focusing on the effects of alcohol abuse on the lungs. The review suggests that chronic alcohol consumption results in a three- to four-times increase in the risk of developing ARDS. As mentioned above, ARDS is the result of fluid leakage from blood vessels inside of the lungs; a patient with two separate health conditions contributing to ARDS (rather than COVID-19 alone) may experience more severe illness and be at higher risk for negative outcomes. 

Written by Joseph Detrano, CAS Science Writer
Disclaimer: The content is solely the responsibility of the authors and does not necessarily represent the official views of the Center of Alcohol & Substance Use Studies