Teens Who Vape Are at Higher Risk of Severe COVID-19 Illness

More studies are showing that some teens and young adults are at high risk of severe COVID-19, not because of underlying medical conditions but because of smoking and vaping.

Lost in the noise of the many risk factors for COVID-19 is a top lung disease concern: the damage done to teens' lungs by the use of e-cigarettes. And although early beliefs about the coronavirus fixated on the idea that young people are at less risk of severe illness from COVID-19, evidence has increasingly shown that teens and young adults can develop serious complications from the disease. In fact, one study says one-third of teens and young adults are at high risk of COVID-19 because of chronic diseases—and smoking and vaping.

The study, published in the Journal of Adolescent Health in 2020, suggests that those who smoke are at a high risk of the coronavirus creating serious problems for their already damaged lungs. And with about 20 percent of high schoolers reporting using e-cigarettes or vapes in 2020, this study could help to explain why more young people have been hospitalized with COVID-19 than experts previously predicted.

From what doctors have seen since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, a person's COVID-19 prognosis can vary widely. A lot depends on their body's response to the virus—and their personal underlying risk factors, such as chronic diseases and health conditions. And the 2020 study found that smoking is more of a risk than either asthma or obesity.

"Recent evidence indicates that smoking is associated with a higher likelihood of COVID-19 progression, including increased illness severity, ICU admission, or death," study author Sally Adams, Ph.D., a researcher in the UCSF Division of Adolescent and Young Adult Medicine, said in a 2020 press release. "Smoking may have significant effects in young adults, who typically have low rates for most chronic diseases."

But as parents learned in 2019, when mysterious illnesses were striking down teens with frequent vaping habits, using e-cigarettes can do far more damage to young people's lungs than they might realize.

"Efforts to reduce smoking and e-cigarette use among young adults would likely lower their vulnerability to severe [COVID-19]," said senior author Charles Irwin Jr., M.D., of the UCSF Division of Adolescent and Young Adult Medicine.

Other studies conducted since have confirmed some of these researchers' findings. One study conducted between March 2020 and February 2021 found that people with COVID-19 who used e-cigarettes were more likely to report certain symptoms like chest pain, chills, muscle aches, and gastrointestinal symptoms like vomiting and diarrhea when compared to people with COVID-19 who didn't use e-cigarettes. Those who vaped were also more likely to seek emergency medical care as a result of their COVID-19 symptoms.

Your first instinct may be to think that you know with 100 percent certainty that your teen isn't affected by this news. But other studies have shown that millions of high schoolers and even up to 4.7 percent of middle schoolers use some sort of e-cigarette product—and teens are also pretty smart about hiding the evidence. Remember when parents countrywide panicked about kids disguising vapes as watches and even hoodies?

These statistics highlight why it is worth having a serious conversation with tweens and teens about the risks associated with using e-cigarettes, including the fact that smoking and vaping puts them at higher risk of getting seriously sick from COVID-19 and other serious respiratory infections.

The majority of teen smokers probably won't like thinking of themselves as part of a high-risk group. So it's good to discuss the risks in plain terms: Yes, the coronavirus has had the worst effects on older populations, but there are many young people who have contracted the disease and developed serious, long-lasting complications—and there are some who have even lost their lives.

With so many kids at risk of developing serious symptoms if they get COVID-19, preventative measures are even more important than previously thought for families of tweens and teens. That means following the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's (CDC) recommendations for wearing masks and washing hands frequently.

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