Does vaping increase your risk of getting COVID-19? Doctors weigh in

Researchers are just beginning to investigate a link between vaping and serious complications from the coronavirus.

Caroline Roberts Digital Editorial Intern
Caroline Roberts writes articles and notifications for CNET. She studies English at Cal Poly, and loves philosophy, Karl the Fog and a strong cup of black coffee.
Caroline Roberts
3 min read
Toshiro Shimada/Getty Images

As confirmed coronavirus infections continue to rise, scientists are looking into any factors that may exacerbate the spread of the virus and the illness it causes. We know that the immunocompromised and the elderly are at higher risk, but researchers are starting to turn their attention to another potential risk factor: vaping.

There is limited research on a possible link between COVID-19 and vaping, but medical expertise and common sense can tell us a little bit about the association. I spoke to three doctors to get the lowdown: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention vaccine provider Dr. Michael Hall, tobacco-cessation specialist Dr. Elisa Tong and Yale Medicine pulmonologist Dr. Stephen Baldassarri. Read on for everything you need to know about a potential link between the novel coronavirus and vaping. 

What do we know about a link between vaping and coronavirus?

A study published in August 2020 in the Journal of Adolescent Health analyzed data from a survey of more than 4,000 people aged 13 to 24 conducted in May 2020. Of that group, those who have ever used an e-cigarette were five times more likely to be diagnosed with COVID-19 than those who haven't. Those who use both traditional cigarettes and e-cigarettes were seven times more likely.

Lawmakers are using that study to petition the FDA [PDF] to temporarily remove e-cigarette products from the market in an attempt to slow the increase of new cases. 

More research needs to be done to better understand how vaping and COVID-19 are connected, especially in older populations, but we know enough about the effects of vaping on the lungs and immune system to make some educated guesses.

Coronavirus in pictures: Scenes from around the world

See all photos

Vaping and the lungs

Cigarettes are unequivocally bad for your lungs, but the effect of vaping on lung health is a little less clear. You may remember the prepandemic headlines about the rise in vaping-related illnesses, which ended up with more than 2,500 people in the hospital with severe lung illnesses and other health problems after vaping, and at least 64 people dead.

Researchers were unclear whether it was the vaping itself, however, or the vitamin E acetate in black-market marijuana vaping products causing the lung illnesses.

If vaping does damage the lungs, it's likely due to contaminants that are breathed in along with the vapor. Hall says that, when vaping, "a variety of things can enter deeper into the lungs and cause irritation," which will then "cause problems with the protective nature of the lungs."

Dr. Tong was clearer on the adverse effects of vaping on the lungs, saying, "There is evidence that vaping also can harm lung health, from the cellular to organ level, based on studies in humans, animals and in vitro in the lab."

If vaping damages the protective lining of your lungs, it'd be even worse news in light of the coronavirus pandemic. "A person with compromised lung lining would suffer a worse case of COVID-19," Dr. Hall says, because "if you've got impaired defense mechanisms in your lung tissue, the infection could spread more rapidly and the body can't keep up."

Fighting coronavirus: COVID-19 tests, vaccine research, masks, ventilators and more

See all photos

Vaping and the immune system

It's also been suggested that e-cigarettes can weaken the immune system. One experimental study showed that e-cigarette vapor increases the production of inflammatory chemicals and weakens protective cells in the lung that keep the air spaces clear of potentially harmful particles. The researchers cautioned that more research is needed to make any declarative statements, which is common with studies concerning vaping -- we simply haven't had enough time to do adequate research.

Another study from the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health showed that mice who were exposed to e-cigarette vapor over time had weakened immune systems.

If e-cigarette use does weaken the immune system, it'd certainly be a factor of note in the coronavirus pandemic. We already know that immunocompromised people are at a higher risk of developing a serious or even fatal illness if they are infected with COVID-19.

The bottom line? While there's certainly plenty we don't know about vaping and its link to COVID-19, all available evidence suggests that it'd be a better idea to avoid e-cigarettes for now. Baldassarri echoes this approach, saying, "A great way to protect our health is to engage in healthy lifestyle behaviors every day the best we can."

The information contained in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended as health or medical advice. Always consult a physician or other qualified health provider regarding any questions you may have about a medical condition or health objectives.