On April 6th, researchers at the National Institutes of Health announced guidelines relating to the coronavirus and marijuana use, saying it could be a risk factor for complications from Covid-19.
“Because it attacks the lungs, the coronavirus that causes Covid-19 could be an especially serious threat to those who smoke tobacco or marijuana or who vape.”
Clarifying the problem, pulmonologist Dr. Albert Rizzo, Chief Medical Officer for the American Lung Association, says, “What happens to your airways when you smoke cannabis is that it causes some degree of inflammation, very similar to bronchitis, very similar to the type of inflammation that cigarette smoking can cause. Now you have some airway inflammation and you get an infection on top of it. So, yes, your chance of getting more complications is there.”
This announcement is especially relevant, not just since the coronavirus pandemic has continued with no vaccine or cure having been developed to date, but also because the number of people smoking marijuana is climbing. One of the findings published in the 2018 National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH) found more than 43 million Americans aged 12 or older reported using marijuana in the past year. And according to Jessica Hulsey, founder of the Addiction Policy Forum (which advocates on behalf of patients and families struggling with substance use disorder and addiction), “Nearly four million of those (referenced in the NSDUH report) are people with ‘marijuana use disorder,’ meaning that this has escalated to the point where it’s a problem in their lives.”
She added, “There continues to be an overall lack of access to care related to the (COVID-19) crisis and stigma associated with substance use disorders. Stigma exposes some of the persistent feelings that many have about those with substance use disorders that can deter a person from seeking treatment or help, which may be exacerbated during this time of fear, anxiety and social isolation. In addition, the uncertainty and stress associated with this national emergency can lead people who use substances to use more, people who have been treated to relapse, and Americans seem to be consuming more alcohol and other substances as coping mechanisms for stress and anxiety.”
Since COVID-19 is a pulmonary disease (i.e., affecting the lungs), a number of other health experts have come forward to add their voice to the NIH recommendation from other angles.
For example, Dr. Mitchell Glass, a pulmonologist and spokesperson for the American Lung Association, pointed to the importance of avoiding anything that could be a confounding variable, meaning which could interfere with the evaluation of any suspected coronavirus symptoms that might arise., “You don’t want to do anything that’s going to confound the ability of healthcare workers to make a rapid, accurate assessment of what’s going on with you.”
For those currently in recovery or treatment for alcohol or drug addiction, the takeaway from these cautionary announcements is clear: COVID-19 is not a disease to be taken lightly and those at higher risk (people with substance abuse issues) would be wise to use every preventative measure possible to avoid increasing the likelihood of complications associated with COVID-19.
Some of the published guidelines aimed specifically at those in recovery (above and beyond the general coronavirus safety protocols include):
n Social distancing and stay-at-home requirements may cause changes to recovery support, including going to see your addiction health care provider, 12 step meetings and other key programs. A wide array of online support, as well as meetings, is available to fill this critical gap, if you have computer or telephone digital access during this time.
n Taking and refilling medications for psychiatric and addictive illnesses is important. Stay connected to your healthcare and addiction provider, call them, and continue your medications as prescribed. Ask about virtual options for appointments.
An observation shared by Dr. Rizzo regarding smoking marijuana and Covid-19 seems to provide an appropriate concluding remark, implicitly reminding all of us in recovery to ‘use the tools of your program like your lives depend on it, because they do!’: “It’s common sense that anything you inhale that has been combusted and contains particles or chemicals can inflame your airways. So you’re already making your body fight off foreign particles before it even has to fight off the COVID-19 infection.”