COVID 19: A blessing in disguise

Dr Raja Muzaffar Bhat
I had been a long time smoker. Although I was not a chain-smoker, while writing I would definitely smoke 4 to 5 cigarettes. I tried a lot to get rid of smoking but I always failed. COVID 19 pandemic has been a disaster indeed, but for me it came as a blessing. I quit smoking thinking COVID 19 would be disastrous for me. I had developed symptoms similar to COVID 19 last year. I was in Delhi in connection with some conference last year in March. I returned back to Srinagar on March 14th. This was the time when COVID 19 cases were swelling up in the national capital. After my return I had a throat infection, chills and body ache. I was worried a lot. My friends and relatives told me it was a normal seasonal flu common in the spring season. I took it seriously and isolated myself for almost two weeks. This was the time I quit smoking and till date I never touched it again. The World Health Organisation (WHO) Director General DrTedrosAdhanomGhebreyesus recently said that smokers have up to a 50 per cent higher risk of developing severe disease and death from COVID 19. He suggested that quitting smoking was the best thing people could do to lower their risk from getting infected with coronavirus.
“We urge all countries to play their part by joining the WHO campaign and creating tobacco-free environments that give people the information, support and tools they need to quit and quit for good” WHO director said in his official statement
Changes after quitting smoking
To quit smoking is the best thing a smoker does for his or her health. To get rid of smoking needs a great will power. This is not impossible at all, especially at a time when everyone is scared of getting infected with coronavirus. Some smokers are spreading a myth that people who are chain smokers or even moderate smokers don’t get affected with COVID 19. After quitting smoking from our bones to the DNA, the entire body goes through drastic changes. There are many scientific studies which have proved this. Almost immediately, the lungs of smoker begin to heal. The lung function can improve dramatically once cigarettes are no more part of our lifestyle. The latest research report published in respiratory medicine journal found that people with mild to moderate chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) achieve normalization of lung function decline within a year of quitting. Even for those with severe COPD, the rate of decline came down 50 % after one year of not smoking. One doesn’t have to wait a year to start to see the benefits of leaving smoking but within minutes, hours and days of quitting, the benefits start stacking up. Those who need more motivation to quit smoking besides the obvious reasons of saving money, getting rid of that smoker’s cough and not smelling like smoke, here’s what happens when you quit smoking.
Changes within 24 to 72 hours
Smoking causes the blood vessels to constrict, and within 24 hours of stubbing out that last butt, the constriction starts to loosen up. The blood pressure, pulse rate and body temperature start to return to normal levels. Carbon monoxide levels also drop, and your blood oxygen levels begin to get back to normal, too. The hypertensive patients who are smokers get benefited a lot as the risk of heart attack begins to drop. Food starts to taste better as your taste buds and smell receptors heal. Damaged nerve cells also start to heal, but the addiction cycle kicks in hard. This is generally the hardest time for cravings, but those cravings start to decrease as nicotine receptors in your brain start to change. Within a month, nicotine receptors drop to a normal level.
Change in 1 month to 2 years
Within one month of quitting smoking, the cravings become easier to manage, and the risk for hearing loss and vision damage decrease. The teeth become whiter and the skin starts to heal from premature aging and wrinkling. The risk of heart attack and stroke also diminishes. One can easily walk up the stairs as the lungs repair themselves. One of the first things to heal in the body is cilia, tiny, finger-like projections in the respiratory tract. Healthy cilia help a person to fight off colds, viruses and infections, so one might notice he isn’t getting sick as often. This will be helpful to fight even COVID 19 infection as well.
After a year the risk of coronary heart disease drops down drastically and the lung function almost reaches near-normal levels in case of people with mild to moderate COPD. DNA damage stops and some of the damage to the DNA even begins to heal. During the first year of quitting smoking the risk of diabetes also decreases. For women, estrogen levels gradually return to normal, and men have lower chances of erectile dysfunction. By the end of the first year, most people also find that they heal from wounds and illnesses faster due to normal white blood cell counts and improved blood flow. People who quit smoking successfully for two years, the chances of being a lifelong non-smoker increases According to the School of Dental Medicine Boston University , 80 % of people who have quit smoking for 2 years never return to smoking again. After five years of quitting the risk of stroke is the same as a non-smoker’s.
Commit to quit
This year world tobacco day was celebrated on May 31st. The theme ‘Commit to Quit’, assumes a significant importance because of COVID 19 pandemic. As already mentioned above there is a relation between smoking and COVID 19. Some studies done last year in China and Europe suggested a lower prevalence of COVID 19 infection among smokers and protective effects of smoking against the effects of COVID 19. However further research and analysis showed serious severe flaws in those studies. Further studies done on this issue showed that many smokers after getting infected with COVID 19 infection face lots of medical challenges which includes depletion in oxygen level in the body. The Coronavirus predominantly affects the lungs and smoking also attacks lungs and that is why there is a higher incidence of severe lung complications among smokers following COVID 19 in comparison with non-smokers. The World Health Organisation has already released a scientific paper some months back which makes it clear that smokers are at a higher risk of developing severe infection or even death from COVID 19.
There are approximately 120 million smokers in India. According to the WHO, 12 % smokers are found in India alone. More than 10 million die each year due to consumption of tobacco in India (smoking , chewing etc). According to a 2002 WHO estimate, 25% of adult males in India smoke. Among adult females, the figure is much lower at between 13-15%
To quit smoking is very difficult, but millions of people do it successfully across the world. During the ongoing COVID 19 pandemic I have observed that many people have quit smoking and I am one of the live examples. Every summer I go hiking with friends. In the past it was difficult for me to hike high altitude mountains in view of developing breathlessness. I would still manage it, but after I quit smoking last year in March , my experience during trekking was amazing last summer (July-August). According to the World Health Organization (WHO), over 70 % of the 1.3 billion tobacco users worldwide lack access to the tools they need to quit successfully. This gap in access to cessation services is only further exacerbated in the last year as the health workforce has been mobilized to handle the coronavirus pandemic. According to the Indian Heart Association (IHA) India accounts for 83% of the world’s heart disease burden, despite having less than 20% of the world’s population. The IHA has identified reduction in smoking as a significant target of cardiovascular health prevention efforts…..
(The author is Founder & Chairman Jammu & Kashmir RTI Movement)