Drug Use, COVID-19, and Increased Risk for Addicts

Man in a crowd in a facemask

Across the United States and the world, a pandemic grows and threatens the lives of millions. The coronavirus, or COVID-19, is a virus that is believed to have jumped species from other mammals (likely bats) to infect humans at the end of 2019. The virus first appeared in China’s Hubei province, and in just a few months it spread all across the world, infecting hundreds of thousands of people and killing tens of thousands.

As research teams continue to study the illness, drug addicts, alcohol addicts, and their families should be aware of the added risks that substance abusers may face in the wake of a life-threatening pandemic. There are certain aspects to both the nature of substance abuse and the environments/circumstances of drug users that not only make such individuals more likely to contract COVID-19, but which also make their situation more serious should they contract it.

Coronavirus and the Lungs of an Addict

There is much that is not yet known about the coronavirus strain known as COVID-19. However, an irrefutable fact that medical experts have observed is the effect that COVID-19 has on the lungs. COVID-19 attacks the lungs and causes a great deal of damage. Just by logic alone, it can be surmised that people who smoke tobacco, marijuana, or who use e-cigarettes are at higher risk, as their lungs are already damaged by their habits. The same is true for addicts who smoke drugs such as heroin, cocaine, and meth.

The act of smoking and vaping harms the cells of the lungs and makes it more difficult for the lungs to protect themselves and to respond to infection. The NIH performed a study which included influenza-infected mice. The mice were exposed to e-cigarette aerosols. The scientists observed that such exposure had the result of enhanced tissue damage and inflammation within the lungs of the sick mice.

One can safely assume that if COVID-19 attacks the lungs and causes severe pulmonary difficulties, patients who already have weakened lung function due to drug use are going to have a more difficult time battling COVID-19 infections.

Coronavirus and an Addict's Cardiovascular System

Drug use causes a particularly harsh effect on the cardiovascular system in the way the heart functions with the lungs. For example, opiate use inhibits the function of both the heart and lungs in tandem.

Thus far, researchers have been able to determine that patients with co-occurring conditions like cardiovascular disease or respiratory disease are at high risk if they contract COVID-19. And because people who use drugs such as opiates, methamphetamine, and alcohol damage their cardiovascular health each time they use such substances, they become at even higher risk of serious adverse consequences should they contract COVID-19.

Coronavirus and Methamphetamine

When people use methamphetamine, one of the side effects is constriction of the blood vessels. Such a constriction contributes to both pulmonary damage and pulmonary hypertension. If pulmonary systems are hampered due to methamphetamine use, this again reduces the patient’s ability to fight a COVID-19 infection.

Coronavirus, Drug Use, and a Compromised Immune System

There’s a fair amount of data that suggests substance abuse acts as a forced inhibitor on the body’s immune system. Friedman, Pross, and Klein explored this in 2006 and made a compelling argument for how drug use has an “immunomodulatory” effect, i.e., a human-induced disruption of the body’s natural ability to regulate bodily systems and fight infection.

When people use drugs and alcohol, they inhibit their body’s natural response to invasive substances. Their body is weakened, and their body's internal systems do not work as well. This occurs in multiple areas of the body, the immune system being one of them. Because of this, addicts are at even higher risk of contracting COVID-19 during the pandemic, if only because their immune systems are compromised.

Coronavirus and an Addict’s Inhibited Access to Healthcare and Housing Security

The other side to increased risk for addicts during a coronavirus pandemic has to do with the environments and circumstances of someone who is addicted to drugs and alcohol. Addicts already face considerable risk during a health pandemic, simply from a physiological standpoint. But what about the fact that addicts often don’t have a roof over their heads? Or that many addicts are incarcerated in densely populated prisons?

Woman depressed in a mask

Social distancing, self-quarantine, and access to healthcare services are things that addicts are going to have a more difficult time accomplishing during a pandemic.

Regarding social distancing, addicts are compelled to seek out drugs to cope with their daily lives. That means they will continue to work to make money to buy drugs (or alcohol) even if they are told not to. And as for self-quarantine, addicts will find it more difficult to self-quarantine since doing so could lead to withdrawal symptoms. And last but not least, addicts are at higher risk for many illnesses, including COVID-19, simply because of their lack of access to healthcare services.

So not only do the physiological aspects of substance abuse make addicts more prone to contracting COVID-19 and suffering from it, but the very circumstances and nature of addiction predispose addicts to contracting COVID-19.

The Importance of Getting Clean Immediately

Addiction has always been a life or death issue. But now, with quarantines, social distancing, and a COVID-19 national emergency, risks to addicts are even more severe. And while this current pandemic sweeps the planet, the addiction epidemic has not suddenly gone away overnight either. That’s why it is critical for those who struggle with addiction to seek help and to get off of drugs and alcohol for good. If you know someone who is addicted, make sure they get help at a treatment center today. Now more than ever, their life depends on it.




After working in addiction treatment for several years, Ren now travels the country, studying drug trends and writing about addiction in our society. Ren is focused on using his skill as an author and counselor to promote recovery and effective solutions to the drug crisis. Connect with Ren on LinkedIn.