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A model smokes an electronic cigarette during the Beijing International Vapor Distribution Alliance Expo. In a recent study, people who vaped showed more changes in the genes that fight off viruses than people who do not smoke. Photo: Getty Images

Vaping affects how body reacts to flu viruses like Covid-19, study suggests – sometimes even more than regular smoking

  • People who smoke e-cigarettes show a suppression of immune genes critical for defence against flu viruses, researchers have found
  • Results also raise questions as to whether vaccines would be as effective among e-cigarette users

People who use e-cigarettes have significantly altered immune responses to influenza viruses, researchers at the University of North Carolina (UNC) at Chapel Hill in the US have found. That is a worrying discovery as flu season approaches and coronavirus surges across the US and many other countries.

E-cigarettes have boomed in popularity in the past decade, even as the use of traditional cigarettes declined. The rise has been especially pronounced among the youth population.

Because of that, researchers have been focusing more attention on the potential health risks of e-cigarettes. This is especially true with a respiratory-related pandemic raging across the globe.

“There’s been a lot of questions in the field as to whether e-cigarette and cigarette use is beneficial or damaging or problematic in terms of Covid-19 and we really haven’t had a good answer,” Meghan Rebuli, an assistant professor in the UNC department of paediatrics, said.

E-cigarettes have boomed in popularity in the past decade. Photo: Getty Images

But when compared to non-users, people who vaped e-cigarettes showed more changes in the immune genes in their respiratory cells that fight off viruses. They also showed a suppressed level of antibodies.

In many of the study’s participants, this change was even more pronounced among e-cigarette users than among smokers.

The findings, which compared e-cigarette users to cigarette smokers and non-smokers, were published in the American Journal of Respiratory Cell and Molecular Biology.

Vaping just as bad or worse than smoking, study suggests

And while the study focused on a flu model, the findings suggest that e-cigarette users are likely to be more susceptible to respiratory viruses like Covid-19 than non-smokers, Rebuli said.

“We don’t want to see any suppression of genes, proteins and antibodies involved in an immune response,” she said. But that is exactly what they saw among those smoking both traditional and electronic cigarettes.

“E-cigarette use is not safe or safer than cigarettes, and that is a really important take-home message,” Rebuli said. “You probably shouldn’t be inhaling any kind of tobacco-related products; it all impairs your immune response to the viruses.”

The findings were published in the American Journal of Respiratory Cell and Molecular Biology. Photo: Getty Images

Rebuli added that if you do smoke or vape: “You need to be hyper vigilant about using PPE and protecting yourself from Covid and from respiratory viral infections, because you may be more susceptible to adverse responses to these viruses.”

UNC’s study compared non-smokers, cigarette smokers and e-cigarette users between the ages of 18 and 40. The researchers inoculated participants with a live attenuated influenza virus, a modelled flu infection that allows researchers to safely examine immune responses in subjects.

After comparing the nasal fluid and other biomarkers of the patients, the researchers did not find that the viral load, or the amount of the virus in a person, differed among the three groups in the study.

Killer facts about smoking and vaping: why do we still do it?

But they did find a decreased expression of immune genes critical for defence against a virus as well as the genes that help train the body to prevent reinfection.

“This is not good,” Ilona Jaspers, the director of the UNC Centre for Environmental Medicine, Asthma and Lung Biology, said in a statement. “We want to see [these] levels increase during infection. It’s the body’s natural way to defend against an invader. Here we saw that both smoking and e-cigarette use hampers [immune gene] levels.”

UNC’s study compared non-smokers, cigarette smokers and e-cigarette users between the ages of 18 and 40. Photo: Getty Images

Rebuli said this could be worrisome news for vaccine effectiveness among this population as well. These genes are also important for helping the body’s immune system recognise a virus that it has encountered before.

“Your body can recognise the virus and create kind of an immune memory … which prevents you from subsequent infection. That is how a vaccine works,” she said.

“The question here is if this is a 90 per cent effective vaccine, is it going to be similarly effective in e-cig users, or are they going to have trouble generating that immune memory?” she added.

That is still unclear at this time, Rebuli said. Further studies are needed that look at Covid-19 specifically.

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: E-cigarettes can compromise body’s response to viruses, study finds