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The following interview was conducted with a prominent lung biologist from Germany about the corona crisis.
Naturally, Asthmatics and Smokers are particularly at risk from the corona virus. But healthy people should also strengthen their lungs. Here are the recommendations:
QUESTION: What can each of us do to arm our body against the new coronavirus?
ANSWER: You should strengthen your immune system and above all pay attention to your respiratory tract. Cough, runny nose, sore throat and shortness of breath can be symptoms of infection, and they all affect the airways.
Pneumonia can also occur in some cases. Patients with severe conditions are not only mostly older people, but also smokers or people with other diseases. There is a correlation between cigarette consumption and the risk of a severe history of Covid-19 lung disease.
QUESTION: Of the 50- to 60-year-old residents around 25 percent of women and 31 percent of men smoke. So this group is particularly at risk?
ANSWER: Yes. With each pulmonary breath, more than 4000 different chemicals are sucked into the body. Cigarette smoke increases the number of so-called ACE2 receptors on the epithelial cells of the respiratory tract.
And it is precisely through this ACE2 receptor that Sars-CoV-2 appears to penetrate the epithelial cells. This could mean that those who smoke make it easier for the virus to infect the body.
QUESTION: The organism normally cleans the inhaled air from pathogens and dirt. How does smoking interfere with this mechanism?
ANSWER: The smoke destroys the cilia on the epithelial cells of the bronchial mucosa, which are actually there to transport dirt particles to the outside.
In addition, it leads to increased mucus formation in the airways, which in turn worsens gas exchange: the alveoli are no longer able to absorb carbon dioxide as well and are no longer able to release oxygen into the blood as well.
QUESTION: And that makes the smoker’s lungs so susceptible to viruses?
ANSWER: Yes. And it is sometimes worse. Many heavy smokers, who also have other respiratory diseases, take the hormone cortisone because it swells the bronchial mucosa and reduces the production of mucus.
However, cortisone also has an inhibitory effect on the immune system – this also makes the lungs susceptible to any type of infection. With Covid-19, the viruses can spread to the lungs and cause inflammation there.
This creates edema, which is pathological accumulation of fluid. And these in turn ensure that gas exchange can hardly take place. This is why many Covid-19 patients require the supply of oxygen-enriched air – or in the worst case suffocate.
QUESTION: Can a longtime smoker reduce the damage to his lungs to minimize the risk of a serious viral disease?
ANSWER: It is never too late. An immediate stop of smoking would be highly recommended. The lungs can regenerate and the immune system is relieved.
The defense cells would no longer have to fight the particles in tobacco smoke, but could rush to the new coronavirus if infected.
Quite independently of the Corona Virus, smoking is the most common preventable cause of death in industrialized countries.
QUESTION: In most Western countries similar to Germany about ten percent of children and five percent of adults suffer from asthma and often suffer from shortness of breath. How should they prepare?
ANSWER: Unfortunately, asthma patients are at an increased risk because their lungs are often damaged and many of them have to take cortisone, which, as I said, inhibits their immune system.
Those affected should continue to take their medication as usual. You should protect yourself well against infections and keep away from other people. And allergy sufferers must of course avoid contact with pollen in spring. If present, asthmatics should wear a respirator unless this causes them to have additional shortness of breath.
QUESTION: And why do the lifestyle diseases of high blood pressure, calcification of the coronary arteries and diabetes also increase the risk of severe courses of the lung disease Covid-19?
ANSWER: These diseases can weaken the immune system or the heart. A weak heart can cause water to build up in the lungs. Many patients are at an advanced age and often take different drugs in higher doses. Many are medicated and do quite well.
But if they are infected by a very lung-aggressive virus, they get into a vicious cycle. The body needs a lot of energy to fight the underlying diseases. The immune system now lacks this power. The same applies to cancer patients who can also have a weakened immune system.
QUESTION: Millions of people around the world with such pre-existing conditions. Can they still change their lifestyle to at least arm themselves against the virus?
ANSWER: People should take their medication as usual and try to avoid infection. And of course hygiene is very important.
QUESTION: Does that mean you should rather stay at home?
ANSWER: No, if you are allowed outside you should go for a walk every day in a place where the air is clean. So not on a street, but in a park if possible.
Anyone who moves outdoors in the fresh air strengthens the immune system and improves lung function. All of this, of course, only if the given safety measures are observed.
QUESTION: Should you wear mouth-nose protection outdoors?
ANSWER: That can’t hurt. But patients with respiratory problems already have difficulty breathing. Sometimes it won’t work with a mask. But you should still go for a walk – and keep two meters away from other people.
QUESTION: A healthy lifestyle can significantly delay natural aging – can you see that in the lungs?
ANSWER: Yes. A 60-year-old who has kept his lungs healthy has a better immune system than a 30-year-old who smokes and is overweight.
QUESTION: So it is worth taking care of your airways?
ANSWER: Clearly, and of course that also applies to healthy people. The immune system can be strengthened through physical exercise, adequate sleep and healthy eating, i.e. eating lots of fruits and vegetables.
QUESTION: What about drinks?
ANSWER: Drink enough water every day, which is good for the mucus solution in the respiratory tract.
QUESTION: What about alcohol?
ANSWER: You can have a beer or a wine in the lockdown. But alcohol over-consumption flushes out electrolytes and dehydrates the body.
QUESTION: Advice on a healthier life often gets ignored and fades away. Will that change?
ANSWER: We have entered a phase in which a virus infection affects all of our lives. Now we are learning how important it would have been if we had taken care of our health beforehand.
And how crucial a strengthened immune system is. Since the current pandemic could last even longer, you can still start to change your lifestyle. And who knows, maybe after Sars-CoV-2 a virus will come that is even more aggressive.
QUESTION: What do you think of a general curfew?
ANSWER: Of course, we have to look closely at the numbers, how the pandemic is developing, and act accordingly. A total curfew would not only have advantages for our health.
Many people could hardly do any sport and would gain weight – a clear disadvantage for our immune system. We also need to stay outdoors for our psyche, our mental health. This has to be weighed up and brought into line with the protective measures against the virus.