New Study Predicts Higher Risk for COVID-19 Among Addicts

Ill woman at home
Photo by AleksandarGeorgiev/

Though the novel coronavirus known as COVID-19 is still under close study, some aspects of it have been accurately determined. For example, scientists are now certain that those who misuse drugs and alcohol are at higher risk of contracting COVID-19 than those who do not.

Will this new information act as an added incentive to get addicts help at treatment centers? Or will it be forgotten, leaving addicts in a position of increased risk during the pandemic?

The Study Findings

In light of the global health crisis that is COVID-19, one of the first efforts made by public health officials in the addiction science field was to determine the pandemic's effect on those who struggle with drug and alcohol addiction.

The director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, Dr. Nora Volkow, worked with doctors Quan Qiu Wang, David C. Kaelber, and Rong Xu to determine exact risk factors for addicts and what might be done to protect them. The study examined health information for millions of people, thousands of whom had contracted COVID-19. Of the study group, people with addictions to drugs and alcohol were more likely to be in the group that contracted COVID-19 than in the group that did not contract it.

According to the data, people with addictions to drugs and alcohol accounted for about 10% of the total study group (73 million people). But for those within the study group who contracted COVID-19, people with addiction accounted for 16% of all COVID cases.

To make matters worse, the study also showed that people who were addicted to drugs and alcohol were more likely to be hospitalized with COVID-19, even to die from it.

Quoting the study authors, "Patients with a recent diagnosis of SUD [substance use disorder] were at significantly increased risk for COVID-19, an effect that was strongest for individuals with OUD (opioid use disorder), followed by individuals with tobacco use disorder. Compared to patients without SUD, patients with SUD had significantly higher prevalence of chronic kidney, liver, lung diseases, cardiovascular diseases, type 2 diabetes, obesity and cancer."

Why People Who Misuse Drugs and Alcohol are More Prone to Illness

One of the reasons people with addiction are more likely to contract COVID-19 is because such individuals often have compromised lungs and cardiovascular systems, all of which contribute to heightened susceptibility for COVID-19 and a higher likelihood of harsh, adverse outcomes in battling a COVID-19 infection. COVID-19 causes harm in multiple areas of the body, but the respiratory system is the most harshly affected in most patients. If addicts already do not have a robust respiratory system to begin with, they are less likely to experience a COVID-19 infection without also experiencing severe symptoms and possibly even death.

And there are other factors, too. Quoting NIDA director Dr. Nora Volkow, "Another contributing factor is the marginalization of people with addiction, which makes it harder for them to access health care services. It is incumbent upon clinicians to meet the unique challenges of caring for this vulnerable population, just as they would any other high-risk group."

There are other reasons why addicts are particularly susceptible to COVID-19. Alcohol consumption has been proven to reduce immune response for up to 24 hours after drinking. The more one drinks, the more likely they are to become ill with COVID-19 when they are exposed to it.

In addition to COVID-19 attacking the lungs, COVID-19 causes harmful cardiopulmonary issues, as good lung health is intricately connected to good heart health. Addicts who use drugs in such a way that harms the lungs are more likely to experience danger due to falling ill with COVID-19, as they already have weakened lung health.

According to the NIDA document cited above, the case fatality rate for patients with COVID-19 who also struggled with chronic respiratory disease was 6.3 percent, compared to 2.3 percent fatalities for all patients who contracted the disease.

People who struggle with addiction experience several factors that put them at greater risk for contracting, suffering from, and even dying from COVID-19. Just some of these factors include:

  • Impaired immune response due to substance abuse;
  • Weakened lung health due to smoking, snorting, or inhaling drugs;
  • Weakened heart health due to severely diminished cardiopulmonary function;
  • Lack of access to public healthcare services;
  • Lack of access to housing and basic human survival needs, thus increasing the risk of infection;
  • Increased exposure to other addicts who also have weakened immune systems;
  • Greater chances for comorbidities that increase the risk of death from COVID-19.

Addiction Treatment—Now More than Ever, Getting Help is a Must

Seeking help for drug and alcohol addiction has always been crucial and needed. Anyone who is addicted to drugs and alcohol should seek help as soon as possible. Even when the world is not faced with a global pandemic, addiction is always severely harmful and should always be treated as soon as possible.

But the existence of a significant health crisis that affects addicts particularly harshly is even more reason for people who struggle with substance abuse to get help as soon as possible. Simply stated, their lives are at much greater risk now.




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.