NIDA Director outlines potential risks to people who smoke and use drugs during COVID-19 pandemic

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COVID-19: Courtesy of NIAID
COVID-19: Courtesy of NIAID

The precarious intersection of the COVID-19 national health emergency and the concurrent epidemic of drug overdose deaths is outlined in the Annals of Internal Medicine this week by Dr. Nora D. Volkow, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), part of the National Institutes of Health. Dr. Volkow discusses how the serious health risks of COVID-19 pose unique challenges to people who smoke or vape, are already struggling with substance use disorders (SUD), or are in recovery from addiction.

The Ideas and Opinions piece raises several important concerns regarding COVID-19 for specific vulnerable populations, including:

  • Patients with already compromised lung conditions may be at higher risk for more severe complications from COVID-19. Specifically, people who smoke or vape, or use opioids or methamphetamine may face heightened risk. In addition, chronic opioid use already increases the risk of slowed breathing due to hypoxemia, which can lead to cardiac and pulmonary complications that may result in overdose and death. While all people should be taking precautions to prevent exposure to COVID-19, this is particularly critical for higher risk groups, including people who smoke, vape, or use opioids or methamphetamine. Dr. Volkow urges clinicians to be alert to the possibility of increased risks for adverse COVID-19 outcomes in these patients.
  • People recovering from addiction now face new challenges. Physical distancing measures, while critical to COVID-19 mitigation, eliminate the important element of social support needed for addiction recovery. Additionally, people with opioid use disorder may face barriers to obtaining medications (i.e., buprenorphine or methadone) or obtaining services from syringe services programs.
  • Social distancing will also decrease the likelihood of observed overdoses; administration of naloxone to reverse overdose may be less likely, potentially resulting in more fatalities.
  • Dr. Volkow lauds efforts by the public health community to reduce new challenges for people in recovery, including the deployment of virtual support meetings for those with internet access and the possibility of take-home medications for some people in addiction treatment. Above all, Dr. Volkow stresses that, like other vulnerable people in the United States, people with SUD cannot be forgotten or marginalized during this crisis.

For a copy of the Ideas and Opinions article, authored by NIDA Director Dr. Nora D. Volkow and published in Annals of Internal Medicine, go to: Collision of the COVID-19 and Addiction Epidemics.

For more information, NIDA has a web page dedicated to COVID-19 resources for people in addiction treatment or recovery.

NIDA Press Office
301-443-6245
media@nida.nih.gov

About the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA): NIDA is a component of the National Institutes of Health, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. NIDA supports most of the world’s research on the health aspects of drug use and addiction. The Institute carries out a large variety of programs to inform policy, improve practice, and advance addiction science. For more information about NIDA and its programs, visit www.drugabuse.gov.

About the National Institutes of Health (NIH): NIH, the nation’s medical research agency, includes 27 Institutes and Centers and is a component of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. NIH is the primary federal agency conducting and supporting basic, clinical, and translational medical research, and is investigating the causes, treatments, and cures for both common and rare diseases. For more information about NIH and its programs, visit www.nih.gov.

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