This week, HuffPost UK reader Terry asked: “Does vaping by an infectious person make spread more likely?”
As it stands, there’s no evidence to show the virus that causes coronavirus – SARS-CoV-2 – is more likely to spread through e-cigarette vapour or cigarette smoke than, say, breathing out normally.
But, Professor Linda Bauld, a public health expert at University of Edinburgh, tells HuffPost UK: “That doesn’t mean that it’s not possible, it just means someone hasn’t prioritised looking at e-cigarette vapour with Covid.”
HuffPost UK had multiple requests to answer this question, suggesting it might be weighing heavily on a lot of people’s minds. And Professor Caitlin Notley, an expert in addiction sciences at Norwich Medical School, isn’t surprised by this.
“The interesting issue – and perhaps why this is in the public consciousness – is that vaping makes the exhalation very visible,” she says.
“So obviously at the moment with the concern about passing on infection, with vapour being very visible that makes it clear just how far exhalations carry on the wind and certainly within an indoor space. It makes it clear that someone infected with Covid is passing on that potential infection through their breath.”
One of the key reasons why we’re told to keep two metres away from others is because close contact interactions can fuel the spread of Covid-19.
The virus can spread in droplets and smaller aerosols expelled from the nose and mouth when a person talks, laughs, or breathes. These particles can then be inhaled into the nose, mouth, and lungs of others, and cause infection.
So, theoretically, exhaling vapour or smoke could also help spread the virus.
“We do know from smoking that when people exhale cigarette smoke, the side stream smoke that comes out of the cigarette can carry respiratory pathogens,” says Prof Bauld. “So it would certainly be, I would say, likely that if [infectious] people are exhaling vapour there will be virus in that vapour.”
However, we don’t know how likely it is for somebody to be infected with the virus if they come into contact with e-cigarette vapour, she adds. “I wouldn’t suggest it’s significantly higher risk than somebody [who has the virus] breathing heavily.”
Professor Notley, from the University of East Anglia, says concern about Covid risk and vapour “is possibly a bit of a red herring”. She says there’s “clearly” a need for studies looking at the exhaled breath of those who vape compared to those who don’t to see if there’s a difference in infectious particles within the breath.
So what should vapers or smokers do in the meantime? People should be conscious that others who aren’t smoking or vaping might feel worried about being exposed to your exhalations.
“It would be very wise at the current time to recommend that people are not vaping indoors around other people,” says Prof Bauld, “and also secondly that people are not vaping in close proximity to somebody, for example, while standing in the queue to go in a supermarket or eating in an outdoor area.”
Prof Notley agrees and says while we should all be practising social distancing anyway, those who vape might want to be “extra vigilant” and possibly even increase their distance from others if they’re vaping.
Government advice states in the absence of evidence on whether vaping spreads Covid-19, it’s recommended that vapers avoid exhaling clouds of vapour in the presence of others. “It’s a courtesy to others really of making sure any exhaled vapour is not going to be inhaled by anyone else – so just avoiding crowded, built up areas like we should all be doing anyway,” Prof Notley adds.
One thing experts are worried about is that fears over the virus spreading in vapour might discourage people from vaping – and they don’t want people to return to smoking, which we know has far worse outcomes for Covid-19.
“We wouldn’t want to discourage people from vaping if they’ve chosen to vape as a way of stopping smoking,” says Prof Notley. “We do know clearly from the evidence that people who are smoking tobacco have a greater risk of poor Covid outcomes if they are infected.”
Experts are still learning about Covid-19. The information in this story is what was known or available at the time of publication, but guidance could change as scientists discover more about the virus. To keep up to date with health advice and cases in your area, visit gov.uk/coronavirus and nhs.uk.
This article originally appeared on HuffPost UK and has been updated.