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  • Writer's pictureKim May

Covid-19 & Substance Use

Updated: Mar 10, 2021

Corona virus and substance use in Austin

Covid-19 has affected almost every aspect of our lives. Coverage of Covid-19 now dominates the news, locally and globally. Extreme measures are being taken worldwide to prevent the spread. Strong precautions are being taken to protect those identified as most vulnerable; the elderly and those with underlying medical conditions.

There is another group that is highly vulnerable though they are getting very little attention. People who smoke, vape or who have substance use disorders are also at an increased risk. Additionally, more people are coping during this difficult time by smoking, drinking and using drugs.

Emergency situations and substance use

Researchers typically see a spike in substance using during emergency and disaster situations. Unfortunately, research is very limited, but a 2001 survey conducted in New York showed that 10% of participants admitted to an increase in smoking and 25% reported an increase in alcohol consumption.

People often cope with added stress by using substances. There are several reasons for this. Drugs and alcohol may help by calming worries in the short term. Another appeal is that they provide an immediate source of control—something we don’t typically have in crisis situations. However, in the long term, these same substances tend to heighten fear and anxiety and over time the substance itself serves to drive the cycle of coping and stress.

Smoking, vaping & COVID-19

Since COVID-19 attacks the lungs, people who smoke marijuana and/or tobacco or vape are especially threatened. Smoking has been linked to adverse disease prognosis, as it can be detrimental to the immune system and its responsiveness to infection. A recent study in China involving 78 patients with COVID-19 found those with a history of smoking were 14 times as likely to develop pneumonia. While less research has been conducted on vaping to date, it is known to affect lungs at every level and affects the immune function in the nasal cavity.

Drug use & COVID-19

People who abuse opioids and methamphetamines may also be at an increased risk for serious complications of COVID-19. These drugs can have profound effects on respiratory and pulmonary (lung) health. Opioids slow breathing and have previously been shown to increase mortality in people with respiratory diseases. Methamphetamines produce pulmonary damage since it binds heavily to pulmonary tissue.

From a mental health perspective, substance use disorders can be thought of as a “disease” of isolation, largely due to the stigma associated with substance use. This is likely to be worsened at a time of enforced social distancing. Many outlets of recovery and support are not available currently.

Safety tips for active users during COVID-19

· Avoid sharing cigarettes, pipes, vapes

· Wash hands before handling, preparing or using drugs

· Don’t share snorting equipment

· Avoid sharing/passing stash bag or box

· Avoid sharing foil; do not reuse foil

· Prepare your drugs yourself

· Plan and prepare for overdose: emergency services may be stretched at this time, so plan ahead. If you do not already have naloxone, get some. Try not to use alone and stagger when using with others.

· For a more comprehensive list of safety tips, see Harm Reduction links under the sources section of this post.

Recovery, support and COVID-19

Many treatment programs and support avenues for those who struggle with substance use have changed their delivery models or suspended their usual programs. This can make getting the support you need challenging during an already difficult time.

The good news is that many therapists and psychiatrists are offering telehealth for new and current clients. You should be able to go to the website of any clinician and get an update on how they are seeing and treating clients with COVID-19 precautions.

For people who had been participating in recovery groups or would like to begin there are options. Many in the recovery community are offering online meetings as an alternative to in person meetings which are no longer able to take place. See below for some online meeting options. Note: this list is not fully comprehensive.

If you need help…

If you need help, please reach out. Although treatment and support options may not be ideal at this time, help is available. You are not alone.

Austin online recovery meetings:

Additional online recovery resources:

Global Recovery Community



Harm Reduction Sources

About the Author: Kimberly May, LPC, LMFT is a therapist at Substance Use Therapy in Austin, TX. Kimberly works with individuals, couples and families whose lives have been affected by substance use. By utilizing a harm reduction framework, Kimberly works effectively with people in any stage of use. In addition to substance use, she works with other issues such as anger, gambling, anxiety and grief. Contact today to schedule a no-charge, 30 minute, in-person consultation.

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