In recent weeks, we have seen that COVID-19 not only seriously affects older adults, but young adults are experiencing severe complications, facing hospitalizations and even dying from the virus, according to new data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. With the dramatic rise of reported cases among young adults across the United States, many are asking why this age group is becoming so vulnerable?

Health and aging

As we age, we become more susceptible to disease and disability. Young people typically don’t have the medical problems associated with older generations, which can compound the effects of COVID. The young usually have a smoother recovery and some may even be asymptomatic.

Pulmonologist Laren Tan, MD, founder and director of the Loma Linda University Health Comprehensive Program for Obstructive Airway Diseases, says people under the age of 18 tend to be healthier, particularly because activities like smoking and drinking alcohol are restricted until after age 21.

“When you couple smoking and drinking alcohol with other chronic diseases like obesity and diabetes, it can lead to complications during a COVID infection,” Tan says.

Perception of invincibility

Thinking you are healthy is relative. Unless you consistently have annual check-ups with your primary care provider, you will be less likely to find underlying health problems, Tan says. Unfortunately, many young people feel they are in good health and therefore don’t regularly see a healthcare provider until something goes wrong.

“Feeling invincible is great — which most young adults think they are — until they’re not,” Tan says.

Social behaviors play a big part

Health experts speculate that social behaviors prevalent with young adults have encouraged the virus to spread more easily among the population.

As states around the country eased business closure restrictions, many young adults frequented bars, restaurants, and beaches, increasing their vulnerability to contraction. The risk is further increased because of a lack of adherence to social isolation, distancing protocols and wearing masks in public.

“For the most part, older adults are more aware of their limitations and their other medical conditions, thus, they are socially isolating and taking all the necessary precautions,” Tan says.

Smoking is the biggest risk factor

A new study found that 1 in 3 adults between the ages of 18 and 25 are more susceptible to contracting a severe form of COVID-19 requiring hospitalization because of smoking — both cigarettes and e-cigarettes — according to the Journal of Adolescent Health.

“Inhalation of smoke from combustible (i.e., tobacco) and non-combustible (i.e., e-cigarette) sources have profound effects on the airways and the lungs,” Tan says. “Irritants disrupt the airway epithelial barrier, and this disruption and loss of protection make it easier to contract infections.”

Tan confirms that, when exposed to a virus-like COVID, smokers with injured lung capacity are at a greater disadvantage compared with those who don’t smoke and have healthy lungs.

“Smoking is a huge risk factor for COVID-19, especially among the 18- to 25-year-old crowd,” Tan says. “Fortunately, smoking is a habit that can be broken and can reduce one’s risk.”

This article was originally published on the Loma Linda University Health news site

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