Covid-19 Symptoms & Their Amplification Through Substance Use Disorders (SUD)

Coronavirus and Addiction

Anne Rancourt, NIDA Communications (00:10):

Dr. Nora Volkow, let’s start by talking about the risks of COVID. What do we know about possibly increased risks of contracting COVID or getting a more severe case for people who are struggling with addiction or who are in recovery?

Dr. Nora Volkow, NIDA Director (00:23):

Well, it is a new pandemic, so we don’t have much data that customers that can actually give us the evidence of exactly what occurs. However, because of what we know of COVID and recognizing that certain co-morbidities particularly pulmonary and cardiac are going to put you at greater risk, we can actually clearly predict that individuals with a substance use disorder are going to be at higher risk of adverse outcomes from COVID because they are much more likely to have these comorbidities due to the effects of drug exposures in pulmonary and respiratory diseases. The other component that relates the risk of infection is that if you are addicted to drugs and you don’t have a support system there is a possibility that individuals are actually out there in the streets trying to get these drugs, they’re much more likely therefore, to encounter conditions where you may get infected. And we also know on the third level is that many of the drugs of abuse themselves indirectly or directly affect the physiology of our bodies. For example, if you are using opioids that produces respiratory depression and respiratory depression leads to lower oxygen content in the lungs, which of course makes you then much more vulnerable for any infection that is going to be targeting pulmonary function.

How Covid-19 Affects Addiction Recovery

Anne Rancourt, NIDA Communications (01:58):

What are some of the challenges that people in recovery specifically might be facing now?

Dr. Nora Volkow, NIDA Director (02:03):

I mean, we are social creatures, we human beings, and that we depend on social support in order to actually do many of the things and for a sense of wellbeing. And this is also the case for individuals that are fighting drugs or are in recovery, social supports are fundamental for providing a structure that will increase the likelihood that they will succeed. So as we in the COVID epidemic have had to exert social distancing, this may make it much harder there for those that are trying to achieve recovery or are in recovery to stay on recovery as those social supports are no longer there.

Covid-19’s Social Effects and How They Impact Those With Substance Use Disorders

Anne Rancourt, NIDA Communications (02:46):

Challenging people who are now struggling with substance use, what do they need to know in terms of challenges that are out there, and, what do their friends and family need to know possibly that they could do to help?

Dr. Nora Volkow, NIDA Director (03:02):

Well, like anything that has such a tragic effect on our society it leads those who come up with solutions.  Some of those solutions actually, if taken advantage of, can significantly help outcomes. So, if someone is addicted to drugs and they see these services in the community closing down, it’s very important for them to realize that now there has been an expansion or an excess of telehealth applications that enabled them to receive treatment or support, including social network supports through these applications.

Anne Rancourt, NIDA Communications (03:44):

You’ve seen firsthand how stigma can take a toll on people who are struggling with addiction. What lessons learned have you seen from your work that we should keep in mind now during the COVID?

Dr. Nora Volkow, NIDA Director (03:57):

I think it is very relevant that we all recognize our emotions when we are faced with someone and be aware that we are under very stressful conditions and that we have to learn to be more tolerant to diversity as it relates, of course, in general, to all different ways of looking at the world. But importantly, as it relates to someone that may need help. Being able to create that sense of trust within the person that is suffering from addiction so that they can seek out the help is also very important.

Future Covid-19 Research

Anne Rancourt, NIDA Communications (04:40):

At NIH scientific research is our business, of course. What research questions has COVID 19 prompted for you as a researcher?

Dr. Nora Volkow, NIDA Director (04:50):

Well, there are many questions that the pandemic hitting the epidemic of the opioid crisis in the United States has posed to me in terms of research, starting with getting a better understanding about what this coalition means to people out there suffering from addiction, their families, and the healthcare system and justice settings that are dealing with it. What are the realities people are facing? And how diverse are they? And how are the communities addressing these challenges? As a researcher in neuroscience, I’m obviously extremely interested, like many others, of the extent to which the virus may influence the brain. Does it influence the brain in terms of does it cross the blood brain barrier or are its effects predominantly indirect through exacerbating immune responses that then affect how the brain functions? What happens in terms of brain development? If a mother was pregnant that gets infected with COVID, how might the virus influence the brain and are you going to be seeing it clinically, or will it be a silent infection? These are some of the examples of the questions that are extraordinary important for all of us to investigate so that we better guide the patients themselves, but also that the interventions and follow up and monitoring of these patients.

Anne Rancourt, NIDA Communications (06:27):

We have so much to learn Dr. Volkov. Thank you so much for joining me today and thank you for watching. For more information, please visit


Volkow, Nora. “Coping with COVID-19 and Substance Use Disorder (SUD).” National Institute on Drug Abuse, May 15, 2020. Accessed June 25, 2021.