Date: 11/03/2020

Q&A: COVID 19, Climate Change, And The Skin

Mary Williams, M.D.

Q&A: COVID-19, Climate Change and The Skin: with Mary L. Williams, M.D. Dermatologist and Skin Scientist |

Q: COVID-19, climate change and skin? Are they related to each other, and if so how and why?

A: Let’s look first at COVID-19 and climate change, and see how they are and are not related.

COVID-19 was not directly the result of climate change

We have no evidence that the COVID-19 pandemic was directly caused by climate change.  Our changing climate is due to an increased burden of greenhouses gases in the atmosphere, largely as a result of our combustion of fossil fuels for energy. These trapped gases are warming our planet and disrupting the usual climatic patterns. We do know that some previously tropical viruses, like Dengue and Zika, are spreading into temperate zones as a result of climate change, but this does not appear to be behind the spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus.

To quote the World Health Organization (WHO): “There is currently no conclusive evidence that either weather (short term variations in meteorological conditions) or climate (long-term averages) have a strong influence on transmission”…of COVID-19.  

But climate change and the COVID-19 epidemic are interrelated in a number of ways.

Human activity across our globe is degrading the environment, as well as generating the greenhouse gas emissions that underlie climate change.  At the same time, the global increase in population has led to the need to produce more food.  And this in turn has resulted in deforestation, in order to convert land for agricultural purposes. 

As natural habitats are lost, the animals that resided there must seek new homes.  This can bring them into contact with human populations for the first time, providing the infectious microbes that these animals harbor the opportunity to infect humans.  For example, the recent Ebola outbreak in West Africa may have been caused by habitat loss, forcing bats that carried the virus into regions populated by humans.

In addition, our growing global population has led to the concentration of people within cities, where crowding can facilitate the spread of infections, like COVID-19. 

The spread of infections is also facilitated by our ability to move about the globe, freely and rapidly.  As we drive our motor vehicles or fly in airplanes from place to place, we not only can disseminate infections and fuel a pandemic, we also fill the air we breathe with the pollution these vehicles generate and send more greenhouse gases out into the stratosphere.

Pollution is a fellow-traveler of climate change, because they both can share a common source – the combustion of fossil fuels for energy.

Recent evidence shows that COVID19 infections are more deadly when air pollution levels are higher. Poorer communities tend to experience higher levels of air pollution because of they are often located near to industrial or high-traffic urban areas.  This may be one of the reasons why the African-American community has been disproportionately impacted by COVID19.

Thus, while climate change on its own is not directly responsible for the COVID-19 pandemic, the two share a good deal of common ground.

A: And Now Lets Consider How COVID-19 Affects Skin

We are just beginning to learn how COVID19  affects the skin.  Although the virus enters the body primarily through the respiratory route, COVID-19 is a systemic illness.  Therefore, it has the potential to affect any part of the body.

As the virus travels through the blood stream, skin can become one of its targets.  Not everyone gets a rash, but in those that do the rashes are quite similar to those seen with other viral infections, namely red, itchy bumps, or hives (urticaria), or chicken-pox like small blisters. 

But there is one exception and that is the unusual and now rather famous finding of  “covid toes” – red to purple patches typically on the tips of toes and fingers. Although self-limited (that is, they heal on their own), these sores can be painful, and may break down or ulcerate before they heal.  COVID-toes are most common in children and young adults, and often develop later in the course of the infection. 

These skin lesions may reflect the propensity of this coronavirus to cause inflammation in blood vessels, which can also manifest more seriously as strokes, or as the newly described, multisystem inflammatory syndrome in children.

Lessons from COVID-19 for the Climate Crisis

Listen to the Experts:  The warnings from the scientific community about the coming coronavirus pandemic were not well heeded.  Now, we are seeing how those countries that failed to act on these warnings, (most notably, our own), are experiencing more COVID-19 cases and more deaths, as well as greater costs to their economies. 

Similarly, the scientific community  has been unanimous in its warnings about the impending health hazards and economic dislocations that will accompany global warming.  The sooner we act to limit the rise in greenhouse gases, the more lives that can be saved and the economic fall-out minimized.  But we need to take the necessary actions now!

A Global Problem: The impacts of global warming, like those of the coronavirus, do not respect national boundaries.  The entire globe is being affected by the rising accumulation of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere – although like the coronavirus, some regions are harder hit than others.  Nonetheless, extreme weather events in one region can lead to political instability and mass human migrations, and in so doing, spreading the crisis into other, distant communities.

Environmental Degradation: We have seen how deforestation and destruction of natural habitats fosters a closer association between wild animals and humans and sets the stage for pandemics of new zoonotic diseases (that is, infections spreading from animals to humans). 

Similarly, heat waves, droughts, and flooding – some of the extreme weather events that accompany climate change – add to the pressures on the expanding human populations to secure their food supply,  further spurring deforestation and destruction of ecosystems.  This will lead to the same conditions – bringing humans into contact with animals – that can trigger future pandemics. 

Deforestation, of course, also results in less carbon dioxide being removed from the atmosphere and accelerates global warming – producing a true ‘vicious cycle’.

A Silver Lining? The good news about the COVID-19 pandemic is that we have shown that profound changes in the way we live are possible – when we feel we have to. We can also make the changes needed to end our dependence on fossil fuels for energy and reduce greenhouse gas production – it just takes the will to do so. 

During the quarantine, we were forced to travel less and even to avoid unnecessary drives to the store. Soon, we saw how much cleaner the air around us became. We can each take small steps towards a more sustainable lifestyle that, when added together, can have a big impact on our environment.

Let us learn from COVID-19 and act now!

Share This Page: