Image of male nurse pushing senior woman in a wheelchair in nursing facility

New research might make facilities rethink smoke breaks for employees and residents.

While previous studies have shown smokers to be more susceptible to Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus infections, the cause was believed to be that smoke damages the human immune system. A new experiment, in which multiple strains were exposed to smoke in a lab, points to the smoke’s ability to change the bacteria’s DNA as a major culprit.

Researchers at the University of Bath believe the stress of cigarette smoke exposure causes Staphylococcus aureus to generate an “SOS” response, which increases the rate of mutation in microbial DNA and makes it better able to resist antibiotics.

“We expected some effects but we didn’t anticipate smoke would affect drug-resistance to this degree,” said lead author Maisem Laabei, Ph.D., of the University of Bath. “We recognise that exposure in a lab is different to inhaled smoke over a long time, but it seems reasonable to hypothesise, based on our research and others’ that stressful conditions imposed by smoking induce responses in microbial cells leading to adaptation to harsh conditions, with the net effect of increasing virulence and/or potential for infection.”

MRSA is found in about one-quarter of nursing home residents, and it can be easily transmitted to other seniors or healthcare workers. The full study is published in the journal Scientific Reports.