Getting more sun linked to lower risk of dying from COVID-19

EDINBURGH, Scotland — Throughout the entire coronavirus pandemic, health officials have warned the public to stay indoors. However, a new study finds they may have been going about things all wrong. According to researchers in Scotland, getting out into the sun may be the medicine for COVID-19.

A team from the University of Edinburgh finds sunnier areas see fewer deaths from the virus. Study authors add sunbathing causes the skin to release a chemical which can alleviate symptoms in COVID-positive individuals. Interestingly, the impact of getting more vitamin D, a nutrient provided by the sun’s rays, couldn’t fully explain this phenomenon.

“There is still so much we don’t understand about Covid-19, which has resulted in so many deaths worldwide,” says corresponding author Dr. Richard Weller in a university release. “These early results open up sunlight exposure as one way of potentially reducing the risk of death.”

The findings come from examining people living in England, Italy, and the United States. In sunny U.S. areas with the highest levels of UVA light, coronavirus mortality rates fell. Researchers looked at data from January to April 2020 across 2,474 American counties before repeating the analysis overseas. UVA light makes up 95 percent of the sun’s total UV output.

The Scottish team believes sunbathing could act as a simple public health intervention. Light therapies that mimic the benefits of the sun may also be protective.

“The relationship between Covid-19 mortality, season and latitude has been quite striking, here we offer an alternative explanation for this phenomenon,” adds study co-author Professor Chris Dibben, chair in health geography at Edinburgh.

So what’s the secret ingredient making sunlight good during COVID?

Researchers also took into account factors known to be associated with increased exposure to COVID and higher risks of death. These included age, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, population density, air pollution, temperature, and levels of infection in local areas.

The team only investigated areas where the levels of UVB light were not high enough to produce vitamin D in humans. Although both UVA and UVB rays can cause cancer, UVB is the main culprit.

Prof. Dibben and the team notes sunlight exposure also causes the skin to release nitric oxide. This could be the explanation for why sunbathing seems to be so beneficial despite the risks of skin damage. It may reduce the virus’ ability to replicate, as scientists have demonstrated in lab experiments.

Previous research from the same group also revealed sunlight improves cardiovascular health. Nutrients from the sun reduce blood pressure, protecting against heart attacks. Cardiovascular disease is a known complication for patients with COVID-19.

Study authors add releasing nitric oxide into the bloodstream can also relieve eczema. The chemical activates specialized immune cells called regulatory T cells which douse inflammation.

The findings appear in the British Journal of Dermatology.

SWNS writer Mark Waghorn contributed to this report.