Cigarette smoking causes nearly 1 in 5 deaths in the United States. It's the leading preventable cause of death and disease in our country. Smoking harms nearly every organ in the body and causes a wide range of serious health problems. If you smoke, quitting is the single most important thing you can do to improve your health. Read on to learn more about why smoking is so dangerous and how it damages your lungs and body.
Smoking Causes Cancer
Cigarette smoking is the number one risk factor for lung cancer, which is the leading cause of cancer death for both men and women. But smoking doesn't just cause lung cancer - it's linked to cancers throughout the body.
Smoking accounts for about 30% of all cancer deaths in the U.S. It's linked to cancer of the mouth, throat, larynx, esophagus, liver, pancreas, stomach, kidney, bladder, bowel, cervix and more.
How does smoking cause cancer? When you inhale cigarette smoke, you're taking in over 7,000 chemicals. Hundreds of these chemicals are toxic, and at least 70 are known to cause cancer. These cancer-causing substances damage important genes that control cell growth. Over time, damaged genes can lead to uncontrolled cell growth and the formation of cancerous tumors.
The more you smoke and the longer you smoke, the higher your risk of developing smoking-related cancers. For lung cancer, the risk is especially high - smokers are 15 to 30 times more likely to get lung cancer than nonsmokers. The good news is that when you quit smoking, your risk of cancers gradually decreases over time. Within 10 years of quitting, your risk of dying from lung cancer is cut in half.
Smoking Causes Heart Disease
Smoking is a major cause of cardiovascular disease, which includes heart disease, stroke and heart attack. Cigarette smoking causes about 1 in 4 heart disease deaths in the U.S.
Smoking damages and tightens blood vessels, making your heart work harder and increasing blood pressure. The chemicals in tobacco smoke also damage the structure and function of your heart. Over time, this can lead to the buildup of fatty substances in the arteries (atherosclerosis) which blocks blood flow to the heart and brain and causes heart attack and stroke.
Smokers are 2-4 times more likely to develop coronary heart disease than nonsmokers. The good news is that when you stop smoking, your risk of heart disease drops rapidly, and continues to decrease over time. After 1 year of quitting, your added risk of heart disease is half that of a smoker's.
Smoking Causes Lung Disease
Smoking is the primary cause of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), a group of lung diseases that make it difficult to breathe. COPD includes emphysema and chronic bronchitis. In emphysema, the air sacs in the lungs are damaged, making it hard to breathe. In chronic bronchitis, the lining of the airways becomes inflamed and thickens with mucus, narrowing the airways.
Over 16 million Americans have been diagnosed with COPD, but millions more may have it without even knowing. Smoking causes over 8 out of 10 COPD-related deaths. The longer you smoke and the more packs per day you smoke, the greater your risk. Quitting smoking is the best way to prevent COPD and slow its progression before significant lung damage occurs.
Smoking also greatly increases your risk of respiratory infections, such as pneumonia, flu, and tuberculosis. Smokers get pneumonia at a rate 18-25 times higher than nonsmokers. Smoking paralyzes and even kills protective cells in your airways that help remove germs and mucus. This makes smokers more vulnerable to lung infections.
Smoking Worsens Asthma and Allergies
Smoking irritates the airways and can trigger asthma attacks in those who have asthma. Studies show children exposed to secondhand smoke are at higher risk of developing asthma. Smoking also worsens allergies and can increase allergy symptoms.
When you smoke, you inhale particles from tobacco smoke that contain hundreds of different chemicals and substances. Many of these can irritate the airways and trigger an allergic reaction or asthma attack.
Smoking Damages Your Lungs
Smoking causes direct damage to your lungs in several ways:
It inflames and irritates the delicate lining of the airways, causing coughing and shortness of breath. Even smoking just a couple cigarettes a day can cause this irritation.
It increases mucus production in the airways. Smoking causes more mucus-producing cells in the lungs, resulting in thick, sticky mucus that's difficult to clear.
It reduces lung function by damaging air sacs and airways. This makes the lungs less elastic and makes it harder to breathe.
It causes COPD (chronic bronchitis and emphysema) which makes it increasingly difficult to breathe over time. The lung damage caused by COPD is permanent and gets worse the longer you smoke.
It causes most cases of lung cancer. The longer you smoke and the more cigarettes per day you smoke, the higher your lung cancer risk.
Overall, smoking inflames the lungs, paralyzes cilia (making people more prone to infection), and causes COPD and lung cancer. Within 2 weeks of quitting smoking, you may notice less coughing and shortness of breath as your lung function improves.
Smoking Weakens Your Immune System
Smoking weakens your immune system and makes your body less able to fight off disease. When you inhale cigarette smoke, the chemicals enter your bloodstream and travel throughout your body. These chemicals can break down the immune system and damage immune cells.
As a result, not only are smokers more prone to lung diseases and respiratory infections, they're also at higher risk of contracting other types of infections and illnesses. Smokers get sick more often from colds, flu, gum infections, ulcers, and tuberculosis.
Smoking Harms Nearly Every Organ
In addition to lung diseases, smoking causes poor health in nearly every organ and body system:
It reduces bone density, leading to weak bones that break more easily.
It damages blood vessels and can cause erectile dysfunction in men.
It reduces fertility in women and increases risks in pregnancy.
It increases risk of diabetes by raising blood sugar levels.
It ages skin faster, causing wrinkles and uneven skin tone.
It stains teeth and gums yellow-brown, and causes bad breath and gum disease.
It weakens eyesight and increases risk of cataracts and macular degeneration.
The list goes on and on - smoking harms nearly every cell and organ in the body. When you quit smoking, you'll look and feel healthier as your body repairs itself over time.
Quitting Smoking Improves Your Health
The benefits of quitting smoking begin almost immediately. Within 12 hours of your last cigarette, your blood oxygen levels increase and your lung function begins to improve. After 1-9 months, you'll experience:
- Improved circulation and lung function
- Reduced risk of respiratory infections
- Coughing, sinus congestion, fatigue, and shortness of breath decrease
- Cilia regrow in lungs, improving ability to clear mucus and dirt
- Overall energy level increases
After 1 year of quitting smoking:
- Your added risk of coronary heart disease is half that of a smoker's
- Your risk of heart attack drops sharply
- Risk of cancer of the mouth, throat, esophagus, and bladder are cut in half
After 5 years:
- Your risk of stroke falls to the same level as a nonsmoker
- Risk of cancer of the mouth, throat, esophagus, and bladder are 1/4 that of a smoker's
- Risk of cervical cancer falls to that of a nonsmoker
After 10 years:
- Your risk of dying from lung cancer is about half that of a smoker's
- Risk of cancer of the larynx and pancreas decreases
- Risk of coronary heart disease is similar to that of a nonsmoker's
After 15 years:
- Your risk of coronary heart disease matches that of a nonsmoker's
- Risk of death returns to nearly the level of someone who never smoked
How to Quit Smoking
Quitting smoking is challenging, but very possible. The key is to have a plan and get support. Here are some tips to help you stop smoking for good:
Set a Quit Date
Choose a quit date about 2-3 weeks out and mark it on your calendar. This gives you time to prepare while creating a deadline to work towards. Tell loved ones about your quit date so they can support you.
Address Triggers and Coping Strategies
Notice when and why you smoke. Certain activities, places, people, emotions, or times of day can trigger the urge to smoke. Identify your triggers and plan how to avoid them or cope with cravings when they hit.
Tell your family and friends you're quitting. Research shows having a support system boosts your chances of success. Join a stop smoking group, talk to a counselor, or chat with others trying to quit online.
Prior to your quit date, throw out all cigarettes, lighters, and ashtrays in your home, car, and workplace. Removing triggers helps break habits.
Try Nicotine Replacement
Nicotine cravings are often intense when you first quit. Using nicotine gum, patches, or lozenges can double your chances of quitting successfully. Talk to your doctor about options.
Learn New Coping Skills
When a craving hits, divert your attention by calling a friend, taking a walk, drinking water, or practicing breathing exercises. Develop new habits and activities so you have alternatives to smoking.
Be Patient with Yourself
It often takes several tries to quit for good. If you slip up, get back on track and learn from it. Over time, each attempt will strengthen your resolve.
With preparation, support, and perseverance, you can take control of your health. Quitting smoking is the best thing you can do to live a longer, healthier, and happier life. The benefits start immediately, so take the first step today!