November is Lung Health Month, and one of the biggest causes of harm to the lungs is smoking.
Even with all of the knowledge and research out there about nicotine, tobacco, and cigarette smoking, cigarettes are still America’s #1 killer. Cigarette smoking is the leading cause of cancer death in the United States. It accounts for 29% of all cancer deaths. Smoking kills about half of all long-term smokers, which equals more than 480,000 people, or 1 in 5 deaths. Cigarettes kill more people than alcohol, car accidents, HIV, guns, and illegal drugs combined.
Obviously, we know that smoking is really, really bad for your lungs. But what about the rest of your body?
Effects on the Lungs
Smoking damages the airways and small air sacs in your lungs, making things like asthma and pneumonia worse. This can lead to other diseases like:
- COPD: Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disorder, is the third leading cause of death in the US. It is a long-term, irreversible lung disease. Your risk of developing COPD goes up the more you smoke and the longer you smoke. It gets worse over time and there is no cure. Smoking is by far the most common cause of COPD. Some early signs include noises in the chest (wheezing, rattling, or whistling), shortness of breath during activity, and coughing up mucus. COPD can eventually make it hard to breathe even at rest. Smoking often worsens these symptoms, and quitting can help keep them under control.
- Chronic Bronchitis: a type of COPD that is also irreversible. This is a disease where the airways make too much mucus, forcing the person to cough it out. It’s a common problem in smokers. The airways become swollen, and the cough becomes chronic. Over time, the airways get blocked by scar tissue and mucus, which can lead to lung infections like pneumonia. There is no cure, but quitting smoking can keep symptoms under control and prevent damage from getting worse.
- Emphysema: another type of COPD that breaks down a person’s ability to breathe. Normal lungs contain millions of tiny sacs that help oxygen get into the blood. Over time, these sacs can break down and create larger, but fewer, sacs. This lowers the amount of oxygen reaching the blood. Over time, these sacs can break down to a point where a person with emphysema has to work very hard to get enough air, even at rest. They are at risk for many other problems, including pneumonia, and in the later stages of the disease, patients can only breathe comfortably with additional oxygen. This cannot be cured or reversed, but can be treated and slowed down if the person stops smoking.
Smoking accounts for about 80% of all lung cancer deaths. There are three types of lung cancer:
- Non-Small Cell Lung Cancer: the most common type, accounting for about n85% of all lung cancers.
- Small-Cell Lung Cancer: this type tends to spread quickly. Accounts for about 10-15% of all lung cancers.
- Lung Carcinoid Tumor: these grow slowly and rarely spread. Less than 5% if lung cancers are this type.
Lung cancer is the second most common cancer in both men and women, and is the leading cause of cancer death. More people die of lung cancer than colon, breast, and prostrate cancers combined. In 2018, it is estimated that 234,030 new cases will be diagnosed, resulting in 154,050 deaths. (reference)
Effects on the Heart and Blood Vessels
Tobacco damages the heart and blood vessels, increasing your risk of heart disease and stroke. It is a major cause of coronary heart disease, which can lead to a heart attack. Tobacco also raises blood pressure, makes the blood more likely to clot, makes exercise harder, and decreases HDL (good) cholesterol levels. Smoking also increases the risk of:
- Peripheral Artery Disease: PAD happens when plaque build up in the arteries that carry blood to the head, organs, and limbs. This slows down the flow of blood, which can increase your risk of heart disease, heart attack, and stroke.
- Peripheral Vascular Disease: PVD is poor blood flow to the arms and legs, which can be caused or worsened by smoking. This can cause pain in the legs when walking, and may lead to open sores that don’t heal.
Effects on the Female Reproductive System
Tobacco can damage a woman’s reproductive health. Women who smoke are more likely to have fertility issues and trouble getting pregnant. Additionally, smokers are more likely to have issues with pregnancy such as:
- Ectopic Pregnancy: when the embryo implants outside the uterus. This can be threatening to both mother and baby
- Early membrane ruptures that can cause the placenta to separate from the uterus too early
- Early delivery or emergency C-sections may result from these pregnancy issues
- Smokers are more likely to have a miscarriage, stillbirth, babies with cleft-lip, and low-birth weight babies
Smoking during pregnancy has been linked to a higher risk of birth defects and sudden infant death syndrome. Women who smoke also tend to start menopause at a younger age, making it harder to become pregnant as they get older.
Effects on the Male Reproductive System
For men who smoke, there is a higher risk of sexual impotence and erectile dysfunction, since smoking damages blood vessels. This becomes worse the longer they smoke and the more they smoke. Additionally, smoking can affect sperm motility, reducing the chances of becoming pregnant. Lastly, sperm from a smoker can increase the risk of miscarriage and birth defects.
Effects on the Mouth and Throat
Smoking greatly increases the risk of cancers such as:
- Mouth Cancer: can occur on the tongue, the tonsils, the gums, and the floor of the mouth. The death rate has been dropping over the last 30 years, however an estimated 51, 540 people will still get this type of cancer, and result in 10,030 deaths in 2018. (reference)
- Larynx (voice box) Cancer: about 60% of laryngeal cancer starts in the glottis (area containing the vocal cords), while 35% develop in the supraglottic area (above the vocal cords). The remaining 5% develops below the vocal cords. Luckily, the rate of this type of cancer is falling 2-3% each year. For 2018, it is estimated that there are 13,150 new cases, which will result in 3,710 deaths. (reference)
- Pharynx (throat) Cancer: this type of cancer occurs in the oropharynx, and shares the same statistics as oral (mouth) cancer. The oropharynx is the part of the throat right behind the mouth, starting where the oral cavity stops. It includes the back of the tongue, the soft palate, the tonsils, and the side and back walls of the throat.
- Esophageal Cancer: the esophagus is a hollow tube that connects the throat to the stomach. Foods and liquids that you swallow travel down this tube to get to the stomach. Esophageal cancer typically starts in the inner membrane of this tube and grows outward. The 2018 estimates are: about 17,290 new cases diagnosed and about 15,850 deaths from this type of cancer. (reference)
Smoking also results in damage to the mouth, such as gum disease, stained teeth, bad breath, and tooth loss. Over time, smoking can affect your sense of taste and smell, and reduce the number of taste buds on your tongue. This makes it hard to enjoy food.
Other Ways Tobacco Affects Your Health
- Decreased immune system function
- Increased risk for type 2 diabetes
- Lower bone density resulting in higher risk for broken bones
- Higher risk for developing rheumatoid arthritis
- Increased risk of cataracts and macular degeneration, which causes blindness
- Wounds take longer to heal
- Premature aging of the skin
What Happens When You Quit?
Life expectancy for smokers is at least 10 years shorter than that of non-smokers. Quitting smoking before age 40 reduces the risk of dying from a smoking-related disease by about 90%. Quitting while you are younger will reduce your health risks more, but quitting at any age can give back years of your life. Your body starts to recover almost immediately after your last cigarette:
- 20 minutes after: your heart rate and blood pressure drop
- 12 hours after: carbon monoxide levels in the blood drops to normal
- 2 weeks-3 months after: circulation improves and lung function increases
- 1-9 months after: coughing and shortness of breath decrease. Cilia in the lungs begin to regain normal function
- 1 year after: excess risk of coronary heart disease is half that as someone who still smokes. Heart attack risk drops dramatically
- 5 years after: risk of mouth, throat, esophagus, and bladder cancers is cut in half. Cervical cancer risk and stroke risk falls to that of a non-smoker
- 10 years after: risk of dying from lung cancer is half that as a person who is still smoking. Larynx and pancreas cancer risk decreases
- 15 years after: risk of coronary heart disease is the same as a non-smoker’s
In addition to the changes inside the body, changes outside the body happen as well. Your food will taste better, your sense of smell and taste return to normal, and your teeth and fingernails will stop yellowing. Ordinary activities leave you less out of breath (such as climbing stairs and light housework). Your skin stops wrinkling prematurely, and your breath, hair, and clothes smell better. The best part? Pack-a-day smokers save at least $4,000/year when they quit smoking.
Quitting isn’t easy, and you won’t quit in one day. But all it takes is day one of the process to get you on the right track to living a healthier, smoke-free life. The American Cancer Society celebrates the Great American Smokeout every year on the third Thursday in November. They use the day as an opportunity for everyone to commit to living smoke-free lives year-round. GASO encourages people to use this date to make a plan to quit, or initiate a smoking cessation plan. If you need help quitting, do not hesitate to reach out to your doctor, dentist, community, family, and friends.
For more resources on quitting, information about smoking, and more, be sure to check out:
American Cancer Society: www.cancer.org
American Lung Association: https://www.smokefreeworld.org/
Foundation for a Smoke-Free World: https://www.lung.org/