How Smoking Affects Your Health

By:    Published: July 27, 2012

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It's no secret that smoking has terrible affects on a person's health. Smoking is the leading cause of preventable deaths in the United States. And while most people are aware that smoking causes lung cancer, thanks to the myriad public service announcements that have been broadcast for decades, many are not aware of the other health problems that smoking contributes to.

Cardiovascular Disease

Those who smoke cigarettes are at an even greater risk for developing cardiovascular disease than those who don't smoke. The reason is because the chemicals found in cigarettes and other tobacco products cause damage to every part of the cardiovascular system, even if the person is only an occasional or social smoker. (For information on preventing cardiovascular disease, see 10 Easy Steps To Preventing Cardiovascular Disease.)

Here are some examples of how smoking affects the cardiovascular system:

  • Damage to red blood cells: Smoking makes red blood cells sticky, which can cause dangerous blood clots. If blood clots form or migrate to the brain, it can cause a life threatening stroke. If they occur or move to the heart, the result is often a heart attack. Blood clots can also move to the lungs, something called a pulmonary embolism.
  • Damage to blood vessels: Smoking causes a sticky substance called plaque to build up in blood vessels. Over time, this substance will harden, affecting how well the blood vessels are able to transport blood to all areas of the body. When it occurs in arteries, the condition is called atherosclerosis, and it can be particularly dangerous if it occurs in the coronary arteries because it can cause heart attacks.
  • Damage to the heart: The function of the heart can be damaged by smoking, especially when combined with other factors such as high blood pressure (another condition that smoking contributes to) and high cholesterol. Over time, the heart, like any other muscle in the body, can become enlarged if it has to work too hard. This can be life threatening.

Respiratory Disease

There are more than 250 harmful chemicals found in cigarette smoke, as well as in other forms of tobacco, and all of those harmful chemicals enter the body through the lungs. While it's no secret that smoking is the leading cause of lung cancer, it can cause other forms of lung disease as well, primarily chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).

COPD is a group of respiratory conditions that make it difficult to breathe. While COPD is often used as a catch-all term, it is most often used to refer to the following conditions:

  • Emphysema: This condition makes it very difficult to breathe because the elastic fibers in the tiny airways in the lungs collapse. In a healthy person these fibers hold the airway open, allowing air to move in and out of the lungs freely. While treatment can slow the progression of emphysema, there is no cure for it.
  • Chronic bronchitis: Chronic bronchitis, like acute bronchitis, makes it difficult to breathe because of swelling in the airway as well as excessive production of mucus. To be diagnosed with chronic bronchitis a person must have a cough with mucus for most days of the month for at least three months.

In addition, smoking can also exacerbate other respiratory problems such as asthma or pneumoconiosis, a condition caused by inhaling dust, most often seen in mining, smelting, or other industrial operations.

Cancer

While it's well-known that smoking causes lung cancer, the carcinogens (cancer causing chemicals) found in tobacco products travel throughout the body and can cause many other types of cancer, including:

  • Cancer of the oral cavity (mouth)
  • Cancer of the pharynx (throat)
  • Cancer of the larynx (voice box)
  • Cancer of the esophagus
  • Stomach cancer
  • Pancreatic cancer
  • Kidney cancer
  • Bladder cancer
  • Cervical cancer
  • Acute myeloid leukemia (blood cancer)

Smoking And Pregnancy

There are a number of other health problems associated with smoking, many of these affecting the most vulnerable people – unborn babies or babies born to mothers who smoked during their pregnancies.

Smoking has been linked to:

  • Increased incidence of infertility
  • Miscarriage
  • Stillbirth
  • Premature babies
  • Low birth weight
  • Sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS)
  • Decreased bone density in women
  • Increased problems from gastro-esophageal reflux disease (GERD)

While tobacco is highly addictive, there are a number of products available both over-the-counter and by doctor's prescription that can make quitting much easier, and extensive research has shown that health improves immediately once a person quits smoking, and keeps improving for years afterward, no matter how long that person smoked. In addition, most people find that once they quit smoking, their sense of taste and smell improves, as well as the condition of their skin and hair. While it may be tough at first, it's well worth the effort. Quitting is the best thing that smokers can do for their bodies.

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