It is commonly known that smoking cigarettes damages the lungs, but do you know what issues that damage causes for long term smokers? Here we will go through not only how cigarettes affect the lungs, but how they affect other parts of the body too.
What smoking does to your lungs
Tobacco smoke is not just one thing, it contains thousands of different chemicals, including nicotine, carbon monoxide and tars1. All of these chemicals have different effects, but smoking for an extended period causes a repeatable pattern of changes to the lungs and airways.
- Emphysema – The lungs are made up of 2 parts, air sacs (alveoli), where oxygen is absorbed from the air and carbon dioxide is disposed of by the body, and tubes (trachea, bronchi and bronchioles) that connect the air sacs to your mouth and nose, allowing air to move in and out. Smoking causes damage to the air sacs, meaning there are less of them to exchange oxygen and carbon dioxide, making breathing harder. This is called emphysema, and is half of a condition called COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease)2.
- Chronic bronchitis – This is the other half of COPD, and is where the tubes connecting the air sacs and the mouth and nose become swollen and mucus filled. This makes breathing harder as the tubes are partially blocked. This also leads to a chronic cough2.
- Chest infections – The increase of mucus in the lungs makes it easier for bacteria and viruses to take hold, increasing the chance of chest infections3.
- Fewer cilia – The tubes in the lungs are lined with small hairs that beat rhythmically to move mucus out of the lungs. A few seconds after a cigarette is lit, the cilia slow down. Smoking just one cigarette can reduce their action for several hours. Smoking consistently reduces their overall number, making it harder for the lungs to clear mucus4.
- Cancer risk – Tobacco smoke contains large amounts of toxins that are linked to an increased risk of lung cancer5. This occurs for two reasons. Some of the chemicals damage parts of the DNA of cells in the lungs, and other chemicals make it harder for cells to repair that damaged DNA.
The effect of smoking on other parts of the body
Whilst the largest effects of smoking are on the lungs, as they are the most exposed part of the body to tobacco smoke, there is significant damage done to other organs as well.
- Heart and blood vessels – The harmful chemicals in tobacco smoke that get into the bloodstream thicken the blood, increasing the risk of blood clots that cause heart attacks and strokes. Smoking also increases a person’s blood pressure and heart rate, causing stress to the heart that can lead to failure in later life. Finally, chemicals such as carbon monoxide bind to red blood cells, the cells that carry oxygen around the body, reducing how much they can carry6.
- Brain – Smokers are twice as likely to have a stroke than non-smokers7. They are also twice as likely to die from a stroke8.
- Stomach – Smoking prompts the stomach to produce more acid, increasing the change of acid refluxing into the oesophagus (food pipe) and causing heartburn symptoms9.
- Skin – Smoking reduces the amount of oxygen which reaches skin cells, causing increased skin ageing and wrinkle formation10.
- Immune system – Smoking can make the body less effective at fighting a variety of disease, from viruses like cold and flu, to serious conditions such as cancer. Smoking can also affect the equilibrium of the immune system, increase the risk of autoimmune disorders (conditions where the body’s immune system mistakenly attacks its own cells). These include rheumatoid arthritis and inflammatory bowel disease11.
- Central nervous system – Smoking’s profound effect on the central nervous system can be readily seen when smokers go through periods of withdrawal, when intense mood swings, anxiety, depression, and reduced cognitive abilities are all present. Regular smokers are more inclined to be nervous, restless and have difficulties with concentration12.
What are the risk of smoking long term
- COPD – Smokers are 12 times more likely to die from COPD than non-smokers13
- Heart attack and stroke – Smokers are twice as likely to have a heart attack or stroke than non-smokers14
- Cancer – Smoking is linked to an increased risk of 15 different types of cancer15
- Lung cancer – People who smoke are 15-30 times more likely to get lung cancer than those who do not16
- Death – Tobacco kills up to half of its users17
What are the effects of stopping?
Whilst the risks of smoking are very significant, the benefits of stopping are also very significant. Before we give some statistics on the effects of quitting, it is important to know that quitting often requires multiple attempts, and many people who have now quit have had many relapses on the way.
Here is how your body will react to quitting smoking18:
- After 20 mins – Your pulse rate starts to lower to normal
- After 8 hours – Oxygen levels increase and carbon monoxide levels reduce by half
- After 48 hours – All carbon monoxide is flushed out. Senses of taste and smell improve
- After 72 hours – Reduction in mucus makes breathing feel easier
- After 2 to 12 weeks – Improved circulation will mean blood is reaching your heart and lungs more easily
- After 3 to 9 months – Your lung function will improve by up to 10%, and symptoms such as cough or wheeze will be improving
- After 1 year – Your risk of heart attack will be halved compared to a smoker’s
- After 10 years – Your risk of death from lung cancer will be halved compared to a smoker’s
Where consumers can get help to quit smoking
The Australian government offers advice on how to quit smoking, which includes the resources available to you and what methods you can use. There are also many regional resources at state and local level that can be easily found with an internet search and link you to more resources near you.
Additionally you can access free support from Quitline, where you can build your own quit plan that can support you in your journey to stop smoking.
Before you start to quit it is very useful to know what methods there are available to support smoking cessation, and how these can help increase your chances of success.