The Smoking and COPD Connection

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is a common lung disease, as well as the third leading cause of death in the United States. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), COPD afflicts an estimated 210 million people worldwide. Although there are a variety of risk factors, such as air pollutants and genetics, which can lead to COPD, cigarette smoking is far and away the leading cause of the disease.

In fact, smoking causes 90 percent of cases of COPD.

What is COPD?

To understand the smoking and COPD connection, it’s important to understand how COPD affects the lungs. COPD is caused by either an accumulation of mucus in the lungs or a loss of lung elasticity. Less air is able to penetrate throughout the lungs, making it very difficult to breath.

Individuals suffering from COPD have either chronic bronchitis, emphysema, or both. Chronic bronchitis is caused by inflamed and narrowed breathing tubes in the lungs which cause mucus buildup. The result is a chronic cough and an increased risk of bacterial lung infections. Emphysema occurs when air sacs in the lungs lose elasticity, inhibiting airflow.

How Does Smoking Contribute to COPD?

The air you breathe travels down through the windpipe, eventually making its way into bronchial tubes. Bronchial tubes then stretch out into much smaller tubes known as bronchioles, which have minuscule clusters of air sacs at the end called alveoli.

Within the small air sacs are tiny blood vessels known as capillaries. When you inhale, the oxygen moves through the air sacs and into the blood of the capillaries that are located within the air sacs. Simultaneously, carbon dioxide is moved from the blood vessels into the air sacs in a process known as gas exchange.

The elasticity in the air sacs enables this exchange to occur smoothly as they inflate and deflate with each breath. People who smoke suffer lung damage which allows less air to flow in and out of the air pathways due to:

  • stiffening of air sacs
  • degradation of wall between air sacs
  • thickening and inflammation of air pathway walls
  • increasing mucus in the air pathways, causing build-up and air obstruction

Cigarette smoke contains harmful toxins that affect lung functionality. Toxins that are inhaled directly into the lungs over prolonged periods of time can lead to high levels of abnormal lung irritation, causing the onset of COPD. As long-term exposure to cigarette smoke continues, the lungs incur more damage, including lung inflammation, and breakdown of the lung’s filter system.

Can You Reverse Cigarette Damage?

Unfortunately, there is no cure for COPD. Damage to the lungs can’t be reversed. COPD is treated using several different methods including changes in lifestyle, therapy, and prescription drugs. When used in combination, these treatment methods can slow down the progression of the disease and bring relief to the patient by causing symptoms to subside. The best way to stop the disease from worsening is for people who smoke to quit immediately and avoid secondhand smoke. People who continue to smoke put themselves at increased risk of accelerating the disease and its symptoms, as well as premature death.