Smoking takes a bite out of your wallet, leaves a lingering odor on your clothing, yellows teeth and nails, and increases your risk of cancer. Smoking also greatly increases your chance of heart disease, the effects of which may be invisible until it has progressed so far that it’s too late to reverse.

Coronary heart disease, a form of cardiovascular disease, is the leading cause of death in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The CDC estimates that smoking puts you at four times the risk of developing heart disease compared to non-smokers. According to the National Cancer Institute, people who smoke are up to six times more likely to have a heart attack.

While you may know that smoking can cause lung cancer, the negative effects of this habit go much deeper. Smoking and tobacco use can lead to a variety of diseases and health disorders and reduce the general health of regular smokers. Smoking has also been shown to cause damage to nearly every organ in your body, especially your heart.

Cigarette smoking is the most preventable cause of premature death in the United States, according to the American Heart Association (AHA). In other words, learning more about the connection between smoking and heart disease, and quitting as soon as possible, can be a lifesaving move.

How Does Smoking Cause Heart Disease?

Smoking can cause the lining of your arteries to deteriorate, the walls of your arteries to thicken, and fat and plaque deposits to block blood flow through your arteries. This buildup of fatty substances in your arteries is called atherosclerosis. When the arteries that supply blood to your heart narrow, the supply of oxygen-rich blood to your heart decreases, which can lead to coronary heart disease. Narrowed arteries can be particularly dangerous during physical activity. The extra strain on your heart can lead to chest pain. If a complete artery block occurs, it can lead to a heart attack.

What Increases the Risk of Heart Attack?

No amount of smoking is considered safe and the more cigarettes you smoke, the greater your risk of a heart attack. Smoking on its own is a risk factor for both heart disease and heart attack. When paired with the following factors, your risk increases even more:

  • a family history of heart disease
  • high cholesterol
  • high blood pressure
  • diabetes
  • being physically inactive
  • being overweight or obese

The risk of heart disease also increases in women who smoke and take birth control pills. According to the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI), studies show that women who use high-dose birth control pills have a higher risk of having a heart attack or stroke. Many birth control pills already carry a risk of blood clots, and smoking also greatly increases this risk.

The good news is that recent studies have shown that your risk of heart disease decreases soon after you quit smoking. The risk decreases progressively since the last cigarette. The sooner you quit, the better.

Can Secondhand Smoke Cause Heart Disease?

Even secondhand smoke, which is smoke you inhale while being near someone else who’s smoking, can cause heart problems, depending on the regularity of your exposure. The AHA reports a clear link between secondhand smoke and cardiovascular disease.

The AHA also reports that people regularly exposed to smoke increase their risk of developing heart disease by up to 30 percent. Nearly 40,000 people die each year from heart and blood vessel diseases caused by secondhand smoke. So quitting doesn’t just help you, it also helps those around you. If you live with or spend time with someone who smokes, this is another reason to help them quit.

How Can I Prevent Heart Disease?

Diet and exercise are important factors in keeping your blood circulating well and your heart healthy. But if you’re a smoker, a healthy diet and regular exercise alone won’t protect you from the far-reaching effects of smoking, including heart disease.

If you’re a smoker, you can take steps to control or prevent future heart disease by quitting smoking now.

Slowly decreasing the number of cigarettes you smoke can lower your risk of heart problems. Try cutting back the number of cigarettes you smoke each day, and then set a quit date. You’ll look better, feel better, and may even live longer. If you’re exposed to secondhand smoke on a regular basis, you can decrease your risk of heart disease by avoiding environments where others are smoking.

Quitting smoking cuts your risk in half for repeat heart attacks and death from heart disease, according to the Cleveland Clinic. Take the next step. You can improve your health and prolong your life by quitting smoking.