Smoking 101

You probably know that smoking tobacco isn’t great for your health. A recent report by the U.S. surgeon general attributes nearly half a million deaths annually to smoking. Your lungs are one of the organs that’s most impacted by tobacco. Here’s how smoking affects your lungs and your overall health.

Air from outside the body comes in through a pathway called the trachea. It then goes through outlets called bronchioles. These are located in the lungs.

Your lungs are made up of elastic tissue that contracts and expands as you breathe. Bronchioles bring clean, oxygen-rich air into your lungs and expel carbon dioxide. Tiny, hair-like structures line the lungs and air pathways. These are called cilia. They clean up any dust or dirt that’s found in the air you breathe.

Cigarette smoke contains many chemicals that harm your respiratory system. These chemicals inflame the lungs and can lead to the overproduction of mucus. Because of this, smokers are at an increased risk for smoker’s cough, bronchitis, and infectious diseases such as pneumonia. This inflammation can also trigger asthma attacks in people with asthma.

Nicotine in tobacco also paralyzes the cilia. Normally, cilia clean out chemicals, dust, and dirt through well-coordinated sweeping movements. When cilia are inactive, toxic substances can accumulate. This can result in lung congestion and smoker’s cough.

Both tobacco and the chemicals found in cigarettes change the cellular structure of lungs. The elastic walls within the airways break down. This means that there’s less functioning surface area in the lungs.

In order to effectively exchange the air that we breathe, which is rich in oxygen, with the air that we exhale, which is filled with carbon dioxide, we need a large surface area.

When lung tissues break down, they aren’t able to take part in this exchange. Eventually, this leads to a condition known as emphysema. This condition is characterized by shortness of breath.

Many smokers will develop emphysema. The number of cigarettes you smoke and other lifestyle factors may influence how much damage is done. If you’re diagnosed with either emphysema or chronic bronchitis, you’re said to have chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). Both disorders are types of COPD.

Check out: The effects of smoking on the body »

Habitual smoking can lead to a number of short-term consequences. This includes:

  • shortness of breath
  • impaired athletic performance
  • a coarse cough
  • poor lung health
  • bad breath
  • yellow teeth
  • bad-smelling hair, body, and clothes

Smoking is also associated with many long-term health risks. It’s understood that smokers are much more likely than nonsmokers to develop all forms of lung cancer. It’s estimated that 90 percent of lung cancer cases are due to regular smoking. Men who smoke are 23 times more likely to develop lung cancer than men who have never smoked. Similarly, women are 13 times more likely to develop lung cancer than women that have never smoked.

Smoking also increases the risk of other lung-related illnesses such as COPD and pneumonia. About 80 percent of all COPD-related deaths in the United States are due to smoking. Regular smokers are also more likely to experience cancer of the:

  • pancreas
  • liver
  • stomach
  • kidney
  • mouth
  • bladder
  • esophagus

Cancer isn’t the only long-term health problem smoking can cause. Inhaling tobacco also impairs blood circulation. This can increase your likelihood of:

  • a heart attack
  • a stroke
  • coronary artery disease
  • damaged blood vessels

It’s never too late to quit smoking. Within days of smoking cessation, cilia will begin to regenerate. Within weeks to months, your cilia can become completely functional again. This drastically lowers your risk of developing lung-related illnesses, such as lung cancer and COPD.

After 10 to 15 years of abstinence from tobacco, your risk of developing lung cancer will become equivalent to that of someone who has never smoked.

Although it may not be easy to break the habit, it’s possible. Talk to your doctor, a licensed counselor, or others in your support network to get started on the right track.

There are a number of options available to help you quit at a pace suitable for you. This includes:

  • nicotine patches
  • e-cigarettes
  • attending a support group
  • counseling
  • managing conditions that promote smoking, such as stress
  • physical exercise
  • quitting cold turkey

It’s important to try different methods when quitting smoking. Sometimes it’s helpful to combine different strategies, such as exercising and nicotine reduction. Reducing the amount that you smoke or eliminating the habit altogether can help improve the health of your lungs.

If you experience withdrawal symptoms, you should talk with your doctor. They can help you determine a plan for quitting smoking that’s right for you.

Keep reading: Tips to quit smoking »