The good news is that quitting smoking confers substantial health benefits no matter when you do it. The bad news is that you actually have to quit to get these benefits.
So, exactly what can you expect in the relatively near term when you quit smoking? Here are a few of the benefits:
- If you’re an exerciser, your lung function starts to improve after just a few weeks of not smoking.
- Fertility returns to normal quickly after quitting.
- The risk of babies born with low birth weight is the same as nonsmokers upon quitting.
- Your smell and taste will gradually return after six months or less.
- You won’t cough as much in the first year or so.
- Your heart disease risk reduces after the first year and improves to that of a nonsmoker after 15 years.
- Cancer risk reduction takes longer but declines after five years.
- Your risk of a stroke declines substantially after five years.
Smoking effects on the vascular systemThe circulatory system includes the heart, arteries and veins and is responsible for delivering oxygen-rich nutrients and removing waste from all areas in the body. In a healthy body, the process of circulation is effortless. Smoking interferes with that process.
Cardiovascular diseaseHeart disease is the leading cause of death for men and women in the United States. About 20 percent of all deaths from heart disease can be directly attributed to smoking. In addition, smokers who have heart disease are more likely to die younger than nonsmokers.
Every single cigarette a smoker consumes increases the risk of heart disease. In other words, the more you smoke, the more likely you’ll die of heart disease.What does smoking do to the cardiovascular system? If your health care provider tells you that you suffer from one of the following health issues, you can bet that smoking has contributed to these interrelated diseases:
- Hypertension (high blood pressure): Smoking increases blood pressure immediately and over the long term. Hypertension causes the heart to pump harder. It damages blood vessels, causing them to narrow, weaken, or rupture. That damage, in turn, can lead to stroke or heart attack.
- Arteriosclerosis: This disease involves plaque buildup in the arteries which can result in a serious blockage resulting in stroke or heart attack.
- Heart disease: When the plaque buildup affects the blood supply to the heart or the coronary arteries, it can cause chest pain, shortness of breath, or a heart attack. When a heart is weakened, it can lead to what’s known as heart failure. Heart failure occurs gradually, and symptoms include shortness of breath, weakness, fatigue, wheezing, and retention of fluids, resulting in swollen feet and ankles.
Although many pipe and cigar smokers claim that they don’t inhale, some do, and all of them ingest secondhand smoke close up. Smoking cigars and pipes increases both the risk of heart disease and stroke.
Cerebrovascular diseaseStrokes occur when the blood supply to the brain is impeded by a blockage or leakage. The more you smoke, the higher your risk for stroke. In fact, strokes are the top cause of serious long-term disability in the United States. The acronym FAST can help you remember the symptoms of a stroke. Here’s what the acronym stands for:
- Face: Numbness or weakness as evidenced by a droopy or asymmetrical smile.
- Arms: Weakness or paralysis on one side of the body, which can be determined by trying to raise both arms at the same time. With a stroke, one arm may not function the way the other one does.
- Speech: Confusion or difficulty speaking, or understanding may show themselves.
- Time: If these symptoms appear, call a doctor immediately. Urgent, prompt attention can improve the outcome greatly.
Checking for peripheral artery diseaseWith peripheral artery disease (PAD), plaque builds up in the arteries of the outer (or peripheral) part of the body, most commonly the legs. PAD results in pain, cramping, weakness, and numbness in the extremities. If the blood flow is sufficiently restricted, it can also lead to a high risk of infection, which is difficult to treat. Those with severe PAD, can develop gangrene in the affected tissues, which can lead to amputation or even death. Smoking and diabetes are both risk factors for PAD.
How smoking affects lungsFrom the moment a smoker inhales for the first time, the lungs rebel. Most first-timers choke and cough as part of this rebellion. But the lungs adapt after a while and seem just fine again — until they’re not so fine.
In addition to lung problems directly caused by smoking, smoking exacerbates preexisting asthma, makes recovery from colds or flu slower, and can increase the risk of pneumonia.
See your doctor for any cough that lasts for three weeks or more or immediately if you’re coughing up blood.
Confronting coughsMost smokers develop a smokers’ cough. It’s caused by toxins setting up shop in your lungs, which the body tries to eliminate by coughing. In the beginning, it’s a dry, unproductive cough without phlegm. As time passes, it becomes more frequent, gets worse in the morning, and starts producing phlegm. Treatments designed for typical coughs are not particularly effective for smoker’s cough. Eventually, smoker’s cough often leads to more serious conditions.
Taking a turn for the worseMany people fear lung cancer as the worst outcome of long-term smoking, and for good reason. However, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) ranks pretty high on the list, too. In fact, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) ranks COPD the fourth leading cause of death in the United States. As COPD progresses, the lungs struggle to function properly. The lung tissues thicken, which makes it more difficult to inhale and exhale. More mucus is also produced as the disease progresses.
Again, our intention is not to scare you, but people with end-stage COPD have great difficult breathing and become cognitively impaired due to the lack of oxygen. Most experience substantial anxiety because of being unable to catch their breath, which can turn into feelings of drowning. Although there are medications for easing symptoms for a while, there is no cure for COPD. Smoking causes at least 75 percent of all cases of COPD.
COPD is often used as an umbrella term encompassing both chronic bronchitis and emphysema. Chronic bronchitis is bronchitis that persists for months, often recurring over years. Symptoms of chronic bronchitis include
- Shortness of breath
- Unusually low energy
- Overproduction of mucus or phlegm
- Sometimes fever
Confronting lung cancerEighty percent to 90 percent of all lung cancers appear to be caused by smoking. Most lung cancers are not diagnosed in the early stages, which is why about half of all patients die in the first year following diagnosis. The five-year survival rate is just under 20 percent. We should note that a few new, targeted medications and immunotherapy hold some promise for future improvements in these outcomes.
Smoking light or menthol cigarettes does not reduce a smoker’s risk of lung cancer compared to regular cigarettes. However, smoking unfiltered cigarettes doubles the risk of lung cancer for smokers. Filters do not make cigarettes safe in any way, shape, or form. But if you’re going to smoke something, come hell or high water, at least consider avoiding unfiltered cigarettes.
Early detection greatly improves survival rates. If you’re a smoker, consider going to www.lung.org for a free quiz that you can use to determine if you’re eligible for a low-dose CT screening exam that could save your life.Normally, the first sign of lung cancer is a cough that doesn’t go away. Hoarseness, shortness of breath, chest pain, coughing up blood, weight loss, and frequent lung infections represent more concerning symptoms. Don’t wait; if you think you’re at high risk or you have some of these symptoms, see your healthcare professional right away.
When it comes to your risk of heart disease, stroke, and especially COPD and lung cancer, you may think you’ve succeeded at dodging the bullet if you use smokeless tobacco. Although your risk of lung cancer and COPD may be lower as a smokeless tobacco user, that’s not necessarily the case for many other forms of cancer. In the next section, we look at some of the health risks faced by smokeless tobacco users.
HTPs have not yet been linked to lung cancer. And tobacco companies claim that they’re safer than cigarettes. We have two problems with this claim:
- There have not been any long-term studies of the safety of HTPs compared to cigarettes.
- You’re inhaling the vapor of the entire tobacco product. Indeed, HTPs don’t involve the range of carcinogenic materials and chemicals of burned tobacco, but they do contain some of the same toxins.
Other cancers caused by smokingSmoking not only devastates the lungs and circulatory system but also is responsible for many otherwise preventable cancers. Cancer involves cells going wild dividing and invading healthy tissue. Cancer cells move stealthily through the blood and lymphatic system. Toxic chemicals from tobacco make emerging cancer cells more likely and stopping cancer cells more difficult. Warning signs of cancer include
- Unexplained weight loss
- Persistent cough or hoarseness
- Sores that take too long to heal
- Unexplained lumps that appear anywhere on the body
- Bleeding or discharge
If you have any of the troubling signs above, or significant changes in appetite, bowel or bladder routine, or unexplained pain, see your healthcare provider for a checkup.The more cigarettes you smoke and the more years you smoke them, the greater your risk of cancer of most types. Sending toxic chemicals throughout your body has consequences including a higher risk of the following:
- Mouth and throat cancer
- Esophageal cancer
- Cancer of the larynx
- Cancer of the trachea
- Pancreatic cancer
- Stomach cancer
- Bladder cancer
- Kidney cancer
- Liver cancer
- Cervical cancer
- Colon and rectum cancer
Whether smoky or smokeless, using tobacco causes cancer. For those who smoke pipes or cigars, chew tobacco, or use snuff, the resulting cancer is mainly found in areas that have been directly exposed to the tobacco, such as the mouth, throat, nose, and sinuses. In addition, smokeless tobacco is associated with a higher risk of pancreatic cancer.
How smoking erodes overall healthIngesting poison into your body day after day, not only causes cancer, heart disease, and stroke, but a whole lot of other heartache. Smoking negatively impacts every part of your body. Smoking increases the risk for a variety of disorders, from loss of hearing to loss of bone mass. The following problems have been linked to smoking:
- Hearing loss: Smoking decreases oxygen levels, which negatively effects the blood vessels that keep the critical hair cells in the inner ear healthy.
- Cataracts and macular degeneration: Smoking tobacco substantially increases the risk of eye problems. Some studies have found that smokeless tobacco also increases risk.
- Crohn’s disease: Crohn’s disease is a type of inflammatory bowel disease that causes pain, diarrhea, weight loss, and malnutrition. Smoking is a risk factor, and it can lead to more disease.
- Periodontal disease: This disease involves chronic infections of the gums around the teeth. Tobacco use makes it worse, and chewing tobacco is a particular risk.
- Type 2 diabetes: This chronic disease impacts health negatively across a variety of domains and is 30 percent to 40 percent more likely to occur for smokers as compared to nonsmokers.
- Rheumatoid arthritis (RA): RA is a chronic, autoimmune disease, and smoking has been shown to increase its risk and severity.
- Osteoarthritis: It’s unknown exactly why, but smoking actually seems to confer some small benefit for reducing this disease of the cartilage that protects the ends of bones. Given all the other problems smoking causes, it hardly seems worth going for this mild benefit.
- Osteoporosis: This disease involves a deterioration of bone density. The more cigarettes you smoke, the more likely you’ll have osteoporosis and break bones. And if you do break a few bones, they’ll heal more slowly.
- Ulcers: Evidence suggests that ingesting tobacco increases the risk of stomach ulcers and slows healing.