What does smoking do to the body?

Joanne Carey
Cardiovascular Registries Coordinator

For decades, we’ve heard concerns about the effects of cigarette smoking on the heart and lungs. We’ve read frightening statistics that smoking claims more than 440,000 people annually. But how do cigarettes actually damage the body, and is that damage limited to the heart and lungs?

Every cell and all tissues of the body need oxygen as a fuel source. We get this from the air we breathe into our lungs, which is pumped by our heart throughoutthe body. Inhaling smoke from cigarettes increases blood carbon monoxide which decreases the amount of available oxygen to circulate to tissues. As a result, tissues are less able to function over time and, for another example, bones can fracture due to the decreased oxygen supply.      

Nicotine in cigarettes increases blood pressure and triggers the release of hormones (catecholamines) that raise the heart rate about 20 beats per minute. You may have noticed when you climb stairs or run, your heart rate and blood pressure increase to meet these extra temporary demands on the body; then they slow to your normal rate after the exertion is over. But the increased heart rate and blood pressure due to nicotine end up overworking the heart and blood vessels.

Nicotine in the blood vessels is like a clamp that makes it harder for blood to circulate. This vasoconstriction contributes to the blood vessel walls not being as elastic so the heart has to work harder to push blood around, raising blood pressure over time. As the chemicals in cigarettes circulate in the body, they roughen blood vessel walls. Instead of a smooth interior surface, this roughened area makes it easier for sticky red blood cells to latch on. This area where blood flow is decreased is an ideal place for clots to form, which could cause a heart attack or stroke.

In addition

  • Smoking prematurely ages the skin by wearing away proteins and depleting vitamin A. This can cause tiny lines around the lips and eyes and contributes to skin becoming dry and leathery.
  • Nicotine is an appetite suppressant and, for some, smoking between meals replaces a snack. The nicotine raises blood sugar and blood fat levels, which tricks the body into thinking it has eaten more than it actually has. This affects your body’s ability to get the nutrients it needs.
  • Smoking reduces resistance to the bacteria that cause stomach ulcers. It also impacts the stomach’s ability to neutralize acid after a meal. This damages the lining of the stomach and can lead to hard-to-treat ulcers.
  • Smokers have a 40 percent higher rate of cataracts due to smoke irritating the eyes and from the chemicals in cigarettes entering the lungs and circulating to the eyes through the blood stream.
  • Smoking damages the lining of the lungs over time. Coughing is a natural response to clear irritants from the lungs. The long-term build-up of these irritants contributes to a “smoker’s cough,” makes a cold harder to get over and can lead to chronic lung diseases such as emphysema.
  • More than 40 chemicals in tobacco have been shown to cause cancer, especially in the lungs, mouth and throat.

The overall health of the individual, genetic tendencies inherited from both parents, quantity of cigarettes smoked or exposed to and other factors regarding nutrition in one’s diet and amount of exercise affect how the body responds over time to the extra burden cigarettes place on the body.

The good news is the body usually responds favorably when a person stops smoking. Within a few days, many positive effects—such as eliminating the nicotine chemicals from the blood supply through the kidneys, feeling less anxious, improved blood oxygen levels as well as heart rate and blood pressure normalization—can be felt. It may take months or years to feel the maximum effects on one’s heart and lungs (and this can vary by the individual), but over time ex-smokers usually feel more energetic, sleep better and enjoy the taste of food again.

Stopping smoking is one of the hardest habits to break but also has some of the most significant rewards. Talk with your caregiver at Durham Regional about smoking cessation help.

Visit durhamregional.org to find a physician who’s right for you.

One thought on “What does smoking do to the body?

  1. Pingback: Looking back on 2012 | Durham Regional Hospital

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