Despite smoking being the cause of 80 percent of cases of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), 38 percent of COPD patients report that they still smoke. These are staggering statistics and show the powerful addictive effects of nicotine and other harmful chemicals found in cigarettes.
Unfortunately, many people suffering with smoking addiction today are people who grew up in a time when smoking was hip, cheap, and socially acceptable. All the regulations that we now have on cigarette advertising and sales were nonexistent in the 50s and 60s and the awful side-effects of that era are still haunting us in the 21st century.
The good news is that youth smoking rates have dropped significantly, indicating a change in stigma towards cigarette smoking in newer generations. According to data by the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services (HHS), the percentage of 12th-graders who smoke cigarettes decreased dramatically from 25 percent in 1997 to just five percent in 2018.
While this decline is — at least in part — due to the increase in popularity of vaping and e-cigarettes, it’s also due to an increased awareness of the harmful effects of smoking. But while young people may be constantly exposed to information about smoking, older Americans may not be hearing the full story.
Whether you or a loved one has COPD, lung cancer, or any other respiratory condition, now is the time to quit. Smoking cessation will have a significant and immediate impact on your well-being, systemic health, and will make respiratory symptoms easier to manage while reducing the rate at which your disease progresses. In the following sections, we’ll outline all of the health benefits to smoking cessation, especially as it relates to current COPD patients.
Improved Pulmonary Health
Out of all the parts of the body that are affected by smoking, the lungs are by far hit the hardest. Your lungs are one of five vital organs and they’re responsible for oxygenating your blood and removing carbon dioxide from the body through respiration. Because the respiratory system is made up of so many different components, smoking can have a number of effects like irritating the larynx or trachea, swelling and narrowing of the airways, and permanent damage to the alveoli.
When air enters the lungs through the bronchial tubes and enters one of the lobes, it passes to the alveoli where the exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide takes place. Capillaries are blood vessels found in the wall of the alveoli that transport oxygen to the heart, and then throughout the body. Your pulmonary health includes anything that affects your airways, lobes, alveoli, bronchioles, and pulmonary arteries.
Inflammation is an immune response in the body. When there is an injury, infection, or toxins in a certain part of the body, chemicals are released from the white blood cells. This signals the body to send more blood to the affected area, causing it to become red, swollen, and warm. And while acute inflammation is a key process in our body’s immune response, chronic inflammation can cause serious medical issues if it’s not treated.
COPD is one of the primary diseases associated with chronic inflammation in the lungs. It results in permanent and irreversible damage to the airways and alveoli in the lungs. While the inflammation associated with COPD is not curable, many studies have shown that the inflammation resulting from smoking is curable.
Smoking causes an increase in white blood cells and C-reactive protein (CRP) production. The CRP is a protein created in the liver and sent through your bloodstream in response to inflammation. In order to test for the presence of an autoimmune disease, doctors may perform a CRP test. While low levels of CRP are normal, high levels could be a sign of a bacterial infection, autoimmune disorder, or fungal infection.
According to a study published in the National Center for Biotechnology Information, CRP levels are elevated in smokers but there is no correlation between the amount of cigarettes smoked and CRP levels. What’s more, another study published in the same journal found that inflammatory responses returned to normal five years after a smoker quits. What this means is that even if you’re only smoking once a week, you will most likely have higher levels of CRP, and the only way to reduce it is through long-term smoking cessation.
While there’s still a lot of research that needs to be done on chronic inflammation and smoking, it’s clear that smoking has a direct and negative impact on the body’s natural immune response. While the lungs may never fully recover from this damage, the inflammation can be reduced with immediate smoking cessation.
Reduced Carcinogen Exposure
A carcinogen is anything that could potentially result in the process of carcinogenesis — the formation of cancer — in the body. Although it’s impossible to live your life without being exposed to some carcinogens, smoking is the greatest avoidable risk factor for carcinogen exposure.
In cigarette smoke, there are around 4,000 chemicals. 70 of these chemicals are carcinogenic and either cause, initiate, or promote the growth of cancer. Some of these chemicals include:
- Aromatic amines
- Ethylene oxide
Out of all of these carcinogens, perhaps the most studied is benzopyrene. Researchers have found that this chemical attaches itself to the DNA in cells layering the lungs. When benzopyrene enters the body, it’s processed by enzymes allowing it to be excreted through urine. Known as epoxides, these water-soluble forms of benzopyrene attach to DNA and mutate them.
Epoxides don’t just affect the lungs, however. Because they’re passing through other parts of the body, smokers are more likely to experience liver cancer, bladder cancer, and oral cancer as well. Although cells are able to combat some of the effects of the epoxides, some of them result in adducts, or attachments on DNA that are replicated, causing cancer.
The “Smoker’s Signature”
Bound by hydrogen bonds, a guanine base and cytosine base combine to create a base pair in DNA replication. However, when DNA is replicated with an adduct, it replaces the cytosine base with an adenine base. This results in something called a G-to-T transversion which can be seen as a sort of ‘typo’ in the world of genetics. And because G-to-T transversions have become so common among smokers, they’re often known as the ‘smoker’s signature.’
Unfortunately, benzopyrene isn’t just found in cigarette smoke; it’s produced with the combustion of other organic materials like coal tar and even grilled meats. Although smoking is the leading risk factor for lung cancer, everyone should make an effort to avoid inhaling airborne pollution, because there’s a good chance it has carcinogens in it.
Improved Cardiovascular Health
Smoking doesn’t just impact the lungs, it has a detrimental effect on the whole body including the heart. Smoking and being exposed to secondhand smoke can damage the blood vessels that transport blood throughout the body and when it affects your body’s ability to bring blood to or away from the heart, it can result in a heart attack, stroke, or death.
Reduced Risk of Heart Disease
Heart disease is the leading cause of death worldwide and about one fifth of all deaths by heart disease are caused by smoking. According to Hopkins Medicine, smoking contributes to a number of risk factors for heart disease including atherosclerosis, blood clots, and abnormal heart rhythms.
The chemicals found in cigarette smoke damage your blood cells and can alter the structure of blood vessels. Most often, this will result in a condition called atherosclerosis characterized by plaque buildup in the arteries. This plaque eventually hardens and forms a clot that can narrow or completely block your arteries.
If this plaque affects the coronary arteries, which carry blood to the heart, it’s known as coronary heart disease (CHD). This can result in a heart attack, heart failure, and even death if it’s left untreated. Other arterial diseases like peripheral artery disease (PAD) may result if the blood clot impairs an artery that carries blood to the head, limbs, or other organs throughout the body. Someone with PAD is at risk for a stroke and heart disease.
Lower Blood Pressure
It’s a well-known fact that smoking increases blood pressure (hypertension). This is the result of two primary functions: peripheral vascular resistance and cardiac output. In other words, your heart is pumping more, and there is increased resistance in the arteries. Studies have shown that both cardiac output and peripheral vascular resistance are acute symptoms of smoking, meaning when you stop smoking, these symptoms go away.
A study published in the American Heart Association journal examined smokers over a course of 24 hours. The researchers observed that both heart rate and blood pressure were significantly lower in periods of no smoking than in periods where the person was smoking. So, not only does smoking have long-term effects on your heart health, you’re also at a much higher risk of experiencing a heart attack or stroke while smoking a cigarette.
Improved HDL Cholesterol Levels
High-density lipoprotein cholesterol, also known as the ‘good’ cholesterol, plays an important role in your cardiovascular health. It’s responsible for gathering up other cholesterol and bringing it back to the liver to be broken down and removed from the body. However, when HDL-c levels are low, there isn’t enough to remove that cholesterol resulting in plaque buildup and eventually blood clots.
Studies have shown that smoking leads to lower levels of HDL-c and that cessation can bring cholesterol levels back to normal. Smoking interferes with several processes including HDL metabolism, subfractions, catabolism, biosynthesis and maturation, and intravascular remodeling of HDL. Smoking cessation will restore the protective functions of HDL and prevent it from becoming atherogenic.
Healing Damaged Heart Tissue
Smoking puts a significant amount of stress on the heart. Carbon monoxide in cigarette smoke enters the bloodstream and reduces oxygen levels in red blood cells. Once it reaches the organs throughout your body, they’ll have less oxygen to work with, and your heart will need to work harder to ensure your body gets the nutrients it needs.
The narrowing of the blood vessels due to nicotine and increased blood pressure and plaque buildup can also cause damage to the heart and reduce your exercise tolerance. However, the good news is that right when you stop smoking, your body will slowly begin to heal. Blood pressure will immediately drop, oxygen levels will increase, and there will be much less stress on your heart and arteries.
Improved Systemic Health
Your lungs and heart are the two most important things to consider when it comes to the effects of smoking on your body. However, cigarette smoke damages your whole body in some way or another and you may be surprised at all the negative effects it can have.
Lowered Risk of Type 2 Diabetes
With type 2 diabetes, your body has an impaired ability to metabolize glucose by either not producing enough insulin or altering the effects of insulin. And according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, smokers are 30 to 40 percent more likely to develop type 2 diabetes than those who don’t smoke.
Type 2 diabetes can lead to many complications including damage to the kidneys, eyes, nerves, while also increasing your risk of stroke and heart attack. Smoking causes this disease through something called oxidative stress, an issue that arises when the chemicals in cigarette smoke mix with oxygen in the blood. Inflammation is thought to be another major cause of type 2 diabetes.
Improved Oral Health
Chewing tobacco isn’t the only thing that causes oral health issues; cigarette smoking is also a potential risk. What’s more, smokers are at a higher risk for periodontal disease, bone loss, and other common oral health issues that can lead to tooth loss at a younger age. Cigarette smoke can also stain your teeth and give you bad breath.
Gum disease is one of the most common oral health issues in the world and results from the growth of bacteria and plaque that develops on the teeth. Severe gum disease can result in gum recession and tooth loss. And because smoking impairs your body’s natural ability to fight off infection, it raises your risk for gum disease even if you brush and floss regularly.
Improved Eye Health
According to the New York Department of Health, smoking is a risk factor for eye diseases like age-related macular degeneration (AMD), cataracts, glaucoma, and diabetic retinopathy. There are a number of ways smoking affects the eyes. For example, the smoke can irritate your eyes and cause an allergic reaction similar to pollen or any other airborne pollution.
Another reason for eye health complications is artery occlusion or the sudden blockage of blood to the retina due to high blood pressure or diabetes. Smoking can also cause damage to the optic nerve resulting in vision loss or blindness and a reduced supply of antioxidants in the eye that can lead to cataracts.
Improved Bone Health
It’s natural for bones to change and evolve as we age. From childhood all the way through adulthood, our bones are developing. However, if bones start to weaken and become brittle, this is known as osteoporosis. In a healthy person, the production of bone matter is faster than the rate at which it is lost. In someone with osteoporosis, however, the bone cells begin to dissolve and bone loss is faster than bone growth.
According to WebMD, smoking generates a lot of free radicals in the body that causes overwhelming damage to the body. Hormones that keep your bones strong and healthy are set off balance and damaged blood vessels prevent your bones from getting the oxygen they need to grow. Osteoporosis is already common in old age so smoking will only cause it to take hold faster.
Weight loss is extremely common among COPD patients. There are a number of reasons for this and we cover it in detail in our post How To Maintain A Healthy Weight With COPD. In short, increased lung volume, difficulty breathing, and anxiety caused by COPD along with atrophy (muscle loss) leads to a reduced appetite. When this is combined with the nicotine in cigarettes — an appetite suppressant — this can have catastrophic results. Being underweight can be just as unhealthy as being overweight, so smoking cessation is an important step towards maintaining a healthy weight.
Strengthened Immune System
We’ve already covered how smoking causes chronic inflammation, but what about how it affects your body’s ability to fight off infection? In short, smokers are much more susceptible to various types of chronic disease than non-smokers are. Tobacco compromises the antibacterial properties of leukocytes, a cell that circulates through the blood and fights foreign substances.
Reduced immune function is especially a concern for someone with COPD where any type of sickness can lead to an exacerbation or be the cause of a serious medical emergency. COPD already results in an increased risk of lower respiratory tract infections, so smoking will only make this worse.
Improved Mental Health
While there’s a seemingly endless list of negative health risks associated with smoking, it’s important to not forget the burden of smoking on your mental health as well. While many people think of cigarettes as something that will reduce stress and anxiety, recent studies have found that the opposite is true. And like any other drug, tobacco can alter your brain chemistry to increase irritability and lead to other mental health problems.
Reduced Stress and Anxiety
How many times have you heard someone say they need to “take a break” and go outside to smoke? Unfortunately, many smokers are tricked into believing smoking reducing anxiety, when in reality, it’s doing the opposite.
According to the University of East London, smokers normalize the experience of smoking while the periods between cigarettes are characterized by worsening moods and anxiety. As a result, many smokers believe cigarettes are alleviating these symptoms when it’s actually causing them.
According to a pulmonologist at Bikram Hospital, Dr Vasunethra Kasargod, “smoking starts as a choice, but eventually becomes a compulsion.” While compulsions may feel nice at first, they eventually make you feel out of control of your own well-being and happiness. Over time, this will lead to a poor self-image and cause you to question your worth.
As an alternative, try embracing things that you can control and that feel constructive rather than destructive. While smoking can give you immediate satisfaction, you will experience a lot more long-term satisfaction the longer you go without a cigarette.
Smoking can take a huge toll on your relationships. Whether you live with a friend, significant other, or family member, constantly going out for a smoke break or getting the smell of cigarette smoke around the house can be difficult to deal with. According to the Association for Psychological Science, people who have better relationships are happier and less stressed.
Another reason to quit smoking is because it shows that you’re serious about recovering. People will be more likely to help out if they see that you’re doing everything you can to help yourself, and the most basic way to help yourself is to avoid the habit that’s most likely to cause COPD.
Smoking Cessation Timeline
If you’re more interested in the immediate effects of smoking cessation, you’ll be happy to know that there are plenty of them. There are a number of things that take place from the moment you put down your last cigarette to five and even ten years after the fact. Let’s take a look at the smoking cessation timeline.
Why Is It So Difficult To Kick The Habit?
Many people wonder what exactly causes cigarettes to be so addictive. We all know that nicotine is addictive, but can it really be addictive enough to keep us smoking even when we know it’s harmful to our health? The truth is, it’s not just nicotine that’s causing smoking addiction — cigarette companies have been altering their products for years to make them more addictive, less harsh for new smokers, and more deadly than ever before.
According to the Truth Initiative, a community dedicated to tobacco-free living, cigarette companies have been adding bronchodilators to their products for decades. Bronchodilators are commonly used to treat COPD because they open the airways and allow you to breathe easier. However, the problem with putting them in cigarettes is it allows you to take in more smoke with less immediate side-effects like coughing or wheezing. Other chemicals like flavoring and menthol reduce the harshness of cigarettes and ammonia allows the nicotine to reach the brain faster.
While many tobacco companies claim that they add these chemicals in order to add flavor, a significant amount of research proves that they are added in order to get people into smoking at a younger age and remain smokers for longer. As a result, smoking remains the leading cause of preventable death in the United States.
4 Tips To Help You Quit Smoking
Because it can be so difficult to quit smoking, you need to have a plan. Nicotine is a powerful substance and it doesn’t go down without a fight. According to DrugRehab.com, nicotine is the third most addictive drug in the world behind cocaine and heroin and tobacco companies are always at work trying to make them even more addictive to the average person. Let’s take a look at a few actionable tips to help you quit smoking.
Make A List
Start by making a list of all the ways cigarettes have affected your well-being and the well-being of those around you. This can include anything from your physical and mental health to relationships, finances, time, or anything else you can think of. The reason you need to create a list is to see, in one place, the impact that smoking has had on your life.
While you may already know how smoking has changed your life, it’s more impressionable when you actually dive into the specifics and understand the scale of your issue. Like they say, “the devil is in the details.”
Speak With A Friend or Loved One
It should never be a secret that you’re trying to give up smoking. The more people you tell about your goals, the more likely you are to achieve them because more people will be holding you accountable. If you ever fall back on your word, your friends and loved ones will question you about it or provide resources to help you out. If you’ve ever wronged someone in the past due to your smoking, letting them know about your effort to quit is the first step to rebuilding a healthy relationship with them.
Live in the Moment
Another common reason fall back into their usual smoking habits is because they get caught up in thinking about the past rather than focusing on the present moment. Yes, smoking has caused a considerable amount of damage to your body, but that doesn’t mean it can’t heal given time. Like you read in the chart above, there are a lot of immediate benefits to smoking cessation, you don’t have to wait months or years to start seeing progress. So, instead of letting these things bring you down, let them empower you to make a change in your life.
See a Specialist
Everyone has that one thing that makes them tick. And when it comes to smoking, some people need that one thing that will set them over the edge and cause them to take their problems head-on. If you want a rude awakening, speak with a doctor or pulmonary specialist who can tell you exactly what smoking has done to your body. Another reason to see a doctor is because they may have additional resources for you that you may not currently have.
The world has come a long way in raising awareness of the harmful effects of smoking and the benefits of quitting. However, there’s still a lot that’s left to be done. Youth smoking rates have dropped significantly within the last several decades, but they’re often replaced with other unhealthy habits like vaping or alcoholism. On the other hand, many older Americans with COPD are still unaware of the harmful effects of smoking.
If you have COPD, you should make it a priority to quit. Cigarette smoke will progress your disease faster and make the symptoms far less manageable. And if oxygen therapy or pulmonary rehabilitation are part of your treatment plan, you’ll see far greater results if you’re smoke free.
Whether you or a loved one is suffering from smoking addiction, know that you are not alone. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 34.3 percent of U.S. adults smoke cigarettes. If you are interested in resources to help you with smoking, speak with your doctor, pulmonary specialist, or talk with an expert through smokefree.gov.