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The Effects of Smoking on the Body

Wednesday 2 September 2020
7 minute(s) read
Dr..Jubil Tom

Medically reviewed by

Dr. Jubil Tom, MD

on 10 November 2020

Table of Contents

I. The Prevalence of Smoking

II. Understanding Addiction

III. Effects on the Digestive System

IV. Effects on the Cardiovascular System

V. Effects on the Respiratory System

VI. Secondhand Smoke

VII. Treatment for Quitting Smoking

VIII. The Benefits of Quitting Smoking

The Prevalence of Smoking

According to the Centers for Disease Control, smoking is responsible for nearly one in five deaths. It causes more deaths than HIV, car injuries, firearm-related incidents, alcohol use, and drug use combined. [1] This staggering statistic would make anyone want to give up cigarettes, but smoking is addicting, and it is not always easy to quit. These addictions can also extend to e-cigarettes and marijuana. For the purpose of this article, tobacco cigarettes will be addressed.

If you and your doctor decide that your cigarette addiction is severe, several prescription medications are available to help ease you off of nicotine, including bupropionChantix, and clonidine. Read on to learn more about the process of nicotine addiction and its effect on the body. [1] 

Understanding Addiction

Nicotine is the substance in cigarettes that makes them addictive. When a person absorbs cigarette smoke, it reaches the brain fastener than any intravenous drug. It then stimulates the nervous system and produces epinephrine (adrenaline). This causes the buzz that many smokers feel upon inhaling the first puff. Nicotine can also produce dopamine, which can make a person feel relaxed and tension-free.

a hand holding several cigarettes

Nicotine is the most common form of chemical dependency and is equally addictive as cocaine, alcohol, and heroin. Smoking initially causes nausea, dizziness, and headache, but people begin to crave more cigarettes once their tolerance builds up. Many people think that cigarettes give them a good feeling, but it is just the body’s reaction to nicotine after withdrawal, making the person feel pleasure. [2]

Once cigarettes become a part of a person’s everyday life, they begin to tie them to their everyday activities, creating smoking routines. Many people find it hard to quit smoking once they associate cigarettes with stress reduction and focus. This psychological dependence can be the hardest addiction to break. [2]

Effects on the Digestive System

Smoking can affect the digestive system in several ways. First off, smoking disrupts the body’s metabolism. When you smoke, your heart rate increases up to 20 beats per minute. This causes extra stress on the heart and changes your metabolic rate, leading you to lose a bit of weight. [3]

Along with metabolic changes, smoking can lead to heartburn and the formation of stomach ulcers. If you are a frequent smoker, you are more likely to experience stomach acid flowing back into the esophagus, which causes heartburn. Peptic ulcers are more common in smokers, which are painful sores in the stomach's lining or the beginning of the small intestine. These sores often heal when you stop smoking.

These stomach changes also increase your chance of developing Crohn’s disease and other conditions of the colon. Crohn’s involves stomach inflammation and is more common in smokers than non-smokers. Intestinal disorders also increase your risk of developing colon cancer later in life. [4]

Effects on the Cardiovascular System

Cardiovascular disease (CVD) is the leading cause of death in America, killing over 800,000 people a year. As mentioned above, smoking raises your adrenaline levels and causes your heart to beat faster. [5] If the heart is working harder, it becomes more at risk for cardiovascular problems like heart disease. When you smoke, cigarettes release chemicals into the body and cause the lining of blood vessels to become swollen and inflamed. When the vessels narrow, blood flow is limited, and several problems can occur, including:

Atherosclerosis: In this condition, arteries narrow and harden, allowing plaque to build up in the walls of the arteries. When the plaque accumulates, blood can’t flow properly, leading to an increased risk of atherosclerosis.

a man smoking

Coronary heart disease: This disease also involves plaque narrowing the arteries. Cigarette chemicals also make blood thicken, which increases the chance of blood clots. This can lead to a heart attack or sudden death.

Stroke: Smokers are at a higher risk for stroke if their arteries are not circulating blood properly. When blood circulation is disrupted to the brain, a stroke occurs. This can lead to death or brain damage.

Abdominal aortic aneurysm: The aorta is the main artery that carries blood and nutrients up and down the body. An aneurysm occurs when a bulge or weakened area in the abdominal part of the aorta bursts. This condition is life-threatening, and almost all deaths from aortic aneurysms are related to smoking. [5]

Effects on the Respiratory System

Smokers are at a greater risk for respiratory diseases, especially lung cancer and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) When you inhale from a cigarette, your body is exposed to 4,000 chemicals. These chemicals and carcinogens form tar, so low-tar cigarettes are a popular choice for smokers. Even if you choose low-tar cigarettes, the gas from smoking can damage the respiratory tract. [6]

Tobacco smoke affects the entire respiratory system. Smoke can damage the respiratory system from the main airways (bronchi) to the bronchioles and the air pockets (terminal alveoli) in the lungs. Smoking can also cause a loss of cilia in the lungs, increasing your risk of infections. The air sacs in the lungs can shrink and make it harder for oxygen to enter the system. Smoking-related respiratory diseases include:

Chronic bronchitis: This is a form of COPD and involves long-term inflammation of the airways (bronchi). Chronic bronchitis causes shortness of breath and coughing up mucus.

Emphysema: Emphysema is another type of COPD that affects the air sacs in the lungs. Emphysema causes shortness of breath and extreme fatigue, as well as depression. [7]

Secondhand Smoke

Many people do not understand the dangers behind secondhand smoke. Secondhand smoke is breathed out by smokers and inhaled by people around them. The chemicals in cigarettes are so pervasive that they can affect people who do not even smoke. Secondhand smoke causes more than 7,000 lung cancer deaths each year in non-smokers. Children and babies who live in households with smokers are more likely to have ear infections and asthma. [7]

Symptoms connected to secondhand smoke can include:

  • Coughing
  • Excess mucus in the airways
  • Chest discomfort
  • Chest pain
  • Nose, eye, and throat irritation [7]

Treatment for Quitting Smoking

Quitting smoking is the key to maintaining a healthy body and life. Quitting smoking can significantly improve your lung, heart, and digestive health. You may have a severe dependence on nicotine if you:

  • Smoke over a pack of cigarettes a day.
  • Wake up at night to smoke.
  • Smoke within five minutes of waking up.
  • Smoke to ease symptoms of withdrawal.
  • Smoke even if you are sick.

If you and your doctor decide that your cigarette addiction is severe, several prescription medications are available to help ease you off nicotine. These drugs include bupropionChantix, and clonidine. Chantix, also known as varenicline, can lessen the pleasure a person gets from smoking and reduce symptoms of nicotine withdrawal. Your doctor will advise you to take the first varenicline pill a month or up to a week before quitting smoking altogether. Your dose typically increases after the first eight days.

a cigarette in an ash tray

Chantix is specifically made for quitting smoking, but several antidepressants are also used to help quit smoking. Bupropion, also known as Wellbutrin, are antidepressants that can aid in nicotine withdrawal. The extended-release form of these drugs reduces nicotine cravings by acting on chemicals in the brain related to nicotine addiction. People typically start taking bupropion a week or two before you put down cigarettes for good. Clonidine is another drug used to treat high blood pressure and help people quit smoking. This drug can be taken in pill form or worn as a patch. [8]  

The Benefits of Quitting Smoking

Your body begins to heal the instant you decide to stop smoking for good. Quitting smoking can be challenging, but your body will bounce back quickly when you finally kick your habit.  Twenty minutes after putting down a cigarette, your heart rate, blood pressure, and the carbon monoxide level in your blood lower.  Blood circulation and lung function improve a few months after quitting. If you have a smoker's cough, that will likely go away one to nine months after quitting. This is because the ability to clean the lungs becomes easier for the body.

One year after quitting, your risk of coronary heart disease halves, and your chance of heart attack goes down as well. As the years go on, your risk for mouth, throat, esophagus, and bladder cancer is cut in half. Your body will continue to heal, and 15 years after quitting, your risk for cardiovascular disease is the same as someone who has never smoked.

You may also notice the following improvements in your life:

  • Food tastes better
  • Your hair, breath, and clothes smell better
  • Your teeth and fingernails are no longer yellow
  • You are less out of breath
  • Your sense of smell returns [9]

The content in this article is intended for informational purposes only. This website does not provide medical advice. In all circumstances, you should always seek the advice of your physician and/or other qualified health professionals(s) for drug, medical condition, or treatment advice. The content provided on this website is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment.