The Unique Dangers of Smoking for Women

Woman smoking in outdoor cafe
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Most people are familiar by now with the warnings about smoking, in particular, that cigarettes can cause cancer and increase the risk of heart disease. However, it is important to recognize that female smokers face unique challenges. The fact is that approximately 23 million women in the U.S. (23% of the female population) still smoke cigarettes.

This article discusses the health concerns that women who smoke face. It covers the risks to mental health, women's health, and other physical health issues.

Statistics on Women Who Smoke

Smoking is the most preventable cause of death in the U.S. Yet according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), more than 200,000 women die each year from smoking-related causes. The highest rate of smoking (16.7%) occurs among women between ages 25 and 44. While men are slightly more likely to smoke than women, nearly 13% of American women still smoke.

Despite all the warnings that today's teens have heard about the dangers of smoking, the reality is that almost all of the new smokers today are teenagers. The CDC reports that in 2020, 3.9% of teen girls smoked cigarettes, and 22.5% used some form of tobacco product (which may include e-cigarettes, hookahs, or cigars).

Women who smoke are at risk of the same health concerns as men who smoke such as the increased risk of various cancers (including lung, mouth, larynx, pharynx, esophagus, kidney, pancreas, kidney, and bladder) and respiratory diseases, but there are also smoking-related health risks that are unique to women.


Smoking rates have declined in recent years, but a large percentage of girls and women continue to smoke cigarettes and use tobacco in other forms.

Mental Health Risks of Smoking

Studies have found that women who smoke are also more likely to have mental health problems. In one study published in the Journal of Women's Health, women who smoked had significantly higher rates of:

Women who smoke were also much more likely to have experienced childhood abuse and intimate partner violence.

The CDC notes that people with mental health or substance use disorders smoke cigarettes at higher rates than people who do not have mental health conditions. Around 25% of adults in the U.S. have some type of mental or behavioral health condition and these individuals make up 40% of all adult cigarette use.

This relationship has a significant impact on the health and wellness of people with mental health conditions. The CDC suggests that people with serious mental health disorders who smoke die 15 years earlier than people who do not have mental health conditions and who do not smoke.

Nicotine may also affect health by masking the symptoms of some mental health conditions and impairing the efficacy of some mental health medications. Having a mental health condition may also make it more difficult for women to quit smoking.


Women who smoke are more likely to have co-occurring substance use and mental health conditions. Statistics suggest that people who smoke and who also have mental health issues face increased mortality risks. 

Women's Health and Smoking

Smoking can also have an impact on women's health including areas such as birth control, fertility, pregnancy, pelvic inflammatory disease, and menopause.

Oral Contraceptives

Oral contraceptives ("the pill") and other hormonal methods of birth control come with risks and warnings specifically for people who smoke.

Women who smoke and use oral contraceptives have an increased risk of developing cardiovascular diseases such as blood clots, heart attacks, and strokes. This risk increases with age, and women over 35 who smoke should not use oral contraceptives.

Historically, people who used the pill also experienced a mild elevation in blood pressure. However, blood pressure often returned to normal "pre-pill" levels once oral contraceptives were discontinued. Some newer studies indicate that high blood pressure is not a common problem associated with hormonal contraceptive use today.

Nonetheless, all people who take oral contraceptives should have their blood pressure checked every six to 12 months.


Chemicals in cigarettes are passed from pregnant people through the bloodstream to the fetus. These toxic chemicals present serious risks to the fetus as well as the pregnant person.

According to the CDC, smoking during pregnancy increases the risk of:

  • Birth defects of the mouth and lip
  • Low birth weight
  • Preterm birth
  • Sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS)

Children born to people who smoke experience more colds, earaches, respiratory problems, and illnesses requiring visits to the pediatrician than children born to people who don't smoke.


Many women today delay pregnancy until they are in their 30s or even 40s, which can cause fertility problems even for nonsmoking women. But women who smoke and delay childbirth are putting themselves at a substantially greater risk of future infertility than nonsmokers.

A 2017 study found that women who smoked six or more cigarettes a day experienced significant harm to their ability to conceive.

Studies suggest that decreased ovulatory response, as well as the fertilization and implantation of the zygote, may be impaired in women who smoke. Chemicals in tobacco may also alter the cervical mucus, making it less favorable for sperm and resulting in more difficulty conceiving.

It is important to note, however, that smoking doesn't just affect female fertility. Male smokers are 50% more likely to become impotent. Some of the toxic chemicals found in cigarettes may result in gene mutations in sperm that can also cause miscarriage, birth defects, cancer, and other health problems in their children.

Pelvic Inflammatory Disease (PID)

Pelvic inflammatory disease occurs with a greater frequency in people who smoke than in people who don't.

What Is PID?

Pelvic inflammatory disease (PID) is a painful disease that requires immediate medical intervention and is often a contributing factor in ectopic pregnancies as well as pelvic adhesions and other fertility problems.

Premature Menopause

Research has found that women who smoke have a 43% increased risk of experiencing menopause before the age of 50 compared to non-smokers. Women who smoke notice symptoms of menopause two to three years earlier than nonsmokers on average. Menstrual problems such as abnormal bleeding, amenorrhea (absence of periods), and vaginal infections are also common complaints among women who smoke.

Menstrual abnormalities and early menopause may be caused by a toxic effect on the ovaries or by the significantly lower levels of estrogens noted in many studies of women who smoke.

Hormone Therapy

Estrogen replacement therapy provides beneficial protection to post-menopausal women against the risk of osteoporosis. But these benefits are many times negated by the increased cardiovascular and other health risks associated with smoking while taking hormones.

Women who smoke face increased risk of developing cardiovascular diseases such as heart attack and stroke when using supplemental estrogens.

This risk should be discussed with a healthcare provider before beginning hormone replacement therapy if you smoke. Additionally, a healthcare provider can assist you if you choose to quit smoking.


Women who smoke face increased risks when taking oral contraceptives and are more likely to have issues with pregnancy and fertility. Other issues specific to women's health include an increased risk of pelvic inflammatory disease, premature menopause, and issues with hormone therapy.

Physical Health Risks of Smoking

Women also have unique risks to other aspects of their physical health. Smoking can increase the risk of certain illnesses and diseases and can impact bone health and heart health. Tobacco products also increase the risk of several types of cancers that affect women.


Osteoporosis affects most people as they get older, but there are certain things you can do to reduce your risk of osteoporosis such as participating in regular physical activity and making sure you are getting 1,000 mg to 1,500 mg of calcium daily.

Smoking causes a significant increase in the risk of bone loss and osteoporosis. Women who smoke cigarettes experience a higher loss of bone density than nonsmokers. Research suggests that women who smoke have a 31% higher risk of osteoporosis. Smoking also slows down healing time after a bone fracture. 

Bone density scanning to determine the density of your bone structure is recommended for all women beginning at age 40. Bone density scanning is particularly crucial for women who smoke so that changes can be noted and treatment can be started if osteoporosis is found.

Heart Disease

According to the CDC, one in every four deaths caused by cardiovascular disease can be attributed to smoking. Although most of these deaths are in women past menopause, the risk of smoking-related heart disease is significantly higher in young female smokers.

According to a 2019 study published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology, women under the age of 50 who smoke have a higher risk of having a specific type of serious heart attack compared to men. This difference may be due to the interaction of estrogen with the chemicals found in cigarettes.

Cervical Cancer

All women should have regular pelvic exams that include pap smears, and for women who smoke, the necessity is even greater. According to the American Cancer Society, smoking doubles the risk of developing cervical cancer.

Cervical cancer patients who quit smoking may have a greater chance of remission and survival than patients who continue smoking.

Researchers believe that tobacco damages the DNA cells of the cervix which contributes to the development of cancer. Smoking also affects immunity, which may make the body less able to fight off HPV infections, which are also a risk factor for cervical cancer.

Breast Cancer

The American Cancer Society published the results of a study in 1994 which indicated that breast cancer patients who smoke may increase their risk of dying at least 25%—a risk that increases with the number of cigarettes smoked per day.

The possible risk of fatal breast cancer rises up to 75% for women who smoke two packs or more per day. The good news is that if you quit now, your potential risk of dying as a result of future breast cancer remains the same as for a non-smoker.

Vulvar Cancer

Another type of cancer that may occur more frequently in women who smoke is vulvar cancer. This risk increases significantly in women who smoke and who have a history of HPV infection.


Women have a higher risk of experiencing physical health problems associated with smoking including osteoperosis, heart disease, cervical cancer, breast cancer, and vulvar cancer.

Tips for Quitting

There are different approaches to quitting smoking. One strategy is to quit cold turkey. Another approach is to gradually taper your nicotine use. Both can be effective, so choose the one that is right for you and your needs.

If you are planning to stop smoking cold turkey, some tips that may help include:

  • Plan ahead to quit smoking on a certain day.
  • When the quit smoking day arrives, make sure you have thrown out all the ashtrays and cigarettes you have in your home so you won't be tempted.
  • Have plenty of raw vegetables such as carrot sticks and celery available for the times you feel like eating as a result of your desire to have something in your hand/mouth.

Many people fear gaining weight as a result of quitting. Participating in a vigorous exercise program three times per week may help you quit, and exercise can help limit any subsequent weight gain in addition to providing overall physical and mental health benefits.

Joining a support group and using online resources or mobile apps can also be helpful in navigating smoking cessation. Over-the-counter quit aids like nicotine replacement therapies (such as gums and patches) help many people decrease the physical symptoms of nicotine withdrawal.

See a healthcare provider if you need further assistance in achieving your goal to quit smoking. They can offer support and additional quit aids that are available by prescription.

A Word From Verywell

Smoking is a leading cause of death for women, so it is important to be aware of the health risks. Not only can smoking increase your risk for cancer, heart disease, and other health problems, it can also create problems if you are trying to conceive or are currently pregnant. Fortunately, there are tools and resources that are available to help you stop smoking. Quitting now can help lower your health risks and improve your overall health.

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Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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By Tracee Cornforth
Tracee Cornforth is a freelance writer who covers menstruation, menstrual disorders, and other women's health issues.