Health Risks and Diseases of Smoking

Person putting out a cigarette
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As of Dec. 20, 2019, the new legal age limit is 21 years old for purchasing cigarettes, cigars, or any other tobacco products in the U.S.

If asked which smoking-related disease is the number one cause of death among smokers, most people would probably guess lung cancer or emphysema. While both diseases do claim many lives each year, more smokers actually die from heart disease than any other smoking-related condition.

Heart disease is the leading cause of death in the United States within the general population. Many risk factors for cardiovascular disease are related to a person's lifestyle, including smoking cigarettes.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that tobacco use accounts for up to 10% of cardiovascular disease-related deaths globally each year. In addition to being hard on the heart, smoking also contributes to other chronic conditions and diseases that can lead to disability and even death.

According to the CDC, for every person who dies from a smoking-related cause, there are 30 people living with a smoking-related disease.

Smoking's Effects on Health

The World Health Organization's tobacco use statistics indicate that approximately 7 billion worldwide people die smoking-related deaths every year. Furthermore, it's not just smokers who suffer the effects of tobacco use: The WHO statistics show that an additional 1.2 million people who don't smoke die each year as a result of exposure to secondhand smoke.

In the United States alone, cigarette smoking is the leading cause of preventable death, with around one in five people dying a smoking-related death every year.

Part of what makes smoking so deadly are the chemical compounds used to make cigarettes. According to the American Lung Association, more than 7,000 chemicals are present in a lit cigarette—at least 69 of which are known to cause cancer.

Additionally, many of the 600-some ingredients found in a single cigarette can be toxic including ammonia, lead, carbon monoxide, arsenic, and formaldehyde (the fluid used to embalm dead bodies).

The destructive health consequences of smoking cigarettes are widespread. While some are outwardly visible (such as yellow teeth and nails or a "smoker's cough"), many of the negative effects of smoking are internal and may buildup slowly overtime.

Here are just a few examples of how smoking can affect each system of your body.

Brain, Head, and Neck

Tobacco use can cause many physical health conditions, but it can also affect your mental health. Depression, anxiety, and other mental health conditions are common in people who use substances, including tobacco.

According to the CDC, smokers are more likely to experience depression than non-smokers.

One of the more obvious consequences of smoking that is related to both physical and mental health is the altered brain chemistry that occurs when someone uses tobacco. When someone is addicted to smoking and tries to quit, they will likely experience nicotine withdrawal.

Smoking can also change the brain on a physical level. For example, the thickening and narrowing of blood vessels that result from smoking increases a person's risk of having a stroke.

Eyes and Nose

Whether you're smoking yourself or just standing downwind of someone who is, a waft of cigarette smoke can easily irritate the eyes, causing stinging and watering.

In the longterm, exposure to cigarette smoke can also lead to:

  • Cataracts
  • Macular degeneration
  • Reduced sense of smell

Mouth, Teeth, and Throat

Smoking cigarettes can lead to yellow-stained teeth and bad breath, but there are also other health consequences for the mouth, teeth, and throat, including:

  • Sore throat
  • Reduced sense of taste
  • Gum disease (gingivitis)
  • Plaque buildup
  • Cavities
  • Teeth that are loose or fall out
  • Graves' disease
  • Thyroid disease
  • Oral cancers (lips, mouth, throat, larynx); cancer of the esophagus

Hair, Skin, and Nails

Smoking is often associated with discolored and brittle nails, hair that smells of cigarettes, and bad breath. There are also other effects that are more than skin deep, including:

Heart and Lungs

Tobacco smoke harms, blocks, and weakens arteries of the heart (atherosclerosis) which increases a person's risk of cardiovascular disease.

Other cardiopulmonary conditions attributed to smoking include:

  • Heart attack
  • Lung cancer
  • Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), including chronic bronchitis and emphysema
  • "Smoker's cough" and sputum
  • Asthma
  • Shortness of breath
  • Frequent colds
  • Pneumonia
  • Increased risk of complications from tuberculosis and influenza

Digestion and Urinary System

Smoking can also affect your body's ability to digest and eliminate nutrients from what you eat and drink. It can also lead to specific conditions, such as:

  • Stomach and duodenal ulcers
  • Aortic aneurysm
  • Cancers of stomach, pancreas, colon, kidneys, and bladder

Bones

Smoking weakens the bones, making it more likely that a person will get injured if they fall or are in an accident. Osteoporosis can increase a person's risk of fractures (such as a broken hip). Degenerative disc disease damages the bones of the spine, which can cause neck and back pain.

Blood, Inflammation, and Immunity

Smoking can increase the levels of inflammation in the body, which can make the symptoms of certain health conditions (such as fibromyalgia) worse.

Heightened levels of inflammation in the body are also known to contribute to the development of cancer and cardiovascular disease. Smoking is a known risk factor for certain blood cancers (leukemia).

Smoking also reduces immunity, putting a person at risk for infection and making it harder for their body to heal from an illness or injury. People who have autoimmune diseases such as multiple sclerosis and lupus may notice that smoking increases the duration, frequency, and intensity of their flares.

Reproductive Health, Pregnancy, and Smoking

The effects of smoking can begin even before conception, affecting both male and female reproduction:

  • Sperm deformity, loss of motility, reduced number
  • Infertility
  • Impotence
  • Period pain
  • Early menopause
  • Cervical cancer

Smoking during pregnancy poses risks to both the person who is pregnant and the developing fetus. Possible complications that may occur during pregnancy, labor and delivery, and in the postpartum period include:

  • Spontaneous abortion or miscarriage
  • Ectopic pregnancy
  • Placental abruption
  • Placenta previa
  • Premature rupture of membranes
  • Premature birth
  • Newborn small for gestational age
  • Stillbirth
  • Birth defects (e.g., congenital limb reduction)
  • Increased nicotine receptors in the newborn's brain

A baby born to a parent who uses tobacco is also at risk for smoking-related health effects as they grow up.

Research has shown that children of smokers may be more likely to smoke as teens, more likely to develop respiratory illnesses and conditions like asthma, and may even be more prone to anxiety disorders compared to their peers who aren't exposed to cigarette smoke.

A Word From Verywell

Even though the list of diseases known to be associated with smoking is already very long, it's incomplete. We don't yet fully understand all of the dangers that cigarette smoke presents, and the research is ongoing.

What we do know is that cigarettes snuff life out at an alarming rate. Statistics tell us that around half of longterm smokers will die a smoking-related death. Globally, that translates to nearly five million deaths a year. Put another way, someone loses their life to smoking every eight seconds somewhere in the world.

Humans are incredibly resilient, and it's never too late to quit. While not all of the damage caused by smoking cigarettes can be reversed, research has shown that some of the damage can be healed—even after years of smoking.

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Article Sources
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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Additional Reading
  • American Cancer Society. The Tobacco Atlas. Sixth. (Drope J, Schluger N, eds.). Atlanta: American Cancer Society; 2018:20-31.

  • Centers For Disease Control And Prevention (CDC). Children In The Home. Office on Smoking and Health, National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion. Updated February 8, 2018

  • Gometz ED. Health effects of smoking and the benefits of quitting. Virtual Mentor. 2011;13(1):31-5. doi:10.1001/virtualmentor.2011.13.1.cprl1-1101

  • The American Cancer Society medical and editorial content team. Health Risks Of Smoking Tobacco. American Cancer Society. Updated November 15, 2018.