Smoking hurts. Whether you smoke, are exposed to secondhand smoke or are a nonsmoker, it is important to know the dangers of smoking. Smoking cigarettes not only affects the lungs, but it also harms nearly every organ in the body, including the heart.
Smoking is the most preventable cause of early death in the United States.
Consider these facts:
- Smoking is the second leading cause of cardiovascular disease, right behind high blood pressure.
- People who smoke are two to four times more likely to develop heart disease or stroke.
- Smokers are also up to six times more likely to suffer a heart attack than non-smokers.
- Smoking can shave off at least a decade of life.
- Secondhand smoke increases the risk of heart disease.
- “Social smoking” increases the risk of heart disease.
Even being exposed to secondhand smoke—breathing in smoke-filled air from a nearby smoker—is dangerous. What’s more, electronic cigarettes, or e-cigarettes, are often thought to be a safer alternative. But recent data suggest these may not be safe, according to the U.S. Surgeon General.
The good news is that quitting helps—even after years of steady or heavy smoking. When you stop smoking, carbon monoxide levels in your blood return to normal within 12 hours. Within just one year, your added risk for heart disease is cut in half. That’s a big deal for your health. Plus you’ll avoid breathing in known toxins—carbon monoxide, ammonia, arsenic, and formaldehyde to name a few—that are components of cigarettes!
Smoking and Heart Disease
We often hear about how smoking hurts the lungs. After all, smokers’ lungs take in more than 7,000 chemicals—70 of which are known to cause cancer—from cigarettes. But smoking cigarettes also affects the heart and blood vessels and remains one of the most preventable causes of heart disease.
When you smoke, your arteries tighten, which makes your heart work harder. Smoking also can trigger an irregular heart rhythm and raise blood pressure, which are leading causes of stroke.According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, smoking:
- Causes thickening and narrowing of blood vessels
- Raises triglycerides (a type of fat in your blood)
- Lowers HDL or “good” cholesterol
- Makes blood sticky and more likely to clot, which can block blood flow to the heart and brain
- Damages the cells that line the blood vessels; the cells become swollen and inflamed
- Promotes the buildup of plaque (fat, cholesterol, calcium and other substances) in blood vessels and even plaque rupture (resulting in an heart attack)
A recent study found smoking is also associated with a thickening of the heart and lowers the heart’s pumping ability—both of which are associated with heart failure. The longer and more cigarettes people without heart disease smoked, the greater the damage to their hearts’ structure and function. Former smokers had similar heart structure and function compared to people who had never smoked, which points to the importance of quitting smoking to help reverse any damage.
Smoking only part of the study
In addition to efforts to quit smoking or avoid breathing in secondhand smoke, be sure to look at other ways you can live healthier and lower your risk of heart disease, stroke and other health issues.
For example, try to:
- Exercise regularly
- Be mindful about eating heart-healthy foods
- Get to a healthy body weight
- Manage stress
- Limit alcohol (≤1 a day for women; ≤2 for men )
- Ensure other health conditions, such as diabetes, are under control or being addressed
- Manage other risk factors for cardiovascular disease
- Keep up with routine and follow-up health visits
- Stay current with vaccinations
Electronic cigarettes, or e-cigarettes, have been growing in popularity. Until lately, some also thought they were safer than traditional cigarettes. But electronic cigarettes may be as harmful to the heart as smoking cigarettes that contain tobacco, according to some data.
Research showed that using either e-cigs or regular tobacco led to similar levels of stiffness in the aorta, the main artery in the heart. Both raised blood pressure.
How to Quit
Quitting smoking isn’t easy, but it has major health benefits. Many people wrongly assume that kicking the habit won’t make a difference. They may tell themselves, “I’ve been a smoker all of my life, so there’s no point in quitting now.” Plus, it becomes part of their routine. But both data and experiences show it’s never too late to stop. In fact, some of the health benefits happen pretty quickly. Blood pressure, for example, drops fairly quickly after not smoking.
Need more convincing? Consider these milestones from the U.S. Surgeon General:
- Within 20 minutes of quitting, your heart rate will decrease.
- Within 12 hours of quitting, the carbon monoxide levels in your blood will decrease to normal.
- Within 3 months of quitting, your risk of a heart attack decreases and your lungs will begin to work better.
- After 1 year, your added risk of coronary artery disease is half that of someone who smokes.
Source: Department of Health and Human Services
Be part of one in a million. Each year, 1.3 million Americans quit smoking. You can do it. Today there are more former smokers than current smokers.
8 Steps to quit
If you want to stop smoking or help a loved one quit, take the time to map out a plan. Here are some steps you can take:
1. Set a quit date and plan.
Most smokers become addicted to nicotine that is found in tobacco. Talk with your health care team about smoking cessation programs and whether you need medicine to help your body steadily taper off nicotine—products such as patches, gum, lozenges, or sprays or inhalers. Some of these products are available for purchase at your local pharmacy, while others require a prescription. Make sure to enlist the help of trusted family members and friends who can provide ongoing support. Then, set a date and mark it boldly and proudly on all of your home and electronic calendars.
2. Commit to why.
Think about and write down the reasons you want to quit. Include both short- and long-term benefits. Post notes to yourself where you can’t miss them; for example, to live longer, prevent heart disease or stroke, see my kids get married, not smell like tobacco, or save money.
Remember, when you stop smoking, you take an important step to immediately reduce your risk of lung and throat cancer, asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, cataracts, gum disease, as well as cardiovascular disease, among other related health issues!
3. Know what makes you want to smoke.
There’s no denying that certain feelings, places, activities, and even people will trigger your desire to smoke. Try to think about when you might be hit with the urge to light up—for example, after a meal, during a work break, with your morning coffee, on the drive to work, or when you feel stressed—and what you might do instead. Try replacing it with a healthy behavior like going for a walk or meditating.
Make sure to get rid of any items that remind you of smoking. Remove cigarettes and other tobacco products including lighters, matches and ashtrays from your home, car and workplace.
It’s also helpful to understand your reasons for smoking. Is it a habit, are you addicted, does depression or stress play a role, or does it provide a social release?
4. Make it public.
Tell family, friends and co-workers about your plan to quit. Ask for their support in helping you stick with it.
5. Keep busy.
Find activities to occupy your time, especially during time periods when you would usually have a cigarette. Exercise can do wonders to boost your mood and put you on right track to make healthy choices.
It may be helpful to switch up your routine. For example, by picking up a new hobby, making plans with friends, or finding ways to tune into your body through yoga, meditation or deep breathing.
6. Get help.
Before you quit, find out about all of the resources available to you. Support programs can help you keep track of your progress and offer strategies to quit, chances to talk with former smokers who can share what their challenges were and how they conquered them. Think about counseling, if needed.
Keep the 1-800-QUIT-NOW number handy. Call if you need to talk with someone who is trained and ready to help you fight any urges to smoke.
You can do it!
8. Take it one day at a time.
Quitting isn’t easy, and it’s important to celebrate small successes throughout your journey.
If you slip up, it’s OK. Many smokers make several attempts to quit before they do so for good. Smoking can be a powerful addiction, and it can take time and a lot of effort to kick the habit.
Slips and Relapses
Many people who try to quit smoking will take a puff or have one or two cigarettes after quitting (called a slip); others begin to smoke regularly again (called a relapse). Slips and relapses can be common in the early stages of quitting.
Don’t be too hard on yourself, and DO try again! Take the time to learn from any setbacks you might face. Take note of what might have pushed you to smoke again (for example, withdrawal symptoms, being in a certain place or situation, stress or weight gain).
It’s time to rally some additional support:
- Ask your health care provider if you need nicotine replacement medicine or a different product.
- Talk with former smokers about how to best cope with slip-ups.
- Remember to stay positive.
If you find yourself getting discouraged, remind yourself that quitting is hard, and think about whether speaking with a counselor would be helpful.