Smoking and Your Health

Most people associate cigarette smoking and tobacco use with breathing problems and lung cancer. But smoking is also a major cause of cardiovascular (heart and blood vessel) disease.

No. 1 Cause of Preventable Disease and Death

Smoking and tobacco use are significant risk factors for a variety of chronic disorders. According to the American Heart Association, cigarette smoking is the most important preventable cause of premature death in the United States, accounting for 440,000 of the more than 2.4 million annual deaths.

Smoking and Cardiovascular Disease

Smoking is a major cause of atherosclerosis - a buildup of fatty substances in the arteries. Atherosclerosis occurs when the normal lining of the arteries deteriorates, the walls of the arteries thicken and deposits of fat and plaque block the flow of blood through the arteries.

In coronary artery disease, the arteries that supply blood to the heart become severely narrowed, decreasing the supply of oxygen-rich blood to the heart, especially during times of increased activity. Extra strain on the heart may result in chest pain (angina pectoris) and other symptoms. Coronary artery disease can lead to a heart attack.

In peripheral artery disease, atherosclerosis affects the arteries that carry blood to the arms and legs. As a result, the patient may experience painful cramping of the leg muscles when walking (a condition called intermittent claudication). Peripheral artery disease also increases the risk of stroke.

Smoking and Heart Attacks

A person's risk of heart attack greatly increases with the number of cigarettes he or she smokes. There is no safe amount of smoking. Smokers increase their risk of heart attack the longer they smoke. People who smoke a pack of cigarettes a day have more than twice the risk of heart attack than nonsmokers.

Smoking and Oral Contraceptives

Women who smoke and also use oral contraceptives (birth control pills) increase several times their risk of coronary and peripheral artery diseases, heart attack and stroke compared with nonsmoking women who use oral contraceptives.

Medical Conditions Linked With Smoking

Cigarettes have multiple poisons, including addictive nicotine, carbon monoxide, "tars" and hydrogen cyanide. There are 4,000 other chemicals of varying toxicity, including 43 known carcinogens. The chemicals in cigarettes can also cause:

  • Decreased oxygen to the heart and to other tissues in the body
  • Decreased exercise tolerance
  • Decreased HDL (good) cholesterol
  • Increased blood pressure and heart rate
  • Increased risk of developing coronary artery disease and heart attack
  • Increased risk of developing peripheral artery disease and stroke
  • Increased risk of developing lung cancer, throat cancer, chronic asthma, chronic bronchitis and emphysema
  • Increased risk of developing diabetes
  • Increased risk of developing a variety of other conditions, including gum disease and ulcers.
  • Increase tendency for blood clotting
  • Increased risk of recurrent coronary artery disease after bypass surgery
  • Damage to cells that line coronary arteries and other blood vessels
  • Increased risk of becoming sick (especially among children: respiratory infections are more common among children exposed to secondhand smoke)

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