When we think about how smoking damages our bodies, we normally think of our lungs. And with good reason: smoking is the leading cause of lung cancer and COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder), diseases that are among the most common causes of death in the United States.
But the harmful effects of smoking don’t stop at our airways. Smoking is also hard on our hearts and vascular systems, which can lead to both long-term heart problems and vascular emergencies.
We talked with OhioHealth cardiologist Jay Mukherjee, MD, to understand more about how smoking affects the heart, the cardiovascular diseases it can cause, and how quitting smoking can improve your heart health.
Smoking affects your whole body
“When I was in medical training, we learned that every part of your body, from your head to your toes, is negatively affected by smoking,” says Mukherjee. “Lung problems, sinus problems, throat and tongue cancers, strokes, pancreatic cancer, heart disease, vascular disorders… you name it, smoking affects it.”
“Smoking is a significant contributor to cardiovascular disease,” says Mukherjee. The Centers for Disease Control has reported that more than a third of adult cardiovascular disease deaths in the United States are related to smoking. People who smoke are two to four times more likely than the average person to develop heart disease and stroke, and it’s even higher for women who take birth control. It’s also important to remember that when you smoke, you’re often not smoking alone. Passive smoking, or second-hand smoke, can be just as damaging to the people in your life as it is to you.”
How does smoking affect your heart?
- When you smoke, your blood vessels constrict, limiting blood flow to your heart.
- The nicotine in cigarettes is a stimulant that causes your heart rate and blood pressure to increase, causing irregular heart rhythm.
- Smoking damages the lining of blood vessels, which can cause fatty deposits to form that slowly close off arteries.
- The chemicals in cigarettes also damage your blood cells, which makes clots easier to form.
- Smoking introduces carbon monoxide into your body, robbing your blood of oxygen. This forces your heart to work harder to get the oxygen it needs to function properly.
“Often, people who smoke already have high blood pressure and high cholesterol from poor diets and lack of activity. Smoking only makes these problems worse,” adds Mukherjee.
What cardiovascular problems are caused by smoking?
“Smoking has a cascading effect on your cardiovascular health,” says Mukherjee. “It damages the endothelium, or lining of your blood vessels, causing inflammation, which leads to the development of fatty deposits, plaque and clots, and can result in a heart attack, which damages your heart muscle and ultimately leads to heart failure. It’s like a slow poisoning of your body.”
Because smoking causes blood vessels to constrict against the fatty deposits and plaques that may already be in your arteries, it dramatically increases your risk of a heart attack. Even if you don’t have a heart attack, smoking can contribute to angina, the chest pain that results from heart disease.
Mukherjee says smoking also affects your vascular system. “Smoking makes your blood very sticky. The platelets in your blood, which are responsible for your blood’s ability to clot, get damaged. That can lead to clotting disorders in your veins and arteries that cause pain in your arms and legs when you walk or exercise, and later even when you’re at rest. If left untreated, it can lead to amputation, stroke, even death.”
If I quit smoking, can my heart and vascular health come back?
Definitely, Mukherjee says. “The first thing we tell people with cardiovascular disease to do is to quit smoking. Quitting is the best thing you can do for your cardiovascular health, and some symptoms improve almost immediately.”
When you quit, your blood pressure and heart rate begin to drop within days, and within a year you can cut your heart disease risk in half. Over time, with regular exercise, good diet and permanent smoking cessation, your risk of heart disease, stroke and smoking-related cancers could even return to the levels of a person who never smoked. “It will take some time to get things back, but it’s important to quit and stay with it, not simply to reduce smoking or quit and start up again,” says Mukherjee.
What are the best ways to quit smoking?
The best way to quit smoking is the one that works for you, but any method you choose should not involve the continued use of tobacco. Nicotine replacement therapies, prescription drugs, meditation, changes to routine activities, quitting with a friend and counseling can all help. The two most important factors are having a plan and having support.
If you are ready to quit smoking and want the best chance of success, get in contact with us! The easiest way is to contact the OhioHealth Cancer Center at 1-800-752-9119 to find the cessation program nearest you. You can also contact the Ohio Department of Health at 800-QUIT-NOW to receive phone counseling, or you can work directly with your primary care physician.