When you think of the health risks associated with tobacco and smoking, what’s the first thing that comes to mind? Perhaps it is lung cancer. The public health campaigns driving the message that ‘smoking causes cancer’ has been one of the most successful efforts
But did you know that in India, the most common way that tobacco kills is by heart disease and stroke. Tobacco kills over 1 million Indians each year making it the single most preventable cause of cardiovascular diseases. If you smoke, you probably are aware of many of the risks and health hazards associated with it, but since nicotine is highly addictive, it makes smoking that much harder to give up. So whether you are a smoker, or a former smoker, or even know someone who smokes, it helps to get the complete picture of what it does to your health. When you know better, you can do better! There is no “safe” smoking. Even the occasional cigarette causes damage to your heart and blood vessels.
What does smoking do to my body?
Cigarette smoke is harmful to nearly every single organ in your body – the heart, blood vessels, lungs, reproductive system, mouth, bones, bladder, and all your digestive organs. It is particularly harmful for your heart because smoking increases heart rate, tightens major arteries, and causes an irregular heart rhythm, all of which make your heart work harder to do the same job. Smoking also increases your blood pressure, which in turn increases your risk of stroke.
These chemicals found in cigarette smoke cause a substance known as plaque to build up in the arteries, resulting in a disease called atherosclerosis. Over time, plaque hardens and causes a narrowing of your arteries, limiting the flow of oxygen-rich blood to your body.
Ischemic heart disease occurs if there is plaque buildup in the coronary arteries, which are the arteries that supply blood to the heart, and can lead to heart attack, heart failure and even death. Ischemic heart disease can lead to chest pain, heart attack, heart failure, arrhythmias, or even death. Similar to ischemic heart disease, peripheral artery disease occurs when there is a plaque build up in the arteries that carry blood to the head, organs, and limbs. People who suffer from peripheral artery disease are at increased risk for heart disease, heart attack, and stroke.
How exactly are cigarettes harmful?
The chemicals in cigarettes affect your body while you’re smoking and after you’re done. Although the active ingredient in cigarette smoke is nicotine, it is important to remember that there are upto 5000 other chemicals and compounds that are very harmful. Here are some of the main harmful chemicals that you find in cigarettes:
1. Carbon monoxide
This is a toxic gas that you inhale when smoking cigarettes. Carbon monoxide hampers your blood cells’ ability to transport oxygen. When carbon monoxide enters your blood from the lungs, it combines with hemoglobin, which is the part of the blood cells that carries oxygen. This leaves less hemoglobin available to carry oxygen.
This is a cancer causing substance found in cigarette smoke. Did you know that upto 70% of the tar you breathe in stays in your lungs and causes significant damage! A common assumption is that variants of cigarettes labeled ‘low-tar’ or ‘ultra light’ should then technically be a safer choice. Sadly, this is far from the truth, a study evaluating the safety of different types of cigarettes found that the risk of lung cancer death was no different among smokers of medium-, low-, and very low-tar cigarettes.
While nicotine by itself does not damage your heart or cause cancer, it is extremely addictive and causes people to depend on the extremely harmful effects of tobacco. Nicotine causes an increase in blood pressure, heart rate, flow of blood to the heart and a narrowing of the arteries (vessels that carry blood), and may also contribute to the hardening of the arterial walls. Like most addictive substances, a nicotine withdrawal can have unpleasant side effects like strong cravings, anxiety, moodiness, irritability and difficulty paying attention. Research conducted by the American Heart Association found that nicotine consumed from smoking tobacco is one of the hardest substances to quit. It is considered to be at least as hard as quitting heroin.
One of the best ways to reduce your risk of heart disease is to avoid tobacco smoke entirely. If you already smoke, try to quit. No matter how much or how long you’ve smoked for in your life, quitting will always benefit you. If you smoke and already have heart disease, quitting smoking will reduce your risk of sudden cardiac arrest, a second heart attack, and death from other chronic diseases.
Will Quitting Really Make a Difference to my Health?
Maybe you’ve been a smoker for as long as you remember. What’s the point in quitting now? Is it too late? Never! It is never too late to quit smoking. The benefits show up almost immediately. Did you know that within 20 minutes of that last cigarette, your body begins its process of recovery that sets you on the right track for a healthy future!
- Within 20 minutes of quitting, your heart rate drops.
- Within 12 hours of quitting, the carbon monoxide levels in your blood will decrease to normal.
- 1-2 months after quitting, your circulation and lung function improves
- Within 3 months of quitting, your risk of a heart attack decreases
- 6 to 9 months after quitting, coughing and shortness of breath decrease. The cilia in your lungs begin to function better and reduce your chances of infections.
- One year after quitting, the excess risk of coronary heart disease is half of someone who is a smoker, and your heart attack risk drops dramatically.
- Five years after quitting, your risk of cancers of the mouth and neck are halved and your
- At ten years of not smoking, your risk of dying of lung cancer is about half of someone who smokes
- The fifteen year mark is the best – your risk for heart attacks or a stroke is equal to a person who has never smoked before!
- The American Heart Association statistics show that smokers who quit between the ages of 35 and 39 can add an average of 6 to 9 years to their lives.
Okay, I’m convinced! How do I quit?
You can do it! Here is a handy guide for you.
Planning and preparation:
Think about why you want to quit, and write down your reasons for quitting. Read this list every day, over and over. Planning ahead always helps, so set a date when you would like to stop and then stick to it. It helps to pick a relatively stress-free time to quit. Try and maintain a record of the specific times that you are most likely to smoke, and make a note of what the triggers are and what you do along with smoking (for e.g. taking a break with your co-workers, having a drink, unwinding after a work day, coming out of a stressful meeting).
It may help to first quit smoking during specific situations, and find something else you can do during that time. The more options you have, the better! Make a list of activities you can do to distract yourself. It is also worth asking your doctor about medication or about using nicotine gum or patches. For some of these, you may need a prescription, while some may be available without prescription at your local pharmacy.
It is important that you tell others about your decision, and ask for support and encouragement from those around you. Start doing some exercise everyday to relieve stress, boost your mood and improve your overall health. Make sure you get plenty of rest and eat a balanced diet. If you can join a support group in your area, or virtually, that helps too! Make sure your house, car, and office are free of any cigarettes, lighters, ash trays or anything that may remind you of smoking.
Remember, it takes more than just willpower and determination to beat a nicotine addiction. Expect some setbacks and challenges, and prepare for them. The first few days or weeks after quitting may be particularly hard because of your cravings. You may also feel hungry, have more frequent headaches, and feel constipated or uneasy. These are all classic symptoms of nicotine withdrawal, and they will pass eventually. To stick with your decision and remain cigarette-free, you will need to be vigilant. If you have a setback or if you mess up, acknowledge it, forgive yourself, refocus and get back on track. Becoming a non-smoker is difficult, but the numerous benefits are well worth it at any age. You’re never too old or too young to follow your heart, listen to your body, and kick the habit.