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Lung Health

How Dangerous is Smoking Really?

Author: Jennifer O. Chan, MD
Thoracic Surgery

A person break a cigarette in half

If there was one thing that you could do to immediately and significantly improve your health, it would be to quit smoking. As the leading preventable cause of death in the U.S., smoking – particularly smoking cigarettes – accounts for more than 480,000 deaths per year.

From your brain to your heart, there’s not a single organ that smoking doesn’t affect. It’s a leading risk factor for heart attack and stroke. It’s responsible for most cases of lung cancer and can contribute to the growth of cancers in the rest of your body. Smoking is also associated with pregnancy complications including preterm birth, low birth weight, birth defects, and an increased risk of SIDS. Additionally, there is a link between smoking and fertility issues affecting both females and males—including DNA changes in egg/sperm and decreases in quality of sperm—all thought to be due to the toxins in cigarettes. And, obviously, smoking seriously affects your lungs and the lungs of those around you.

Smoking and Lung Health

Whether you’re inhaling directly or secondhand, cigarette smoke is made up of more than 7,000 chemicals, at least 69 of which are known carcinogens. Over time, these toxins damage lung alveoli, tiny air sacs that are responsible for oxygen entering the bloodstream and carbon dioxide exiting the body, leading to less efficient lung function.

It can cause or exacerbate a variety of lung diseases, including Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disorder (COPD), lung cancer and asthma.

What about Vaping?

A recent article published by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) notes the recent outbreak of lung injury associated with the use of e-cigarettes or vaping products. CDC, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), state and local health departments, and other health partners are investigating a multistate outbreak of lung injury associated with use of e-cigarette, or vaping, products. ( E-cigarettes and other vaping products may contain nicotine or THC, a byproduct of marijuana.

Benefits of Quitting

While the ultimate benefit of quitting cigarette smoking is living a longer, healthier life (the life expectancy for a smoker is at least 10 years less than that of a non-smoker), there are some benefits you’ll notice almost immediately.

  • Within 20 minutes of quitting, your heart rate and blood pressure drop.
  • After 12 hours, the amount of carbon monoxide in your blood drops to normal levels.
  • From 2 weeks to 3 months, your circulation and lung function noticeably improve.
  • From 1 to 9 months, your lungs start to regain normal function, reducing coughing and shortness of breath.
  • A year after quitting, your risk of coronary heart disease is cut in half; your risk of heart attack decreases significantly, as well.
  • In 2-5 years, your stroke risk is now the same as a non-smoker.
  • After 5 years, your mouth, throat and bladder cancer risks are reduced by half; your cervical cancer risk is now that of a non-smoker.
  • A decade after quitting, your risk of dying from lung cancer is half that of a smoker; your risk of other cancers decreases significantly, too.
  • And 15 years after quitting smoking, your risk of coronary artery disease is the same as that of a non-smoker.

Help is Available

Habits are hard to break, and smoking is no exception. Nicotine, a chemical compound that’s found in tobacco products, is highly addictive. The physical and psychological dependence it causes is what makes quitting so hard. Depressed mood, anxiety, irritability, insomnia and difficulty concentrating are common withdrawal symptoms that often lead to relapse in use. But, over time, symptoms normalize and staying smoke-free gets easier.

If you need help quitting smoking, there are some great local resources available, including:

California Smokers’ Help Line (1-800-NO-BUTTS)

This telephone counseling program offers up to seven free one-on-one sessions to help you stop smoking today.

National Cancer Institute (1-800-4-CANCER)

Not only will this resource answer your questions about cancer risks associated with smoking, it offers free publications and referrals to smoking cessation resources.


A partnership between the Centers for Disease Control, the American Cancer Society and the Tobacco Control Research branch of the National Cancer Institute, this site offers online guides and resources for quitting smoking.

Stop Smoking

This comprehensive online program was developed by the American Lung Association to help smokers quit anytime, anywhere.

Wellness Works

A comprehensive listing of Alameda County health and wellness resources, including those that can help support your quest to quit.

Posted November, 2019