Patients and friends often ask me what the best thing they can do for their health is. The question makes the answer seem deceptively easy, when in fact it’s very difficult. But there is one life change a person can make that surges above all others in making them a healthier person. What is it? Quitting smoking. Now I know only some of you actually smoke, but many of us have a friend or loved on who still hasn’t kicked the habit and even more who might smoke hookahs or cigars. In the spirit of No-Tobacco Day, I want to walk through why kicking the habit and getting tobacco out of your life is one of the best things you can do for your body.
It’s Not All About Lung Cancer
When I ask people how they think smoking affects their health, the most common answer they give is lung cancer. That’s probably because the link to lung cancer was one of the first and biggest health findings that showed that smoking could be bad for you. But since then, we’ve found out that the dangers of smoking go far beyond lung cancer and affect just about every part of your body. Smoking increases your risk for:
- Heart disease
- Lung diseases like emphysema and COPD, which make breathing difficult
- Cancers of the mouth, throat, esophagus, stomach, colon, rectum, kidneys, bladder, liver, pancreas, cervix
- Infections of the lungs like pneumonia
- Aneurysms that can lead to fatal bleeding
- Having pregnancy problems or giving birth to a baby whose weight is too low
The list is long and terrifying, but few people realize just how much they’re putting themselves at risk when they light up.
It’s Not Just About Cigarettes
Some people think they’re safe with cigars, hookahs or chewing tobacco, but these forms of smoking can be just as addictive as smoking cigarettes and as damaging to your health. Many people think that you’re fine as long as you don’t inhale fully. Unfortunately, nicotine and many of the harmful chemicals in smoke are absorbed directly through the blood vessels in your mouth into your bloodstream. You don’t actually need to inhale all the way to be harmed by them. As long as the smoke hits the inside of your mouth, you’re in trouble.
Even the people around you aren’t safe. Studies have found that being exposed to smoke secondhand can put you at risk for some of the same diseases as smoking itself. The chemicals in the smoke can even stick to fabrics like carpets or curtains and are rereleased over time. That’s called third-hand smoke, and it can harm children and others who live with a person who smokes hours after the smoking stops.
The Good News
While this might seem to paint a hopeless picture of being a smoker, the good news is a lot of it is reversible. Your risk of cancer, for example, drops when you stop smoking. That’s the case even if you’ve already had cancer. The earlier you stop, the lower your risk will be, but you’re never too old to get a benefit. And that’s just cancer. What about all the other health effects? Here’s what happens to them:
- Your heart rate and blood pressure, which are pushed up by smoking, immediately begin to return to normal.
- Within a few hours, the level of carbon monoxide in your blood starts to drop, which makes it easier for your blood to carry oxygen to your organs.
- In a few weeks, your circulation improves and phlegm production drops, which means less coughing and wheezing.
- As the cells in your mouth and on your tongue turn over, you’ll start to notice that food tastes better and you can smell scents better.
- After several months without smoking, you’ll notice that your lungs work dramatically better. You’ll breathe more easily and get less winded during exercise.
- Within a few years of quitting, your risk of heart disease and other chronic diseases drop dramatically.
Quitting can be a long road, but as you can see, it’s worth it. It’s next to impossible to truly think of yourself as healthy as long as you stay a smoker. Being sick less often, being able to chase your kids around the playground, knowing you’ll have a few more years of life with your loved ones and a whole host of other reasons are worth the difficulty of kicking smoking out of your life for good.
Ready to start? Check out smokefree.gov for tips on how to get started or call the quit line at 877-448-7848.