Lights Out, Tobacco

By Gabriel Vidal, M.D. November 2021

Some may be inclined to think the negative impact from tobacco use is primarily restricted to the lungs, but it affects several organ systems.

man snapping cigarette in half
Photo by mbruxelle |

Tobacco has been a part of our nation’s history since its beginnings. Over the centuries the tobacco industry has grown into a multibillion-dollar business. As time passed, we gained a better understanding of the adverse health effects from tobacco consumption. Some may be inclined to think the negative impact from tobacco use is primarily restricted to the lungs, but it affects several organ systems.

Cardiovascular Disease

Smoking causes artery walls to become weaker. Weaker arterial walls can lead to aneurysms or tears which can be life-threatening. Smoking can also contribute toward atherosclerosis, a disease in which plaque builds up in the arteries. Over time plaque will make it more difficult for blood to reach organs such as the heart, lungs and brain. This decrease in blood flow can lead to heart attacks and strokes, along with decreased blood circulation to the arms and legs. The chemicals can also make the arteries stiff which in turn increases blood pressure. An increase in blood pressure can damage organs such as the eyes, kidneys and heart.

Respiratory Disease

Smoking causes damage to the small air sacs in the lung (alveoli) which can lead to decreased lung function, and as a result, emphysema. Smokers can develop chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) which makes it difficult to breath and increases risk of developing lung infections like pneumonia. Over time, patients with COPD may require supplemental oxygen in order to maintain normal blood oxygen levels. These patients can develop chronic bronchitis, which is an inflammation of the large airways, along with emphysema. Cigarette smoking can also irritate the lungs and trigger asthma attacks.

Risk of Cancer

Tobacco consumption plays a role in several cancers such as esophageal cancer, head and neck cancers, lung cancers, pancreatic cancer, bladder cancer, colon cancer, cervical cancer and leukemia (a type of blood cancer). Almost 1 in 3 cancer-related deaths in the U.S. is from tobacco use. Cigarette smoking plays a role in causing cancer by delivering carcinogens (chemicals that cause cancer) to different parts of the body, by causing inflammation and irritation, and by decreasing the body’s ability to clear cancer cells.

Cessation Strategies

First, create a plan to quit that incorporates a healthcare provider, family members, and friends. It is also important to identify current triggers to tobacco consumption and create a plan to deal with those triggers. Then, come up with a certain date to put the plan in motion.

Withdrawal symptoms such as headache, nausea, irritability, and difficulty concentrating are normal. It is common to relapse and start smoking again. Don’t get discouraged and stop trying to quit.

Some of the immediate improvements from quitting include a decrease in heart rate and blood pressure, and a decrease in carbon monoxide levels in the bloodstream. Within weeks to months, lung function improves. After the first year of quitting, coughing and shortness of breath will decrease significantly, the risk for lung infection decreases, and the lungs’ ability to handle mucus increases. During that time coronary heart disease risk decreases by almost half when compared with tobacco users. People continue to reap the benefits of quitting well into the 10-15 year marks as the risk of various cancers continues to decrease in comparison to tobacco users.

The Oklahoma Tobacco Helpline, 1-800-QUIT NOW [(800)784-8669], is one of the Oklahoma Tobacco Settlement Endowment Trust’s (TSET) outreach programs. The helpline is available free of charge, 24/7. The program has online and mobile resources with staff members who can help those who are ready to quit smoking.

Dr. Gabriel Vidal is a board-certified internist who is currently pursuing further training in oncology at the Stephenson Cancer Center at University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center.

Category: Health
Photo by mbruxelle |

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