Have You Ever Seen a Smoker’s Lung?

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Story at-a-glance -

  • Despite decades of warnings about the dangers of smoking it remains the single largest preventable cause of cancer and disease in the U.S.
  • A short video demonstrating the damage that occurs to lung tissue when you smoke may give you the motivation to quit, enabling you to enjoy the many benefits to your health as your body heals
  • Research demonstrates just one cigarette a day increases your risk of heart disease and stroke; vaping also exposes you to chemicals with significant health risks
  • Your body begins healing from smoking within 30 minutes of your last cigarette and continues to experience healing and growth up to 20 years later

By Dr. Mercola

Despite decades of warnings by the Surgeon General,1 the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) continues to call tobacco the "single largest preventable cause of cancer and disease in the United States,"2 and the tobacco industry's revenue in 2014 was $744 billion — greater than the gross domestic product of all but 18 nations in the world.3

To date, cigarette smoking kills more than 480,000 people in the U.S. each year; nearly 41,000 of these are from exposure to secondhand smoke. Additionally, medical costs from smoke-related illnesses are more than $300 billion, including direct medical care and lost productivity.

Men, women and children suffer the effects of tobacco-related diseases and illnesses. Today, the age group with the highest prevalence is 45 to 64 years followed very closely by 25- to 44-year-olds. While reports indicate the number of people picking up a cigarette for the first time is slowly declining, smoking remains a leading cause of preventable death.

Health Risks Not Limited to Your Lungs

Health risks associated with smoking combustible cigarettes and e-cigarettes are not limited to your lungs. Cigarette smoking affects nearly every organ in your body and quitting can add years to your life. Each year, smoking causes more deaths than HIV, illegal drug use, alcohol use, motor vehicle accidents and firearm-related accidents combined.4

Some of the effects of tobacco smoke are immediate and others are only clinically evident after several months or years of smoking. Cigarette smokers die younger than nonsmokers by 11 years for women and 12 years for men.5 Nearly 30 percent of all cancer deaths in the U.S. are related to smoking and 80 percent of all lung cancer deaths. Smoking is also associated with an increased risk of:6,7,8

Blindness and loss of night vision

High white blood cell count

Weakened immune system

Lowered estrogen levels




Hearing loss

Muscle deterioration

Coronary heart disease

Increased risk peptic ulcers

Rheumatoid arthritis

Broken bones

Bladder cancer

Stomach cancer

Kidney cancer

Pancreatic cancer

Cervical cancer

Liver cancer

Colon cancer

Lung cancer

Cancer of the larynx, pharynx, mouth and esophagus

Macular degeneration

Erectile dysfunction

Fertility problems

Preterm birth

Ectopic pregnancy

Low birth weight



Type 2 diabetes

Premature skin aging

This Is Your Lungs on Smoke

It is easy to continue a bad habit when you don't see the immediate effects on your health. This may be one of the reasons you have trouble finding the motivation to quit smoking. Amanda Eller, a nurse from North Carolina, recently shared a short video to demonstrate the effects smoking has on healthy lungs and help you understand physical changes that aren't immediately visible. (See featured video above.)

Each puff of a cigarette triggers damage to the cells in your respiratory system. Chemicals have direct access to your lungs and airways and are then delivered to other parts of your body as you inhale. Damage is first done to your mouth and throat, creating a thickening of the lining of the throat.9 The smoke reaches the nose and sinuses, triggering a decrease in the sense of taste and smell.

Once in the lungs, smoke reduces your body's ability to fight viruses and bacteria, setting up a higher potential for respiratory illnesses. A thick lining of mucus may trigger a chronic cough and breathing problems. Damage is also done to the alveoli (air sacs) in the lungs, where oxygen is transferred to the blood.10 Since narrowed arteries do not allow blood to circulate efficiently, it may take a toll on your fertility and sex life, impeding sperm production and increasing difficulty in attaining an erection.

This lack of oxygen also affects your skin, creating premature wrinkles and age-related decline. Your cardiovascular system is affected with each puff of a cigarette as nicotine increases your heart rate and blood pressure. Increased cardiac output and vascular resistance happens immediately with each cigarette, and may be linked to long-term damage.11 In addition to nicotine, there are nearly 4,000 chemicals in cigarettes, at least 60 of which are known to cause cancer. Some of the more dangerous are:12

Tar: Tar coats the small hairs in your lungs, cilia, preventing them from moving debris and germs out.

Carbon monoxide: This gas produced by cigarettes prevents oxygen from being carried on your red blood cells and reduces oxygen delivery to your cells and brain.

Benzene: You inhale benzene with smoke, which is known to cause cell DNA damage and linked to a range of different cancers.

Oxidant gas: These gases include ozone and nitrogen dioxide, trigger damage to the bronchiolar epithelium.13

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Even Just One Cigarette a Day Triggers Damage

Some feel smoking "socially," only when out with friends, or lighting up just one or two cigarettes a day, is safe compared to smoking a pack or more a day. However, a recent study published in the BMJ demonstrates those who smoke inconsistently have a greater risk of developing coronary heart disease and stroke than had previously been predicted.14

The researchers did a systematic review and meta-analysis of research published between 1946 and 2015, using cohort studies with at least 50 events comparing those who smoke one, five or 20 cigarettes a day.15 The pooled relative risk of heart disease was 1.48 percent for those who smoke one cigarette a day, while the relative risk for those smoking 20 per day was 2.04 percent. In each group the women had a higher risk of heart disease than the men. The researchers concluded:16

"Smoking only about one cigarette per day carries a risk of developing coronary heart disease and stroke much greater than expected: around half that for people who smoke 20 per day. No safe level of smoking exists for cardiovascular disease. Smokers should aim to quit instead of cutting down to significantly reduce their risk of these two common major disorders."

When the data was controlled for confounding factors such as age, researchers expected those smoking one cigarette a day would experience a 5 percent risk of heart disease and stroke, or 1/20 the risk of those smoking 20 per day. What they found was that men had a 46 percent higher risk of cardiovascular disease and 41 percent higher risk of stroke; women had a 31 percent and 34 percent greater risk of heart disease and stroke respectively, smoking just one cigarette a day.17

Patricia Folan, director of the Center for Tobacco Control at Northwell Health, commented on the findings,18 noting that young adults "often smoke lesser amounts than older adults. These lighter-smoking young adults frequently do not even consider themselves smokers. [They are at] risk of developing coronary heart disease from smoking even a small number of cigarettes."

Allan Hackshaw, lead study author from UCL Cancer Institute at University College, London, believes the data demonstrates a large proportion of the dangers of smoking comes from the first couple of cigarettes a day.19 While this information is surprising, he believes there are biological mechanisms explaining the damage and increased heart disease and stroke risk.

Vaping Is Not the Answer

If you are looking for a long-term answer to smoking, vaping is not it. While it has demonstrated some effectiveness in helping you quit completely, substituting vaping for combustible cigarettes means you are trading one set of dangers for another, very similar, set. Vaping, (e-cigarettes, e-cigs), are nicotine delivery systems using a different set of chemicals. Although the vapors may be odorless, they contain nicotine, heavy metals, fine particulate matter and formaldehyde.

Results from a yearlong follow-up of Los Angeles high school students confirmed those who start with vaping have a higher rate of moving to traditional combustible cigarettes than those who don't vape.20 These results were supported by a secondary study following over 1,400 Connecticut high school students over two years.21 This study found adolescents were more likely to move from vaping to combustible cigarettes than from traditional cigarettes to e-cigs.

Exposure to nicotine from e-cigarettes during adolescence increases the risk of addictive behavior related to alcohol consumption as the teen grows to adulthood.22 Researchers found exposure to nicotine in adolescence changes the function of the inhibitory midbrain circuitry, leading to addictive behavior. This alteration is responsible for sending signals during stress and reward. Long-term changes in the midbrain may lead to other addictions, including cocaine, morphine and heroin.23

E-cigs may also give bystanders a false sense of security as there is little to no odor. However, the vapor contains particles easily absorbed through inhalation.24 Despite lower levels of nicotine air pollution from the devices, researchers measured similar levels of cotinine in bystanders, a chemical measuring the amount of nicotine taken into the body, as compared to those exposed to secondhand traditional smoke.

According to Americans for Nonsmokers' Rights,25 secondhand vapor can contain at least 10 chemicals identified on California's Proposition 65 list of reproductive toxins and carcinogens. The most well-known of these is diacetyl, an artificial flavor used by popcorn makers26 to add buttery taste to microwave popcorn. The chemical is linked to respiratory damage and permanent scarring of the airway.27 In an evaluation of 51 e-cig flavors, Harvard researchers found 47 contain flavoring chemicals, including diacetyl.28

Here's What Happens When You Quit Smoking

Your body has an amazing ability to heal and repair damaged cells when supported with good nutrition, quality sleep and consistent movement. I believe the secret to quitting is getting healthy first. In my previous article, "Smoking Rots You from the Inside," I outline the first steps you should consider. Here's what happens to your body in the first weeks and years you stop smoking:29,30

After 20 minutes

In just 20 minutes after your last cigarette, your heart rate, blood pressure and temperature of your hands and feet begin to return to normal.

After eight hours

The nicotine in your bloodstream falls by over 93 percent.

After 12 hours

Your body gets rid of the excess carbon monoxide gas and your oxygen levels return to normal.

After one day

In the first 24 hours the anxiety you'll experience quitting smoking will peak and your risk of heart attack begins to decline. Your blood pressure begins to normalize, your oxygen levels are higher and physical activity becomes easier. Smoking anxiety will reduce to pre-quitting levels after two weeks.

After two days

The nerves responsible for smelling and tasting begin to heal and you may notice more vivid smells and tastes. At this time quitting-related anger and irritability will peak.

After three days

The nicotine level in your body is depleted after three days, which may increase your withdrawal symptoms. You may experience moodiness, irritability and severe headaches as your body begins to detoxify and adjust to a healthier environment. The bronchial tubes in your lungs are relaxing and it becomes easier to breathe.

After one week

In the first five to eight days you'll experience three cue-induced cravings per day. If you normally lit up after a meal, it's likely this will be the time you experience these cravings. You can fight these cravings by substituting something else, such as going for a walk, chewing gum or doing jumping jacks as the cravings typically don't last more than three minutes.

After two weeks

Within two weeks the blood circulating in your gums and teeth will return to that of a nonsmoker. This helps heal periodontitis and improve your breath.

After four weeks

Between two and four weeks, anxiety, depression, insomnia and anger will have disappeared. Your lung function is improving and your risk of heart attack is decreasing. You might notice less coughing and shortness of breath and renewed ability for greater activity.

After nine months

Your sinus congestion, fatigue and shortness of breath are significantly decreased. The cilia in your lungs your body uses to clear debris and dust have regrown and you experience an increase in energy. You may notice a reduction in the number of colds you experience as the cilia in your lungs are better able to do their job.

After one year

In the 12 months after you quit smoking, your risk of coronary artery disease, heart attack and stroke drops by 50 percent and continues to drop each year you don't smoke.

After five years

After five years without a cigarette your arteries and blood vessels begin to widen, reducing your risk of clot formation, reducing your risk of stroke. This also reduces your blood pressure even further. Your risk of stroke will continue to decline for the next 10 years. Within 15 years your risk of a stroke is the same as a nonsmoker.

After 10 years

Your risk of lung cancer is 30 percent to 50 percent of a smoker's risk and your risk of death from lung cancer has been reduced by half. Your risk of mouth, throat, esophagus and pancreatic cancer has also reduced significantly.

After 13 years

At 13 years after quitting your risk of tooth loss is the same as that of a nonsmoker.

After 15 years

In this time period your risk of pancreatic cancer has reduced to that of a nonsmoker, as well as your risk of coronary artery disease.

After 20 years

Your risk of dying from a smoking-related cause will drop to the same risk as that of a nonsmoker 20 years after you quit smoking.