The Effects of Smoking on Your Respiratory System

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A group of three women stand against a wall with lit cigarettes in their hands. (Image: Thinkstock/Stockbyte/Getty Images)

The major health problems caused by smoking affect the nicotine delivery system: the airways, blood vessels and lungs in the human respiratory system. During normal breathing, air is ingested through the nose or mouth and travels through the bronchial tubes to the lungs.

There, the oxygen collects in the alveoli, or air sacs, and diffuses into the bloodstream, to be pumped by the heart to the brain and body. Cigarette smoking upsets this balanced process, to the detriment of the respiratory system.

Effects on the Mouth, Larynx and Pharynx

Hot gases and particulate inhaled during cigarette smoking contact the tissue and mucous membranes that surround the mouth; larynx, or voice box; and pharynx, or throat. These areas suffer continual irritation from smoking, and tobacco users may develop symptoms such as hoarseness, coughing and wheezing due to inflammation.

As the National Institutes of Health report, cigarette smoke contains more than 60 cancer-causing compounds. The U.S. Surgeon General has linked mouth, larynx and pharynx cancers with tobacco use.

Effects on the Bronchi

Chemicals and particulate from tobacco use continue on to the bronchi, the airways that lead to the lungs. There, the smoke acts on the cilia, tiny hairs that sweep away debris to keep the airways clear. When damaged cilia can no longer function, excess mucus and foreign matter clog the bronchial space.

The American Lung Association (ALA) relates that symptoms of chronic bronchitis arise to compensate for this health problem. A frequent cough and expulsion of phlegm indicate this first stage of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).

Effects on the Lungs

The alveoli of the lungs suffer from cigarette smoking, eventually breaking down and losing their effectiveness in transferring oxygen to the blood. This second stage of COPD, emphysema, is characterized by shortness of breath and difficulty exhaling, the ALA notes. COPD restricts exercise tolerance, making everyday activities more difficult and strenuous exercise impossible for many individuals.

While COPD health problems are responsible for 92,900 annual deaths, lung cancer causes 128,900 deaths per year, according to 2008 U.S. smoking mortality data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Effects on the Pulmonary Blood Vessels

Tobacco use causes atherosclerosis, or clogging of the blood vessels. When the arteries and veins between the lungs and heart are affected and high blood pressure results, the condition is called pulmonary hypertension. As the Mayo Clinic reports, this health problem can lead to arrhythmia, heart failure, blood clots and pulmonary embolism, all of which can be fatal.

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