The Effects of Cigarette Smoke on the Respiratory System

A healthy respiratory system is designed to protect the lungs from occasional inhalation of smoke, dust and other harmful substances. Cigarette smoking not only damages its protective mechanism but continues to assault it with harmful material daily. Secondhand smoke carries similar dangers.

A close-up of a lit cigarette in an ashtray. (Image: sodapix sodapix/F1online/Getty Images)

Efficient breathing delivers oxygen for cell growth and vital functions throughout the human body. Lungs, blood vessels and airways beset by health problems can't sustain this equilibrium. Eventually, the respiratory effects of cigarette smoke will affect a person's overall physical condition.

Types of Exposure

Cigarette smoke has similar effects on the respiratory system no matter how it is ingested. Tobacco users themselves inhale mainstream smoke through the cigarette and secondhand smoke in the air. Breathing any amount of secondhand smoke raises the risk for many health problems. Adults and children can inhale airborne secondhand smoke, and pregnant women can transmit it to their developing babies. Toxic particles that cling to smokers' clothes and hair can contaminate indoor environments as dust. Children are especially vulnerable to this thirdhand particulate.

Effects on Respiration

Throat and bronchial irritation occur from inhaling first- or secondhand cigarette smoke. Over time, smokers bronchi and lungs become scarred. Health problems such as chronic bronchitis and emphysema can set in, severely restricting respiration. These breathing obstructions prevent adequate oxygen from entering the bloodstream to the heart. Atherosclerosis due to smoking can also narrow the pulmonary blood vessels that carry oxygenated blood to the heart. This further reduces the amount of oxygen being pumped throughout the body.

Effects on Immunity

Cigarette smoke contains more than 7,000 carcinogens. A daily dose raises smokers' risks for respiratory system cancers, until the chances of developing lung cancer are 20 times greater than the norm. Smoking is known to cause cancer of the mouth, larynx, throat, blood and lungs.


Symptoms of respiratory system irritation from first- or secondhand smoke include coughing, wheezing, phlegm and shortness of breath. Respiratory decline may be indicated by frequent infections such as acute bronchitis and pneumonia. Chronic bronchitis is characterized by a daily "smoker's cough," while emphysema's hallmark is difficulty in exhaling.


Because respiratory health problems come on slowly, people affected by cigarette smoke may not seek treatment until serious disease has developed. Chronic bronchitis and emphysema, which both can cause death, can also lead to heart failure and other potentially fatal cardiopulmonary conditions.

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