You know the bottom line: Smoking is bad for your health. But while most people are aware of the connection between cigarettes and lung cancer, the American Heart Association (AHA) makes clear that smoking is also the driving factor behind more than a third of all coronary heart disease deaths.
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Cigarettes: Health Enemy No. 1
If you find that your heart races after smoking cigarettes, there could be more than 5,000 reasons why — that's the number of chemicals found in cigarette smoke, according to the AHA. Besides tar and carbon monoxide, they include arsenic, benzene, cadmium, formaldehyde and, of course, nicotine. Nicotine is infamous for its highly addictive properties. It's why smokers have so much trouble quitting.
However, nicotine is also an arch enemy of the heart, notes the AHA — increasing blood pressure, decreasing blood flow, narrowing arterial pathways and upping the risk for heart attack. It's also a major cause of heart palpitations.
Nicotine and Heart Palpitations
According to the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, there are signs you may feel when experiencing heart palpitations. They can variously feel like your heart is skipping a beat, pounding or fluttering, or simply beating abnormally hard or fast.
Not all palpitations are a serious cause for concern, but one potentially problematic source of palpitations is atrial or supraventricular tachycardia (SVT). And one principal cause of SVT is nicotine. This type of super-fast heart rate can occur when the normal electrical signaling that takes place in the upper chambers of the heart goes haywire, according to the AHA. The result is a short-circuiting — if only temporary — of the heart's natural pacemaker, known as the sinoatrial node. All of which can give rise to chest fluttering palpitations.
According to Harvard Health, SVT and the palpitations it triggers can vary in duration. But no matter how long- or short-lived, you should seek a medical evaluation.
Read more: Vitamins That Can Cause Heart Palpitations
Smoking Can Trigger Heart Spasms
There are several other reasons why "nicotine is a risk factor for heart palpitations," notes Kenneth A. Ellenbogen, MD, professor and chair of the Division of Cardiology at the Virginia Commonwealth University School of Medicine in Richmond.
Palpitations can result from a nicotine-induced coronary artery spasm, Dr. Ellenbogen explains. According to the Mayo Clinic, a coronary artery spasm is a temporary tightening of arterial walls involved in blood flow into the heart. Such spasms can slow or completely block blood from entering key areas of the heart, and the longer a coronary artery spasm lasts, the greater the risk for chest pain (angina) and a heart attack.
Palpitations may be the canary in the coal mine for serious spasm-induced heart trouble, and smokers are at a particularly high risk for such spasms, states the Mayo Clinic, even if the smoker has none of the usual risk factors for heart disease, like high blood pressure or high cholesterol.
And that's not all. Smoking-induced tachycardia "increases the risk of sudden cardiac death," warns Dr. Ellenbogen. Nicotine, he adds, "also increases the level of activity of the sympathetic nervous system." That's the system responsible for regulating blood pressure. "And this can trigger extra beats," he explains.
What to Do When Palpitations Occur
There are steps you should take if you experience palpitations, whether or not you're a smoker.
Hopefully your palpitations are short-lived and infrequent, and pose no serious threat, but whenever they occur, check your pulse to see just how irregular or fast your heartbeat appears to be, suggests Harvard Health. Take note of how often such palpitations occur, how long they last and whether they start and stop without warning or ramp up slowly. Relay all this information to your doctor.
At your doctor visit, expect to be given a stress test, an electrocardiogram (EKG) to assess your heart's electrical activity and, if you're a smoker, a key piece of advice: Stop smoking.
- National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute: "Heart Palpitations"
- American Heart Association: "How Smoking and Nicotine Damage Your Body"
- American Heart Association: "Tachycardia: Fast Heart Rate"
- Mayo Clinic: "Coronary Artery Spasm: Cause for Concern?"
- Harvard Health: "Skipping a Beat — the Surprise of Heart Palpitations"