Smoking cigarettes is harmful to your skin, even if you have no damage that needs to heal. The little blood vessels in your outer skin layers narrow when you smoke, cutting down the blood flow and decreasing nutrient delivery, according to MayoClinic.com. Smoking also damages your skin's strength by affecting elastin and collagen. These effects make you look old more quickly, and smoking causes even more problems when you have wounds.
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Eighty percent of the patients in a limited study published in the "Journal of Oral and Maxillofacial Surgery" in the 1990s had healing problems after bone-grafting surgery, compared to only 10 percent of non-smokers. More recent studies confirm this effect, like a 2005 study, published in the "Journal of Clinical Peridontology" that showed that smoking impairs tissue regeneration during healing.
Skin health requires blood circulation, and the skin needs richly oxygenated blood that carries enough nutrients and removes waste products. Smokers have decreased blood flow, especially to their extremities, and cigarettes cause the blood to carry more carbon monoxide, according to Craig Hospital. Oxygen cannot easily enter carbon monoxide-heavy blood, so the skin receives less nutrients and waste products are not removed effectively. These effects impair healing of existing skin wounds and even promote development of pressure sores in immobile individuals. Vitamin C helps skin heal, but smoking lowers your levels of this important nutrient.
Infrequent smoking has the same negative effects on wound healing as smoking cigarettes regularly, according to the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health. Cigar smoking as just as bad for skin healing as regular cigarettes. The effects eventually disappear if you stop smoking completely.
Smoking causes a variety of healing-related complications in addition to slowing down the skin healing process. Wounds are more likely to get infected if you smoke, the University of Wisconsin warns, and you may get blood clot formation near the sore. Stitches are more likely to come apart in smokers, raising the chance of scars. If you have a skin graft, your chances of failure are greater if you smoke. Cigarette smoking increases the risk of post-surgical healing complications that keep you in the hospital longer, and smoking-related lung problems like excess mucus make you more like to catch a cold or pneumonia during your recovery.
Smokers should be alert for warning signs of impaired skin healing that may require medical attention. Infection symptoms include increased pain, warmth and redness around the wound and discharge of pus or other fluids. These signs may be accompanies by flu-like symptoms and a fever. See your physician if your wound is not healing properly and you develop any of those complications.