Five smoking-related diseases your doctor is most worried about

By Emma Deihle

“The chemicals that are taken into your body from smoking, not just nicotine but all the other chemicals, have effects on almost every system in the body. None of those are positive effects.”

– Dr. Jane Horton, Washington and Lee University Student Health Center

Dr. Jane Horton of W&L's student health center.

Dr. Jane Horton of W&L’s student health center.

We’ve heard smoking is bad for you for decades now, but did you know that according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, cigarette smoking is the leading preventable cause of death in the United States? Several national organizations and publications are covering the issue as well. The Journal of the American Medical Association reports smoking causes more deaths each year than HIV, illegal drug use, alcohol use, motor vehicle injuries and firearm-related incidents combined. We sat down with Dr. Jane Horton from Washington and Lee University’s student health center and asked her about the dangers of smoking and the Centers for Disease Control’s warnings. Here are five major health problems outlined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention associated with lighting up that may spark your interest.

1 | Cancer

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services warns smoking can cause cancer in pretty much any part of your body – the esophagus, stomach, liver, pancreas – you name it. One of the most common forms is lung cancer. A 2014 American Cancer Society study finds that lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer death for men and women in the U.S. and it is the most preventable form of cancer in the world. According to HHS, if everyone stopped smoking, one in three American cancer deaths would not occur.

Dr. Horton: “The risks of lung cancer in smokers has gone up significantly in women the last 30 years or so and now is equal to the risk of lung cancer in male smokers. It use to be that women had a lower risk of lung cancer compared to male smokers and it’s not entirely clear why that is. The concern is that it may be how the filter is made or some of the ingredients in cigarettes that are increasing exposure of the carcinogens and significantly increasing the risk of lung cancer in smokers. There are more women that die of lung cancer than die of breast cancer every year.”

2 | Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD)

Smoking causes lung diseases by harming your airways and the small air sacs, called alveoli, in your lungs. Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease is a cluster of lung diseases including emphysema, chronic bronchitis and, sometimes, asthma. The CDC reports someone with COPD finds it harder to breathe because less air flows through the airways. The airways become inflamed and lose their ability to expand and contract easily. “Emphysema is a result of damage to the actual lung tissues that exchange oxygen from the air into the bloodstream,” Horton said. “That tissue shrinks down and becomes scarred.” Early symptoms may include “smokers’ cough” or tightness of the chest, but they eventually progress into trouble catching your breath or talking, blue or grey lips and/or fingernails and an irregularly fast heartbeat. Treatment options include strengthening breathing exercises, medications and stem cell therapy.

3 | Diabetes

Diabetes is the seventh leading cause of death in the United States, with 1.4 million Americans diagnosed every year, according to the American Diabetes Association. The CDC cites smoking as a cause for type 2 diabetes and finds that smokers are 30 to 40 percent more likely to develop type 2 diabetes than nonsmokers. Type 2 diabetes is a long-term metabolic disorder that causes high blood sugar and low insulin levels that can result in unexplained weight loss, heart disease and amputations because of poor blood flow. This type comprises 90 percent of all diabetes cases. No matter the type, smokers are more likely to have trouble with insulin dosing and managing the disease. “It’s been known for a long time that diabetics who are smokers are at much higher risk of some of the complications of diabetes [kidney disease, eye disease, nerve disease, cardiovascular disease, heart attack, stroke],” Horton said. “It’s been shown more recently, though, that if you have diabetes it’s harder to control if you’re a smoker.”

4 | Tuberculosis (TB)

Wait, that’s still a thing? Isn’t there a vaccine for that? Yes, but it isn’t bulletproof and if you smoke (especially in foreign countries where TB rates are higher), you’re increasing your chances of getting TB. The disease is on the decline in the U.S., but according to the World Lung Foundation, more than one-third of the world’s population is infected with the bacteria that cause TB. Most people will never contract the full-blown disease because their bodies have built up immunity. However, a study conducted by the International Journal of Tuberculosis and Lung Disease warns that smokers have weakened defense systems and therefore are at a greater risk of becoming infected and developing active TB. “There are a lot of healthy people who have been exposed to TB who don’t have [the] active disease, but if their immune system is compromised by illness or medication or if they’re a smoker, they’re at much higher risk for that TB becoming active and causing lung infection or infection in other parts of the body,” said Horton.

5 | Pregnancy Risks

The CDC asserts that smoking can make it more difficult for a woman to become pregnant and can affect a baby’s health before and after birth. HHS says risks include premature delivery, stillbirth, crib death and orofacial clefts. In addition to harm to the baby, smoking negatively affects women’s bone health and can cause increased gum recession and tooth loss. And guys, don’t think you aren’t part of this conversation. Smoking can alter men’s sperm, making it harder to conceive and increasing the likelihood of birth defects and miscarriages. “It can affect fertility in both men and women. In men, it’s been shown to affect the DNA in sperm and it contributes to erectile dysfunction and sexual dysfunction in that way,” Horton said. “In women, it affects not only the cilia in the lungs, but the cilia that line the fallopian tubes and carry the egg from the ovary to the uterus. So there’s an increased risk of pregnancy that implants in the tube instead of in the uterus.”

“If you don’t do it, don’t start. If you do, cut it out. If you need help, come talk to us about strategies to quit.”

– Dr. Jane Horton

– Barbara Bent and Cecelia Smith-Schoenwalder contributed to this story