Health Encyclopedia

Smoking and Respiratory Diseases

Facts about smoking and respiratory diseases

According to the CDC, diseases caused by smoking kill more than 443,000 people in the U.S. each year. In fact, smoking is directly responsible for almost 90 percent of lung cancer and COPD deaths. Even with antismoking campaigns and medical health disclaimers in place, many people continue to smoke or start to smoke every year. A 2009 survey by the CDC reported that more than 25 percent of high school kids were current tobacco users.

What are the risks associated with smoking?

Smokers not only increase their risk of lung disease, including lung cancer, but they also increase their risk of other illnesses, including heart disease, stroke, and oral cancer. Risks from smoking, as they relate to lung disease, may include, but are not limited to, the following:

  • Chronic bronchitis. Chronic bronchitis, a long-term inflammation of the bronchi (large airways), is characterized by coughing productively over a long period of time.

  • Emphysema. Emphysema, a chronic lung condition that affects the air sacs in the lungs (alveoli), is characterized by shortness of breath, coughing, fatigue, sleep and heart problems, weight loss, and depression.

  • Lung cancer. Lung cancer, an abnormal, continual multiplying of cells that can result in lumps, masses, or tumors, can begin in the lining of the bronchi (large airways), or other areas of the respiratory system. Lung cancer may cause a cough as the tumor grows. Other symptoms may include constant chest pain, shortness of breath, wheezing, recurring lung infections, bloody or rust-colored sputum, hoarseness, swelling of the neck and face, pain and weakness in the shoulder, arm, or hand, and unexplained fever. Smoking, including secondhand smoke, is the leading cause of lung cancer.

The symptoms of smoking-related lung diseases may resemble other lung conditions or medical problems. Always consult your doctor for a diagnosis.

How dangerous is secondhand smoke?

Secondhand smoke, smoke that is exhaled by smokers and smoke emitted from the burning end of a lit cigarette, cigar, or pipe, causes more than 3,000 lung cancer deaths each year in persons who do not smoke themselves. Also called involuntary or passive smoking, secondhand smoke can also lead to heart disease. The following are some of the most common symptoms associated with exposure to secondhand smoke. However, each individual may experience symptoms differently. Symptoms may include:

  • Irritation of the eyes, nose, and throat

  • Coughing

  • Excessive phlegm (mucus in the airways)

  • Chest discomfort or pain

Children and infants exposed to tobacco smoke are more likely to experience ear infections, and asthma, and are at a higher risk for sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS) than children and infants without the same exposure.

The symptoms of secondhand smoke may resemble other medical conditions and problems. Always consult your doctor for a diagnosis.

What are the benefits of quitting smoking?

People who quit smoking can actually reverse some of the damage that has been done to their lungs over an extended period of time. Other benefits of quitting smoking may include the following:

  • Decreased risk for lung disease

  • Decreased risk for heart disease

  • Decreased risk for cancer

  • Reduced cigarette stains on fingers and teeth

  • Reduced occurrence of a hacking cough

  • Elimination of stale cigarettes smell on clothing and hair

  • Improved smell and taste

How does cigar smoking affect a person's risk of lung cancer and other types of cancer?

Cigars became a trend in the 1990s, attracting the young and the old. Perceived as less detrimental to one's health, cigars actually pose the same, if not greater, risk as cigarettes for oral cancer. Although many cigar smokers do not inhale, their risk for oral, throat, and esophageal cancers is the same as for cigarette smokers. Consider these facts from the CDC:

  • Compared with nonsmokers, cigar smokers who inhale are more likely to develop oral cancer, esophageal cancer, and laryngeal cancer.

  • Cigar smokers who inhale and smoke five cigars a day may have a lung cancer risk similar to one-pack-a-day cigarette smokers.

  • Secondhand smoke from cigars contains toxins and cancer-causing agents (carcinogens) similar to secondhand cigarette smoke, but in higher concentrations.

How do people stop smoking? 

Quitting smoking is both a mental and a physical undertaking. Mentally, you should be ready and relatively stress-free. Physically, you need to commit to exercising daily and getting plenty of sleep. A person trying to quit must overcome two obstacles: a physical addiction to nicotine and a habit. The American Academy of Otolaryngology and the American Lung Association offer the following tips to help users quit using tobacco products:

  1. Think about why you want to quit.

  2. Pick a stress-free time to quit.

  3. Ask for support and encouragement from family, friends, and colleagues.

  4. Begin a daily exercise or activity to relieve stress and improve your health.

  5. Get plenty of rest.

  6. Eat a balanced diet.

  7. Join a smoking cessation program, or other support group.

In some cases, smokers benefit from nicotine replacement products to help break their smoking habit. Nicotine replacement products continue to give the smoker nicotine, although in smaller quantities than a cigarette, to meet their nicotine craving. However, the benefit of nicotine replacement products is the elimination of tars and poisonous gases that cigarettes emit. Pregnant or nursing women, and people with other medical conditions, should consult with their physician before using any nicotine replacement products. Some examples of nicotine replacement products include:

  • Nicotine chewing gum or lozenges. These over-the-counter (OTC) products release small amounts of nicotine to help reduce nicotine withdrawal symptoms.

  • Nicotine patch. An OTC patch applied to the upper body once a day that releases a steady dosage of nicotine to help reduce the urge to smoke.

  • Nicotine inhaler or nasal spray. Prescription nicotine replacement products that release nicotine to help reduce withdrawal symptoms (require a health care provider's approval before use).