Most of us know that tobacco use is bad for our health, but do we truly understand just how bad it can be?
For example, did you know that tobacco is the leading cause of preventable death in the United States? Cigarette smoking causes nearly one in five deaths every year. In fact, smoking causes more deaths annually than all the following causes combined: HIV, illegal drug use, alcohol use, motor vehicle injuries, and firearm-related incidents.
Health risks of tobacco use
When you use tobacco, you automatically put yourself at risk of developing health complications. This is true regardless of whether you smoke tobacco or use the smokeless variety. For example, if you smoke tobacco, you could experience heart and blood vessel problems, such as blood clots, a heart attack, or poor circulation. You could also be at higher risk for certain types of cancer, lung problems (this includes ailments like chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) or uncontrolled asthma), infertility, macular degeneration, tooth and gum disease, and much more.
Smokers who switch to smokeless tobacco also have health risks. These include an increased risk of cancer of the mouth, tongue, esophagus, and pancreas; gum and tooth problems; and worsening high blood pressure and angina.
In addition, when you smoke, you put others’ health at risk. When those around you inhale secondhand smoke, they have a higher risk of heart attack, heart disease, lung cancer, asthma flares, and more.
Common diseases caused by tobacco use
As the leading cause of preventable death nationwide, it’s not surprising that tobacco use causes a variety of common diseases. These include the following:
Tobacco use can cause cancer almost anywhere in your body. Examples include cancers of the mouth and throat, voice box, kidney, uterus, bladder, esophagus, lungs, liver, stomach, pancreas, colon, and more. It happens when you smoke tobacco, due to the thousands of chemicals that enter your bloodstream. These chemicals damage your DNA, causing some cells to turn into cancer. Even smokeless tobacco products contain cancer-causing chemicals that you put you at risk.
Tobacco use affects the entire cardiovascular system, putting you at higher risk for coronary artery disease, high blood pressure, heart attack, stroke, aneurysms, peripheral artery disease, and more. How? When you inhale tobacco, your body becomes contaminated by the smoke’s chemicals. These chemicals cause a build-up of plaque in your arteries, making it more difficult for blood to flow properly to your vital organs, increasing your risk of blood clots and other health problems.
Tobacco use can have major consequences on the lungs and increase your risk of emphysema, COPD, and more. That’s because tobacco harms the tissues of the lungs, causing irreversible damage and impeding their ability to function properly. For example, smoking can destroy the tiny hairs in your airways that keep dirt, dust, and particles out of your lungs.
It can also increase and thicken mucus in the lungs, irritate and inflame bronchial tubes, and destroy the air sacs that allow for gaseous exchange. The result? Respiratory infections, difficulty breathing, and more. Smoking can even affect lung development. Babies whose mothers smoke during pregnancy may develop abnormal lungs, and teens who smoke may never develop full-size, full-capacity lungs.
Type 2 diabetes
Smoking is one of several causes of type 2 diabetes, and people who smoke cigarettes are between 30% to 40% more likely to develop type 2 diabetes than people who don’t smoke, according to the CDC. How does smoking cause type 2 diabetes?
It’s simple. Smoking increases inflammation that occurs when chemicals in cigarette smoke injure your cells. This inflammation may be related to an increased risk of diabetes. In addition, smoking also causes oxidative stress - or an imbalance between free radicals and antioxidants in your body - that may also be related to increased diabetes risk.
Tobacco use in any form - cigarettes, pipes, and smokeless (spit) tobacco - increases your risk of developing gum disease. Gum disease starts with bacteria (germs) on your teeth that get under your gums. Smoking weakens your immune system and your ability to fight infection, making it easier for gum disease to progress to periodontitis. When this happens, the bone and tissue that hold your teeth in place can break down, and your teeth may loosen and need to be pulled out.
There’s clear evidence as to the negative effects of smoking on the musculoskeletal system, including adverse effects on muscles, tendons, cartilage, and ligaments. Those who smoke have a lower bone mineral density, and they’re at higher risk for fractures, alveolar bone loss, implant failure, joint disease, poor functional outcomes, and poor therapeutic responses.
How tobacco use worsens diseases
While tobacco use causes many conditions, it can also worsen existing ones. For example, if you have gum disease, smoking makes it harder for your gums to heal. If you have type 2 diabetes, nicotine can make it harder to control your blood sugar levels, often requiring you to take larger doses of insulin. Continuing to smoke after a cancer diagnosis may make cancer treatments less effective, worsen cancer symptoms, or worsen treatment side effects.
Getting help doesn’t have to be hard
The good news is that it’s possible to get help. In fact, quitting can help improve your health significantly. When you quit smoking completely, your risk of heart attack, stroke, and cancer all decrease dramatically over time. People who quit smoking completely also live longer than those who keep smoking.