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How Smoking Impacts Heart Health and How Quitting Helps

May 23, 2021
Man holding a cigarette

Smoking is a leading cause of cardiovascular disease and responsible for nearly 25% of all deaths from cardiovascular disease in the United States, more than 800,000 people.

Smokers, even those who smoke fewer than five cigarettes a day, are two to four times more likely than nonsmokers to develop heart disease or suffer a heart attack, and that risk increases with both the number of cigarettes smoked and the length of time smoking continues. 

Smoking and your cardiovascular system

Smoking affects nearly every system in your body, especially your cardiovascular system. In addition to your heart, your cardiovascular system includes the network of arteries, blood vessels, capillaries, and veins that carry blood and oxygen through your body. By interfering with the cells that line the blood vessels, causing swelling and inflammation, smoking contributes to expansive and extensive damage to every one of these system components. 

Smoking also impacts cardiovascular health by:

  • Impedes oxygen flow to the heart and damages the lining of the arteries, both of which can lead to the fatty tissue buildup that causes a stroke or heart attack.
  • Replaces the oxygen in your blood with carbon monoxide, preventing the muscles in your brain and heart from getting the oxygen they need to function properly
  • Lowers your HDL, or “good,” cholesterol levels and increases the “bad” (LDL) levels
  • Causes blood vessels to thicken, narrow, and build up with plaque
  • Causes your heart to work harder, placing the heart muscles under constant stress and strain
  • Makes blood “stickier” and more susceptible to blood clots that can cause a stroke or heart attack
  • Increases both your blood pressure and your heart rate

Cardiovascular health conditions caused by smoking

Smoking is a direct cause of a host of cardiovascular conditions and diseases.

  • Peripheral Arterial Disease (PAD)as well as peripheral vascular disease (PVD)—develops when the blood flow to the extremities is reduced by narrowed blood vessels. The cells and tissues of the arms, legs, hands, and feet can no longer receive the oxygen they need to function or fight off infection and, in severe cases, may need to be amputated. Smoking causes this narrowing of blood vessels, as well as reduced oxygen levels in the blood that is traveling through the body.
  • Atherosclerosis is a hardening and narrowing of the arteries caused by plaque buildup. Smoking increases the formation of plaque in blood vessels, hampering proper blood flow throughout the body.
  • Coronary heart disease develops when coronary arteries become blocked by clots or narrowed by plaque. A clot that forms in an artery somewhere else in the body can also travel to the heart, lungs, or brain, causing a stroke. Smoking causes blood to thicken and become sticky, increasing the chances of forming a clot.
  • An abdominal aortic aneurysm occurs when the abdominal portion of the aorta—the primary artery for carrying oxygenated blood throughout the body—becomes damaged, weakened, or bulging, risking a life-threatening rupture. Smoking has been directly linked to damage in the abdominal aorta that can lead to an aneurysm.

The impact of secondhand smoke on cardiovascular health

Secondhand smoke can be just as detrimental to nonsmokers, even if they are healthy. Secondhand smoke has been shown to contain as many toxins and carcinogens or more as first hand smoking, causing more than 30,000 nonsmokers to die every year from coronary heart disease, heart attacks, and stroke. Just by breathing secondhand smoke at home or work, nonsmokers become 20-30% more likely to develop heart disease or suffer a stroke, and damage can occur in as little as 30 minutes of exposure.

What happens to your cardiovascular health when you stop smoking

The benefits of stopping smoking cannot be overstated and begin almost immediately after your last cigarette. 

Within 20 minutes of quitting smoking:

  • Your blood pressure and pulse start to return to normal levels, reducing strain on your heart and blood vessels

Within 8 hours of quitting smoking:

  • Carbon monoxide levels lower to normal levels, allowing your tissues to receive more oxygen
  • This increase in oxygen levels help restore the blood vessels and tissue that were deprived of it while you were smoking

Within 24 hours of quitting smoking:

  • Your risk of a heart attack has decreased, thanks to improved oxygen levels that allow your heart to work properly

Within 48 hours of quitting smoking:

  • Damaged nerve endings start to regenerate, improving sensations like taste and smell

Within 72 hours of quitting smoking:

  • The bronchial tubes in the lungs have relaxed and opened up, allowing better air exchange between oxygen and carbon dioxide and improving your breathing
  • Lung capacity begins to increase so your lungs can fill with more air

Within one week of quitting smoking:

  • Your odds of successfully quitting smoking have increased dramatically, up to nine times

Within two weeks of quitting smoking:

  • Improved blood oxygenation and circulation now make walking and breathing easier
  • Lung function has increased by as much as 30 percent

Within one month of quitting smoking:

  • Energy levels have improved
  • The fibers in the bronchial tubes continue to regrow and strengthen, improving their ability to protect you from bacterial infection and reducing mucus buildup in the lungs
  • Symptoms like shortness of breath and sinus congestion have improved

Within six months of quitting smoking:

  • Airways have become less inflamed, resulting in less mucus and phlegm in the lungs
  • The ability to handle stressful situations has improved

Within 1-3 years of quitting smoking:

  • The improved flow of oxygen to your heart has reduced your risk of a heart attack to that of a nonsmoker

Within 10-15 years of quitting smoking:

  • Your risk for a stroke or heart attack has decreased to that of a person who has never smoked before

How you can quit smoking

Quitting smoking improves not only your cardiovascular health but the cardiovascular health of those around you. It's never too late to quit smoking and start living a better quality of life, but it's also important to remember that changes to lifetime habits don't happen overnight. The key to success is starting small while being kind to yourself and patient with setbacks.

You can increase your chances of quitting successfully by enlisting help from others. This may come from friends and family, your doctor, or a variety of online and in-person resources, including:

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention provides smoking cessation counselors, tips, and a user-friendly quitSTART App at their website or by calling 1-800-QUIT NOW.

Smokefree.gov is a free, comprehensive online resource for individuals at every stage of their smoking cessation journey. The website includes tips for quitting smoking, including coping with stress, how to handle cravings and setbacks, and how to build a quit plan; a support texting program; and an online chat with a counselor.

Oklahoma Tobacco Helpline offers free smoking cessation services such as nicotine replacement therapy products, customizable cessation plans, web coaching, tips for fighting cravings, and more. Support is available 24/7 at okhelpline.com.

The doctors and staff at Cardiovascular Health Clinic are committed to helping you lead a healthy, tobacco-free life. You can schedule an appointment with one of our cardiovascular specialists to find out what quitting strategies may be best for you and your current conditions. Call our office at (405) 701-9880, email us at [email protected], or use our easy online appointment scheduler. The journey toward a healthier life begins with one step.

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I came to Dr. Warren by a self referral for mals when it took me 8yrs 50+ doctors and thousands of dollars spent on no answers. My first visit I was scared I was just going to be gaslighted just like the past however I was pleasantly shocked when Dr. Warren immediately believed me. She took the time to review many disk I had brought from past tests. She never once dismissed me and listened to ever word I had to say. She scheduled one last test to confirm the diagnosis then I was scheduled for surgery right away. Surgery was a success and I can’t thank her and her staff enough. Dr. Warren truly saved my life.

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