Smoking is by far the greatest avoidable risk for developing many types of cancer. These include cancer of your throat and mouth, and cancer of organs such as your lungs, stomach and kidneys.
Smoking is also linked to some types of leukaemia (cancer of the white blood cells).
Your heart and circulation
Smoking damages your blood vessels and increases your risk of getting heart disease and of having a stroke.
Smoking can also affect how well your blood flows around your body. You may get cold hands and feet, which is a result of not enough blood getting to them.
It’s hardly surprising that if you’re regularly breathing in smoke, your airways can get damaged. It can become harder for you to get air in to and out of your lungs and you might develop chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).
Smoking can also put you at risk of complications if you get the flu.
The tar in cigarettes stains your fingers and teeth, so they become discoloured and yellow.
Smoking also reduces your sense of taste and smell.
Men who smoke are likely to have fewer sperm. The sperm are also more likely to be damaged so they are less able to fertilise an egg. You’re also at a greater risk of erectile dysfunction if you smoke.
On average, women who smoke go through the menopause a year and a half earlier than women who don’t smoke.
Your recovery from operations
If you smoke and need an operation – whether it’s related to smoking or not – your body will take longer to heal afterwards. Your risk of getting complications is higher too. This means a longer recovery period with more time in hospital and off work.
- Cigarette smoke contains at least 4000 chemical compounds and of these, more than 40 are known to cause cancer.
- Although people often think that hand-rolled cigarettes are healthier because they are more 'natural', it's a myth. Hand-rolled cigarettes are just as harmful as manufactured ones.
- If you smoke 20 or more cigarettes a day, your risk of having a stroke can be up to six times that of a non-smoker.
- If you’re under 50 and smoke, you’re five times more likely to have a heart attack than a non-smoker.
- Nearly nine out of 10 people who get COPD are smokers.
- Children of parents who smoke are more likely to get asthma or other breathing problems.
- Smoking can prematurely age you by 10 years or more, and you’re more likely to get wrinkles on your face at a younger age.
- Smokers are three times as likely to take over a year to get pregnant than non-smokers.
- Smoking can affect how successful fertility treatment such as in vitro fertilisation (IVF) is.
- Smoking is the biggest risk factor for getting serious complications after having a hip or knee replacement.
- If you smoke, you're much more at risk of getting complications during reconstructive breast surgery and breast cancer surgery.
People around you will be passive smoking when they breathe in your smoke – this carries all the same health risks as smoking.
Being exposed to second-hand smoke is very unpleasant – it can give you a headache, cough or sore throat. It can also irritate your eyes and make you feel sick or dizzy. If you have asthma, being in a smoky place may make your symptoms worse. And add the irritation of the smell of smoke on your clothes and hair. All in all, smokers can be seriously unpopular.
If you're regularly exposed to second-hand smoke, your risk of developing smoking-related diseases such as heart disease and lung cancer increases. Not only that, you’re more likely to develop conditions that affect your breathing, such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).
Passive smoking in pregnancy
If you’re exposed to second-hand smoke while you’re pregnant, your baby may not develop properly before birth and they may have a low birth weight. Women who passive smoke while they're pregnant may have an increased risk of stillbirth too.
Passive smoking in children
Passive smoking has a number of effects in children – it may reduce their mental development, for example. They're also more likely to get:
- asthma – and being in a smoky place may make their symptoms worse
- glue ear, or a middle ear infection
- attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
Children who grow up with parents or siblings who smoke are almost twice as likely to become smokers themselves.
If you smoke, you’re more at risk of a number of problems associated with pregnancy, even miscarriage. Other complications that are more likely to happen if you smoke include:
- ectopic pregnancy
- placental abruption – when the placenta comes away from the wall of your womb, which can sometimes cause your baby to die
- placenta praevia – when the placenta blocks your cervix (neck of your womb), which can cause bleeding or premature birth
- having an unexplained, stillborn baby
The carbon monoxide in cigarette smoke also reduces how much oxygen reaches your baby, which can slow their growth and development. But that’s not all – the chemicals in smoke can also harm your baby. And it all builds up – the more you smoke, the greater the risk of problems for your baby, which include the following.
- Being born too early – babies whose mothers smoke are more likely to be premature.
- A low birth weight (weighing less than 2.5kg than normal) – this is almost three times more likely if you smoke.
- Having a birth defect – if you smoke, it can affect your baby’s development and may cause problems such as cleft lip or palate.
Problems after your baby is born
The risk of cot death or sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS) is higher if you smoke – one in five of all sudden infant deaths are caused by passive smoking. Your baby may be more likely to have colic if you smoke too. And they may be more likely to get health problems in later life
Smoking while you're pregnant may also affect how well your child does at school.
Stopping smoking is hard, but there are different ways to go about it and plenty of resources out there to help. What’s important is to find the method that suits you best.
- Stop smoking services. There's evidence to show that using this type of service, which provides either one-to-one or group support, can really increase your chance of success.
- Medicines such as nicotine replacement therapy or varenicline (Champix®) or bupropion hydrochloride (Zyban®). These have also been shown to help people to quit smoking.
- e-Cigarettes. See our article In the spotlight: e-cigarettes for more information.
For more tips on how to quit, see our article Stop smoking...and this time for good!
If at first you don't succeed...
Don’t worry if you have a lapse – you won’t be the first. But don't let this stop you. Many ex-smokers admit to having had the odd cigarette while trying to quit but they have moved on and been successful. One cigarette doesn’t make you a smoker again. Stopping smoking involves changing your lifestyle and habits, and getting rid of an addiction you may have had for years. It’s a challenge, but it’s worth it.
The good news is that it’s never too late to stop smoking, and when you do, the risks to your health drop dramatically.
To name just a few:
- within just a few days, you should find it easier to breathe and find you have more energy
- after one year, your risk of heart attack is half that of a smoker
- if you stay a non-smoker for 10 years, your risk of lung cancer will be half that of someone who smokes
- after 15 years, your risk of a heart attack is the same as somebody who hasn't ever touched a cigarette
And as well as all those health benefits, quitting smoking is good for your finances too. Try our quiz, 'The cost of smoking' to find out how much you can save when you quit.
- Smoking cessation. BMJ Best Practice. www.bestpractice.bmj.com, published 5 September 2014
- Map of Medicine. Smoking Cessation. International View. London: Map of Medicine; 2012 (Issue 4)
- Smoking statistics. Action on Smoking and Health. www.ash.org.uk, reviewed January 2015
- Smoking: harm reduction. National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE), July 2015. www.nice.org.uk
- Smoking cessation: harms caused by smoking. NICE Clinical Knowledge Summaries. cks.nice.org.uk, published October 2012
- Addiction to nicotine. World Health Organization. www.who.int, published 2010
- Smoking and the risk of stroke. Stroke Association. www.stroke.org.uk, reviewed April 2012
- Smoking, the heart and circulation. Action on Smoking and Health. www.ash.org.uk, reviewed November 2013
- COPD. BMJ Best Practice. www.bestpractice.bmj.com, published 24 October 2014
- How smoking affects the way you look. Action on Smoking and Health. www.ash.org.uk, reviewed February 2014
- Smoking cessation. PatientPlus. www.patient.info/patientplus, reviewed 24 April 2015
- Smoking and reproduction. Action on Smoking and Health. www.ash.org.uk, reviewed August 2013
- Smoking in pregnancy challenge group: communication with women working group – shared key messages. Smokefree Action. www.smokefreeaction.org.uk, published June 2015
- Thomsen T, Villebro N, Møller AM. Interventions for preoperative smoking cessation. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews 2014, Issue 3. doi:10.1002/14651858.CD002294.pub4
- Smoking and surgery. Action on Smoking and Health. www.ash.org.uk, reviewed March 2014
- Secondhand smoke. Action on Smoking and Health. www.ash.org.uk, reviewed February 2014
- Healthy lives, healthy people: a tobacco control plan for England. Department of Health. www.gov.uk, published 9 March 2011
- Tobacco. World Health Organization. www.who.int, published 6 July 2015
- Passive smoking and children. Royal College of Physicians. www.rcplondon.ac.uk, published March 2010
- Quitting smoking in pregnancy and following childbirth. National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE), June 2010. www.nice.org.uk
- Ectopic pregnancy. BMJ Best Practice. www.bestpractice.bmj.com, published 3 August 2015
- Placenta and placental problems. PatientPlus. www.patient.info/patientplus, reviewed 2 July 2015
- Placenta praevia. PatientPlus. www.patient.info/patientplus, reviewed 2 July 2015
- Stopping smoking: the benefits and aids to quitting. Action on Smoking and Health. www.ash.org.uk, reviewed September 2014
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Reviewed by Rachael Mayfield-Blake, Bupa Health Content Team, October 2015.
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