Effects of smoking

Expert reviewer, Dr Alex Bobak, General Practitioner
Next review due April 2021

Smoking is the most common cause of death and disease that's entirely preventable. In the UK, nearly 80,000 people die each year from smoking-related causes. On average, smoking reduces your life expectancy by 10 years, and after you hit 40, each additional year you smoke reduces your life expectancy by another three months.

The harmful effects of smoking affect different parts of your body and increase your chances of various health conditions. Here we give you the facts about the harm smoking does to your body and advice on how to quit.

Smoking and cancer

Smoking is by far the greatest avoidable risk for developing many types of cancer. These include:

  • throat and mouth cancer
  • lung cancer
  • stomach cancer
  • kidney cancer
  • cervical cancer

Smoking is also linked to some types of leukaemia (cancer of the white blood cells).

Key facts

  • Cigarette smoke contains more than 5,000 chemical compounds and of these, about 70 are known to cause cancer. People often think that hand-rolled cigarettes are healthier and less harmful because they’re more 'natural', but it's a myth. Hand-rolled cigarettes are just as harmful as manufactured ones.

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.

Key facts

  • 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.

Your lungs and breathing

It’s hardly surprising that if you’re regularly breathing in smoke, this can be harmful and 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).

If you have asthma, smoking may make your symptoms more severe, or last longer.

Key facts

  • In around nine out of 10 people who get COPD, smoking is responsible.
  • Children of parents who smoke are more likely to get asthma or other breathing problems.

Your appearance

As well as being harmful, smoking can affect your appearance. Bad breath and stained teeth and gums are obvious effects of smoking. The tar in cigarettes stains your fingers too, so they become discoloured and yellow.

Smoking also reduces your sense of taste and smell.

Key facts

  • 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.

Your fertility

Men who smoke are more likely to have damaged sperm so may be less able to fertilise an egg. You’re also at a greater risk of erectile dysfunction if you smoke.

Women who smoke are also more likely to have reduced fertility. And they’ll go through the menopause earlier than women who don’t smoke.

Key facts

  • Passive smoking is also likely to affect your chance of conceiving.
  • Smoking can affect the success of fertility treatment such as in vitro fertilisation (IVF).

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.

Key facts

  • Smoking increases the risks of general anaesthesia, as well as the risks specific to the operation you have.
  • If you smoke more than 10 cigarettes a day, you’re six times more likely to get complications after your operation that can affect your breathing.

Why smoking is bad for people around you

People around you will be passive smoking when they breathe in your smoke – this carries all the same health risks as smoking. Globally, around 890,000 people die from passive smoking each year.

Short-term effects

Being exposed to second-hand smoke is very unpleasant – not only does the smell linger on your clothes and hair, 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.

Long-term effects

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 may be 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 and they may have a low birth weight. This could potentially put your baby at risk. Women who passive smoke while they're pregnant may have an increased risk of stillbirth too. For more information, see our section: Why smoking is harmful if you’re pregnant, below.

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

Children who grow up with parents or siblings who smoke are more likely to become smokers themselves.

Why smoking is harmful if you're pregnant

If you smoke, you’re more at risk of problems associated with pregnancy, even miscarriage. Other complications that are more likely if you smoke include:

  • ectopic pregnancy
  • placental abruption – when the placenta comes away from the wall of your womb, which can be fatal to your baby
  • placenta praevia – when the placenta blocks your cervix (neck of your womb), which can cause bleeding or premature birth
  • having a 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 – this is much more likely if you smoke and can put your baby at risk.
  • 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 or your partner smokes, particularly if you share a bed with your baby at night. 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 goes on to do at school.
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How to stop smoking

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 blog Vaping and e-cigarettes: the facts for more information.

For more tips on how to quit, see our blog on giving up smoking .

It can be a huge challenge to give up smoking, but with the right treatment and support you’re much more likely to do it. If you have a lapse – you won’t be the first. But don't give up on giving up – ask your GP about other types of treatment that might help you as there are plenty you can try. Stopping smoking involves changing your lifestyle and habits, and getting rid of an addiction you may have had for years. You can find out more about creating goals, adapting habits and sticking with them in our blog on how to stay motivated and work towards your goals .

The benefits of stopping smoking

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 20 minutes, your heart rate and blood pressure drop
  • within one to nine months, you should cough less and feel less shortness of breath
  • after one year, your risk of heart attack is half that of a smoker’s, and lowers more with time
  • 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. There are plenty of online calculators where you can find out how much you will save – see Other helpful websites for more details. You might even be able to treat yourself to a holiday with the money you save – a fitting reward for your efforts!

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  • Reviewed by Rachael Mayfield-Blake, Freelance Health Editor, April 2018
    Expert reviewer, Dr Alex Bobak, General Practitioner
    Next review due April 2021