According to the World Health Organization, tobacco kills more than seven million smokers and 1.2 million non-smokers, including children, each year. For decades, health professionals have been strengthening the connections between this habit and respiratory diseases, certain types of cancer, and other illnesses. Life-threatening conditions are not the only possibilities, though. The effects of smoking are more dangerous to the entire body than many realize, especially since there are thousands of chemicals in a single cigarette.
Bronchitis is inflammation of the airways leading to increased mucus production. Smoker's cough is a wet cough caused by this kind of inflammation. Under normal circumstances, airway lining cells continuously die and regenerate. Experts have learned, however, that smoking halts this process by suppressing BIK, a protein that causes natural cell death. Too little of this protein means airway cells overproduce mucus and the airway.
For some, cigarettes are a response to stress and anxiety, and they may even help reduce it. However, research suggests smoking may cause mood disorders, including incidents of panic attacks. According to doctors, smoking alters the microstructural integrity of the brain’s white matter in the prefrontal cortices, which could impact its ability to process anxiety. It also reduces the gray matter in the cerebellum and other areas that affect emotions.
Early menopause occurs in women younger than 45 years and is associated with increased risks of several conditions, including cognitive dysfunction and osteoporosis. One study tested women around 35 years of age, whose smoking habits ranged from light to heavy before and during the tests. Doctors found that those who continued smoking through age 35 had the highest risk of early menopause, while heavy smokers who quit by the same age had a smaller, but still significant, risk. Scientists believe that nicotine and polycyclic hydrocarbons exhibit toxic effects on levels of serum estrogen and ovarian follicles.
Defensive products, such as T cells and B cells, protect the body from infection. Smokers and people exposed to secondhand smoke have increased susceptibility to bacterial infections, such as vaginosis and meningitis, because the chemicals in the cigarette compromise immune function. Smokers are also more vulnerable to gastrointestinal conditions caused by Heliobacter pylori, which is associated with ulcers, and smoking renders treatments for the germ far less effective.
When the eyewall, known as the uvea, becomes inflamed, it triggers a condition called uveitis. Redness and blurred vision in one or both eyes may occur, but this disease progresses quickly and can result in complete blindness. Studies show that smokers are more than twice as likely as non-smokers to develop uveitis, but the percentage is much greater when it comes to infectious uveitis brought on by bacteria, viruses, or parasites.
In the U.S., between 10 and 15 percent of pregnancies end in miscarriages within the first trimester. Women who smoke not only face problems getting pregnant but have a higher risk of miscarriage during those initial months. Some research suggests that the risk of miscarriage increases by one percent for every cigarette smoked per day. Pregnant women who didn’t smoke, but were exposed to secondhand smoke, had an 11 percent miscarriage risk.
Ectopic pregnancies occur when the embryo implants itself in the fallopian tubes or somewhere else outside of the womb. In women who smoke, tests show that cotinine, a byproduct of nicotine, alters the expression of prokineticin receptor-1, PROKR1, a protein essential for embryo implantation. Doctors believe that cotinine increases protein levels in the fallopian tubes, leading to this life-threatening development.
According to the CDC, approximately seven percent of women smoke during pregnancy, which increases the newborn’s risk of viral and bacterial infections. This infection risk is related to babies dying from Sudden Infant Death Syndrome or SIDS. Studies show that smoking mothers have lower IL-10 anti-inflammatory responses against bacteria and interferon protein responses against viruses. This means that bacteria more easily bind to mucous, leading to more infantile infections and increased SIDS risk.
Smoking, active and secondhand, makes blood platelets stick together, increasing the risk of unwanted blood clots. It also damages the blood vessel lining, which prompts clot formation and increases the risk of a coronary or pulmonary event. Research indicates that nicotine changes the relationship between plasma, fibrinogen, and the procoagulant enzyme thrombin, which alters the formation properties of the clots.
In an evaluation of smokers and non-smokers with noninsulin-dependent diabetes, researchers found that the process of glucose disposal — the uptake of glucose by the muscle cells — was nearly 50 percent lower in smokers than in nonsmokers. The impairment in insulin action was related to the heightened levels of plasma insulin and triglycerides. This shows that smoking makes insulin resistance worse, and may eventually lead to related cardiovascular health complications, such as atherosclerosis.
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