Does Smoking Permanently Damage the Body?

There’s no doubt, the sooner you quit smoking the better off your health will be as a result…

You reduce the risk of getting a number of cancers, and the risks of heart disease and stroke. But can the damage from smoking cigarettes be undone? and can the body heal once you quit? Here’s what Norman Edelman, chief medical officer of the American Lung Association, has to say…

When you quit smoking, the inflammation in the airways goes down. The little hair-like projections in the airways that we call cilia — which are paralyzed by smoke — begin to work again. Sothe lungs will get better in weeks to months. Breathing will get better. Exercise capacity will get better. Paradoxically, people find that they cough a little more right after they stop smoking, but that’s natural. That’s the lungs cleaning themselves out.

But if you’ve been smoking a long time and have developed COPD [(or, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease)], which includes chronic bronchitis or emphysema, the lungs never totally heal. Chronic bronchitis is an inflammation of the airway. Some of that inflammation can be reversed. But if the inflammation has led to scarring of the walls of the airway, some of that cannot. Emphysema is a disease in which the walls of the fine air sacs of the lung — the place where the lung does its business of exchanging oxygen for carbon dioxide — break down. So tiny little air sacs become bigger ones — and they’re less efficient in transporting oxygen. The lung can’t grow new walls for these air sacs. The lung loses tiny blood vessels and can’t grow new ones. So that’s permanent.

[When it comes to cancer], we calculate that the risk for lung cancer probably returns to that of a nonsmoker somewhere between 10 and 15 years after smoking cessation. (We have less data on the [other smoking-related cancers].) But the risk that people have for smoking-related diseases is directly related to the total number of cigarettes they’ve smoked in their life. We measure that with something we call “pack-years”: that’s the average number of packs per day multiplied by the number of years they’ve smoked. The greater the pack-years, the greater the risk. When you’re getting up around 50 pack-years and beyond, that’s a lot. If people have a lot of pack-years, the risk of, say, lung cancer never goes back down to [the risk of a non-smoker].

There is a famous study that shows that if you quit smoking by age 30, scientists can’t show a statistically significant difference in mortality — [that is, when you’ll die]. But those data are just mortality statistics. It doesn’t mean the lungs are completely normal. Somebody who smoked a lot, even if they quit by 30, probably will have some impairment in lung function, and their exercise capacity might be reduced. Their lungs will always be a little bit more susceptible to other insults, to pneumonia infection for example.

Of course, the way people react to cigarette smoke varies enormously. Everybody has a 90-year-old uncle who smoked all his life and feels fine. And everybody’s got a 45-year-old cousin who’s dying of emphysema. These two people have reacted to cigarette smoke differently. It’s an important scientific question to understand what the differences are, and we’re beginning to work on it. Genetics seem to play a role.

Summing up

The benefits from quitting smoking are quickly realized, you will start to feel better right away. If you have a condition like COPD, then you may not recover fully, but quitting smoking will at least, stop the condition from getting worse. The sooner you stop smoking the better, in 10-15 years of quitting, your risk of cancer falls to that of a non-smoker… if you have less than 50 pack years. The more cigarettes you have smoked and the higher the number of years is a factor to how well your body heals. Genetics may also play a role where some people are more affected from smoking and recovery from it than others.

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