You don’t need to look hard to find a reason to quit smoking. Increased risk for lung cancer, cardiovascular disease, asthma, stroke—these dangers are well-publicized and well-known. Just one entry on this list is, of course, enough reason to put down your pack. These consequences may even be the root of your own motivation to start on the road to a smoke-free life. But the effects of smoking are far more reaching than what often gets talked about, and learning more about them may only further help shape and strengthen your commitment. Here, six ways smoking affects your body that you may not be aware of:
- Increases Your Risk of Many Types of Cancer
Smoking harms nearly every organ in your body. While it’s the leading cause of death from cancer of the lung, esophagus, larynx, mouth and throat, the same can be said for cancer of the kidney, bladder, pancreas, stomach and cervix.
- Contributes to Digestive Problems
Nicotine relaxes the smooth muscles of the body, including the lower esophageal sphincter (LES). When this muscle loses elasticity, acid can flow from the stomach to the esophagus, causing or worsening heartburn and ulcers. Smoking can also more severely damage the intestine of those with Crohn’s disease.
- Decreases HDL (“Good”) Cholesterol
One toxin that’s released whenever you puff, acrolein, lowers the amount of HDL cholesterol in your body. Diminishing amounts of this cardioprotective cholesterol prevent your system from efficiently removing LDL ("bad") cholesterol, ultimately leading to increased risk of heart disease.
More: Eight Steps to a Healthy Heart
- Plays a Role in Joint Pain
One study found that people who smoke cigarettes have double the incidence of rheumatoid arthritis (RA) compared to non-smokers; another showed that smokers with knee osteoarthritis experience more pain than those with the disease who don’t have this habit. While experts aren’t sure exactly why this happens, they think smoking may influence inflammation, affect your musculoskeletal pain threshold, increase sensitivity and even interfere with pain relief medications. (Interestingly, the RA researchers found that those who stopped smoking at least 10 years prior to the study did not have an increased risk of the disease.)
- Poses Fertility Concerns
Research shows that elements of cigarette smoke interfere with the ability to produce estrogen, meaning a woman’s eggs may be more prone to genetic abnormalities. It may also take longer for female smokers to get pregnant: Scientists speculate that harmful chemicals in tobacco may alter cervical fluids, making it more difficult for sperm to fertilize an egg. In men, smoking may translate to lower sperm counts and increased abnormalities in sperm shape, motility and function.
- Causes Skin Damage
Smoking narrows the tiny blood vessels in the outermost layers of skin, which decreases blood flow and depletes your skin of oxygen and nutrients vital to skin health. The fibers that give your skin suppleness—collagen and elastin—are also harmed by the toxins in nicotine. And repetitive facial expressions you make while smoking, such as pursing your lips or squinting your eyes, contribute to wrinkles and other signs of aging.
Whatever inspires you to quit smoking—these or other health concerns, a life experience, a hope for the future—let it fuel you as start and continue on your journey. Your body can be surprisingly resilient and, in many cases, remarkably improve much of the physical damage the habit has caused (once you’ve stopped smoking, that is). Talk to your doctor about support groups in your area and other tools that can help you on your way. It may take you more than one attempt, but your health is worth the effort.