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Healthy Lungs vs. Smokers’ Lungs

Medically reviewed by Susan Kerrigan, MD and Marianne Madsen on February 17, 2023
Additions/comments by Pulmonologist Kelly Fan, MD

We all know that smoking is bad for you and that it causes a number of serious health issues. Cancer is the biggest danger to smokers, but breathing problems and lung issues are also common. Many wonder though, how do the lungs of a smoker compare to the lungs of a healthy non-smoker? Let’s take a look at what exactly the chemicals in burning tobacco can do to the lungs.


The chemicals in cigarettes


Commercial tobacco contains over 7,000 chemicals, including 60 which are known to be carcinogenic. One puff of a cigarette carries these chemicals directly to the lungs. Immediately after taking a hit, the carbon monoxide present in tobacco smoke diminishes the bloodstream’s capacity to carry oxygen and distribute it to your organs.


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Cigarette smoke also contains acrolein, a chemical which can irritate the mucous membranes and affect the lungs, while the bronchodilators in tobacco smoke facilitate your lungs’ ability to absorb carcinogens and other toxic chemicals.


How tobacco affects the lungs


Tobacco leads to the development of COPD, or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. Eight out of ten cases of COPD are directly caused by tobacco use. COPD causes breathing issues which worsen over one’s lifespan, and there is no cure for the disease.


Of course, both smokers and non-smokers are aware that tobacco use causes lung cancer, but many don’t know that cigarettes can also cause a number of other head and neck cancers such as larynx cancer, trachea cancer, and oropharynx cancer.


In smokers of all ages, tobacco leads one to develop a serious chronic cough which often never goes away. When a woman smokes during pregnancy, the health effects of her cigarette use are carried over to her unborn child. Once her baby is born, it may have smaller, abnormally functioning lungs.


Someone who chooses not to use tobacco won’t experience any of the lung problems mentioned above, granted they’re otherwise healthy.


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Smoking and athletic performance


A healthy athlete is able to perform to the best of their ability. Their cardiovascular health isn’t hindered in any way. But an athlete who smokes will suffer greatly on the playing field. Nicotine and carbon monoxide narrow the arteries, reducing blood flow to the heart as well as the muscles. An athlete who uses tobacco may find it harder to lift weights or run for a prolonged period of time.


Smoking also increases resting heart rate. Even when you’re not physically active, your heart will have to work harder because it’s constantly being impacted by the chemicals in tobacco. This is why most heavy smokers find it difficult to climb a long flight of stairs or to exert themselves physically in some other manner.


As mentioned above, smoking tobacco can also cause a chronic cough, which is not ideal to have while participating in athletic activities.


The bottom line


We know what smoking cigarettes can do to the lungs and to the rest of one’s organs as well. Physical activity becomes more difficult, and even day-to-day activities are restricted due to the body having to work at a reduced capacity. Take care of your lungs by not smoking, or quitting tobacco if you’ve already started.

Kelly Fan, MD

Have a frank and honest conversation with your physician if you are a current smoker having difficulty quitting. Nicotine is a highly addictive substance but fortunately there are medications and behavioral therapies to help with quitting. It's never too late to take a first step into quitting.

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