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Smoking affects more than your lungs

As you know from the warning labels on cigarette packages, “Cigarette smoking may be hazardous to your health.” This is a profound understatement. It is a health disaster of a magnitude that could never be summarized in a little warning box on a label. Tobacco dependence is now recognized as a clinical addiction and even a chronic disease. Smoking affects more than our lungs. Virtually all body systems are affected by nicotine and other harmful chemicals.

When you smoke a cigarette, you inhale the smoke into your lungs. Your lungs are directly exposed to 4,000 toxic substances. These substances can impair your lungs’ ability to function. They can interfere with the mechanisms that protect your lungs against disease. But what about the rest of your body?

Smoking weakens your bones. Weakened bones may cause osteoporosis as you age. This weakness can even cause problems now if you break a bone or need surgery.

The muscular system is not directly affected by smoking, but the function of the muscular system is affected by other conditions. Smoking increases the risk of rheumatoid arthritis and lupus. Arthritis and multiple sclerosis are made more likely by smoking.

The effects of smoking on the heart and arteries are well known. Smoking leads to hypertension, heart disease and stroke. However, poisonous gases such as carbon monoxide and cyanide from smoking travel through the blood vessels to the heart and all parts of the body.

Because of the way that substances circulate through your blood, toxic substances from cigarette smoke can reach your urinary tract quite easily. The kidneys filter out many tobacco components from the blood and collect them in the urine. The urine then goes to the bladder before it is excreted from the body. Therefore, the kidneys and the bladder may both be affected.

Smoking has particularly strong effects on the digestive tract. It increases a person’s risk of several digestive tract diseases. Furthermore, smoking can cause deadly cancers of the digestive tract.

Cigarettes can even upset the delicate balance of the nervous system. The chemicals in tobacco smoke can make several diseases of the nervous system worse. Multiple sclerosis is an example.

Smoking increases the risk of several diseases of the endocrine system, which consists of glands, such as the thyroid, and the hormones they release. Smoking decreases the level of estrogen, an important female hormone. The harmful chemicals produced by tobacco alter the hormonal regulation of body weight and distribution of body fat.

Smoking can affect the reproductive system. It can cause early menopause. The toxic chemicals in tobacco smoke can increase the risk of cervical cancer and vulvar cancers in women. The ability to father children may be affected. Genital cancers are more likely in men who smoke.

Smoking puts pregnant women and their unborn babies at risk for complications. Women may have low birth weight babies. Pregnant women are likely to have stillborn babies. Newborn babies of smoking mothers may be cranky, restless, and get sick often. Furthermore, babies and young children may have learning problems as they grow.

The immune system can be affected as well. The use of tobacco has been shown to affect your ability to fight infection. Smoking can affect your antibodies.

Cigarettes can damage your skin. Smoking turns the fingernails an ugly yellowish-brown color and can increase your chances of getting some skin diseases. Smokers tend to get wrinkles more severely and at a younger age than nonsmokers. There is a questionable association between smoking and acne.

The eyes, ears nose, mouth and throat are all vulnerable to smoking. Smoking stains the teeth. You may lose teeth or have problems with dental work. The senses of smell and taste are reduced. Smoking causes throat and mouth cancer. Surprisingly, smoking has been found to be the leading preventable cause of visual disorders and blindness in the country.

It has been difficult for researchers to determine if smoking is a cause or an effect of mental illness. Relationships differ with different kinds of mental health problems. But smokers have higher rates of depression, anxiety, schizophrenia and drug abuse than nonsmokers do. Smoking can may some mental health problems worse.

In summary, smoking affects more than your lungs. Virtually every organ system in our bodies is vulnerable. When we “just say ‘no’” to cigarettes, we are saying ‘yes’ to healthy bodies and overall well-being.

Sarah M. Ware, Ph.D., RN, CNE, is a retired nurse educator and a Natchez resident.

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