Long-term effects of smoking explained

Medically reviewed on March 8, 2022 by Jordan Stachel, M.S., RDN, CPT. To give you technically accurate, evidence-based information, content published on the Everlywell blog is reviewed by credentialed professionals with expertise in medical and bioscience fields.

If you or someone you care about smokes cigarettes, consider learning about the long-term effects of smoking. Understanding the possible outcomes of this habit may motivate you or a loved one to quit. After all, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (or CDC), cigarette smoking is the leading cause of preventable health problems among American adults [1].

In other words, you might have more power over your health than you think.

Whether you’re thinking about quitting cigarettes or are just trying to better understand your current health, knowing how cigarette smoking can impact the body can provide valuable insight. While the lungs are a well-known area of impact, you may be surprised at how many other parts of the body smoking can affect. (You can check in on key indicators of heart health with the at-home Heart Health Test from Everlywell.)


#1 The cells

Among the many ways smoking can affect your health, one of the biggest starts with one of the body’s smallest structures: cells.

Normally, the body’s cells regenerate and replace themselves at a steady rate. But when cells begin to grow abnormally and out of control, it can turn into the disease we commonly refer to as cancer [2]. There are many different kinds of cancer, most of which are named according to the place in the body where the cancer first appears.

According to the CDC, smoking cigarettes can cause cancer in nearly any part of the body. This effect is likely due to the cancer-causing toxins contained in cigarette smoke, which include:

  • Arsenic
  • Formaldehyde
  • Tar

These poisonous chemicals can also weaken the immune system and even damage the cells’ DNA.

Beyond that, smoking cigarettes also makes it more difficult for the body to fight cancer, even if cigarettes aren’t the initial cause.

So what can you do to prevent cancer caused by passive smoking? Simply quitting can go a long way. The CDC notes that the chances of developing mouth, esophagus, throat, and bladder cancer may go down by half within one year of quitting. The chances of developing lung cancer may also decrease by half within ten years.

#2 The heart

The heart oversees pumping of the blood throughout the body, which, in turn, delivers the oxygen the cells need to live and thrive. It’s probably no surprise, then, that a healthy heart is essential to a healthy body. The chemicals found in cigarette smoke can damage the heart, as well as blood vessels [3].

This can happen in several ways. Some may include:

  • Raising your cholesterol
  • Causing the buildup of plaque in the arteries
  • Making the blood more likely to clot
  • Damaging the lining of blood vessels
  • Causing blood vessels to narrow and thicken

All of these effects make it more difficult for the blood vessels to carry blood to and from the heart and may even block your blood vessels entirely.

When your blood vessels narrow or become blocked, you may experience serious heart problems, such as:

  • Heart attack, or the lack of blood flow to the heart
  • Heart failure, or the heart’s inability to deliver enough blood to other organs
  • Arrhythmia, or an irregular heartbeat

How large is the risk of smoking-related heart problems? It may vary from person to person, but one review of studies finds that smoking increases the risk of heart failure by at least 60% [4].

The sooner you quit, however, the sooner you can reduce your risk. According to the American Heart Association, those who quit smoking may have up to 50% less risk of developing heart disease within one year [5].

#3 The brain

Aside from the heart, the effects of smoking on blood vessels can also have a big impact on your brain.

In the same way that smoking can damage blood vessels and limit blood supply to the heart, it can also cause strokes—a blockage of the blood supply to the brain [6]. The resulting lack of oxygen can lead to brain damage, with lasting effects such as:

  • Physical disability
  • Memory loss
  • Paralysis
  • Speech and language problems
  • Muscle weakness

However, having a stroke isn’t the only way smoking might affect the brain. In a recent study, participants who smoked scored lower on tests measuring cognitive function (a person’s ability to learn, think, pay attention, and remember) [7]. So, avoiding cigarettes is crucial to keeping the brain healthy and sharp in the long run.

#4 The lungs

When you breathe, the lungs provide the body with oxygen and help to get rid of the carbon dioxide the body produces. When you smoke cigarettes, however, the smoke fills the lungs with irritants that can harm your ability to breathe well [8]. The resulting damage can lead to a condition called chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, or COPD.

COPD can involve several different kinds of lung diseases, including:

  • Asthma, or the narrowing and swelling of the airways
  • Emphysema, where the air sacs in the lungs lose their shape
  • Chronic bronchitis, where the lining of the airways becomes inflamed and irritated

Those who smoke may suffer from one or multiple lung diseases. Either way, the result is a decrease in airflow to the body, which can result in:

  • Chronic cough (sometimes known as smoker’s cough)
  • Chest tightness
  • Wheezing
  • Shortness of breath, or breathlessness

Smoking is considered the most common cause of COPD, and up to 75% of those who suffer from it either used to smoke or currently do. Still, there’s hope for the lungs if you quit—and it may happen relatively quickly. According to the American Heart Association, those who quit smoking may experience improved lung health within as little as two weeks [5].

#5 The immune system

Our bodies’ immune systems act as our internal defense against germs and toxins. When the body encounters something harmful within the system—such as bacteria or a virus—it sends antibodies and white blood cells to attack the invader [9].

If you smoke, it could weaken your body’s immune response to diseases, meaning you could experience more illness and have a harder time fighting infections. Smoking can also cause autoimmune disorders, in which the body mistakenly attacks its own cells [10].

Want to keep the immune system functioning properly? One of the best ways to do so is to avoid smoking altogether and give the body a chance to defend itself before it becomes ill.

#6 The teeth and gums

You may not think about the teeth and gums often, but as it turns out, smoking can make the health of the teeth and gums a big concern [11]. In fact, if smoking has weakened the immune system, it can increase the likelihood of the gums becoming infected with bacteria, a condition known as gingivitis.

That infection may then lead to periodontitis—a condition where the gums and teeth begin to break down. Symptoms of periodontitis may include:

  • Tooth sensitivity
  • Pain or difficulty when chewing
  • Bleeding gums
  • Swelling of the gums
  • Loose teeth

According to the CDC, those who smoke are twice as likely to suffer from gum disease, and the risk increases the longer you smoke. The nicotine and tar in cigarettes can also stain the teeth yellow, even if you brush and floss regularly.

If you stop smoking, however, the stains can still fade.

#7 The eyes

If you enjoy a good view, you should know that smoking can also impact your vision and even lead to blindness. The CDC tells us that smokers are more likely to develop cataracts, a condition which causes the lens of the eye to become cloudy, resulting in blurred vision [12].

Smoking can also increase the risk of developing macular degeneration, an eye disease that affects one’s ability to see clearly and perceive fine details. If you develop macular degeneration, you could also have difficulty reading or recognizing faces.

If you’re experiencing blurry vision or vision loss, and you believe it’s due to cataracts or macular degeneration, it’s a good idea to get your vision checked before it gets worse. There are also treatments, including special eyeglasses, injections, and surgery, that can help with these conditions.

#8 Bone health

Our bones play a key role in health and our ability to function. But if you smoke, you might have an increased risk of developing osteoporosis, a condition that decreases the density and strength of the bones, causing them to become weaker over time [13].

As the bones become more brittle, you may suffer more fractures than you would otherwise. Bones may also have more difficulty healing properly after a break.

Are you concerned that smoking is contributing to weak bones? Fortunately, there are ways to help determine your risk for osteoporosis, such as a bone density scan. Your healthcare provider can then recommend medications to help treat osteoporosis.

Chances are, they’ll also recommend quitting smoking. Even if you quit after a long time of smoking regularly, the National Institute of Health suggests it can still help limit bone loss.

Know where you stand with Everlywell

The negative health effects of smoking can add up over time, but by quitting smoking and understanding your current health, you may experience positive changes quickly. So when you’re ready to take the next step toward better health, don’t wait to know where you stand.

You can dig into more aspects of your health Everlywell at-home tests, such as the Heart Health Test and Cholesterol & Lipids Test.

How you can improve heart health: 7 tips

Common risk factors for heart disease to be aware of


1. Smoking & Tobacco Use. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. URL. Accessed March 8, 2022.

2. Cancer. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. URL. Accessed March 8, 2022.

3. Smoking and Your Heart. National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. URL. Accessed March 8, 2022.

4. Heart Disease and Stroke. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. URL. Accessed March 8, 2022.

5. Yang H, Negishi K, Otahal P, Marwick TH. Clinical prediction of incident heart failure risk: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Open Heart. 2015;2(1):e000222. Published 2015 Apr 10.

6. Impact Of Cigarette Smoking And Its Interaction With Hypertension And Diabetes On Cognitive Function. American Heart Association Journals. URL. Accessed March 8, 2022.

7. COPD. National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. URL. Accessed March 8, 2022.

8. Immune Response. MedlinePlus. URL. Accessed March 8, 2022.

9. Qiu F, Liang CL, Liu H, et al. Impacts of cigarette smoking on immune responsiveness: Up and down or upside down?. Oncotarget. 2017;8(1):268-284.

10. Smoking, Gum Disease, and Tooth Loss. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. URL. Accessed March 8, 2022.

11. Vision Loss, Blindness, and Smoking. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. URL. Accessed March 8, 2022.

12. Smoking and Bone Health. National Institutes of Health. URL. Accessed March 8, 2022.

13. The Benefits of Quitting Smoking Now. American Heart Association. URL. Accessed March 8, 2022.

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