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Risks of tobacco

Alternative Names

Secondhand smoke - risks; Cigarette smoking - risks; Smoking and smokeless tobacco - risks; Risks of tobacco

Information

Tobacco is a plant. Its leaves are smoked, chewed, or sniffed for a variety of effects.

  • Tobacco is an addictive substance because it contains the chemical nicotine.
  • Tobacco contains more than 19 known cancer-causing chemicals (most are called "tar.")

HEALTH RISKS OF SMOKING OR SMOKELESS TOBACCO

There are many more reasons to quit using tobacco. Knowing the serious health risks may help motivate you to quit. When used over a long period, tobacco and related chemicals, such as tar and nicotine, can increase your risk of many health problems.

Heart and blood vessel problems:

  • Blood clots and aneurysms in the brain, which can lead to stroke
  • Blood clots in the legs, which may travel to the lungs
  • Coronary artery disease, including angina and heart attacks
  • High blood pressure
  • Poor blood supply to the legs
  • Problems with erections because of decreased blood flow into the penis

Other health risks or problems:

  • Cancer (especially in the lung, mouth, larynx, esophagus, bladder, kidney, pancreas, and cervix)
  • Poor wound healing, especially after surgery
  • Lung problems, such as emphysema and chronic bronchitis, or asthma that is harder to control.
  • Problems during pregnancy, such as babies born at low birth weight, premature labor, miscarriage, and cleft lip.
  • Decreased ability to taste and smell
  • Harm to sperm, which contributes to infertility
  • Loss of sight due to an increased risk of macular degeneration
  • Tooth and gum diseases
  • Wrinkling of the skin

Smokers who switch to smokeless tobacco instead of quitting tobacco completely still have a number of health risks:

  • Increased risk of mouth or nasal cancer
  • Gum problems, tooth wear, and cavities
  • Worsening high blood pressure and angina

HEALTH RISKS OF SECONDHAND SMOKE

Those who are regularly around the smoke of others (secondhand smoke) have a higher risk of:

  • Heart attack and heart disease
  • Lung cancer
  • Sudden and severe reactions, including those involving the eye, nose, throat, and lower respiratory tract

Infants and children who are regularly exposed to secondhand smoke are at risk of:

  • Asthma (children with asthma who live with a smoker are much more likely to visit the emergency room)
  • Infections, including virus-caused upper respiratory infections, ear infections, and pneumonia
  • Lung damage (poor lung function)
  • Sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS)

Like any addiction, quitting tobacco is difficult, especially if you are acting alone. There are a lot of ways to quit smoking and many resources to help you.

References

Stead LF, Perera R, Bullen C, Mant D, Hartmann-Boyce J, Cahill K, Lancaster T. Nicotine replacement therapy for smoking cessation. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2012;11:CD000146. DOI: 10.1002/14651858.CD000146.pub4.

Parkes GT, Greenhalgh T, Griffin M, Dent R. Effect on smoking quit rate of telling patients their lung age: the Step 2 quit randomised controlled trial. BMJ. 2008:336:598-600.

Boffetta P, Straif K. Use of smokeless tobacco and risk of myocardial infarction and stroke: systematic review with meta-analysis. BMJ. 2009;339:b3060. doi: 10.1136/bmj.b3060.

U.S. Preventive Services Task Force. Counseling and interventions to prevent tobacco use and tobacco-caused disease in adults and pregnant women. U.S. Preventive Services Task Force reaffirmation recommendation statement. Ann Intern Med. 2009;150:551-555.

George TP. Nicotine and tobacco. In: Goldman L, Schafer AI, eds. Goldman's Cecil Medicine. 24th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Saunders Elsevier; 2011:chap 31.


Review Date: 8/29/2013
Reviewed By: Linda J. Vorvick, MD, Medical Director and Director of Didactic Curriculum, MEDEX Northwest Division of Physician Assistant Studies, Department of Family Medicine, UW Medicine, School of Medicine, University of Washington. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Bethanne Black, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.
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