To you, it might just be another cigarette, but to your body, it’s a serious crisis that requires all systems to be put on red alert. Imagine a series of wildfires hitting a small peaceful town every single day, never giving the citizens enough time to heal and rebuild.
This is comparable to that what your body is experiencing each time you inhale a cigarette smoke.
Let’s look at what happens in your body after you light up and breathe in that nice, hot lungful of smoke.
One of the key components of cigarette smoke is tar – a black, sticky, resinous substance that’s highly toxic and carcinogenic, and not to be confused with the wax in a vape pen. The first thing tar does after entering your mouth is coat your teeth and gums. It damages your teeth’s enamel, discoloring them and making them more sensitive.
Your gums also get coated in tar. Over time, this can blacken them and make them recede. This further exposes your teeth and makes them even more susceptible to tooth decay. This is why smokers are twice as likely to lose teeth than non-smokers. If you’re a pack-a-day smoker who picked up the habit when you were 18, you’re likely to lose 4 to 5 teeth by the time you’re 35.
The heat and carcinogenic chemicals in the smoke damage the cells in your mouth, making them more prone to mutations such as oral cancer, which is why the best vapes feature things like temperature control and protections against overheating.
A portion of the smoke travels to your nasal cavity, where it irritates the tissues and coats them with tar. This leads to a loss of the sense of smell.
2. Your Throat, Trachea and Esophagus
Cigarette smoke irritates and damages the lining of the throat. This can cause the smoker’s voice to become hoarse, making speaking more difficult. Over time, it can lead to throat cancer.
Smoke also destroys the mucosal cells that line the back of your throat. This can cause frequent infections, dryness and painful irritation of the throat.
The human trachea (wind pipe) is coated in cilia – microscopic hair-like structures that are used to clear the lungs and throat of any foreign substances. Tobacco smoke paralyzes and eventually destroys cilia, which can lead to smokers cough as the remaining cilia struggle to clear out massive amounts of tar. Smoking a cigarette appears to soothe the smoker’s cough, because it temporarily stops the self-cleaning process.
Tobacco smoke also damages the muscles in your esophagus (food pipe) that stop the acids in your stomach from rising back up into your throat. This is why smokers have an increased risk of developing acid reflux.
After traveling through the trachea, the smoke then enters the lungs. Once there, it damages the natural cleaning mechanism of the lungs, causing a buildup of tar and other chemicals in the pulmonary alveoli. This causes breathlessness, wheezing, fatigue and dizziness.
The lack of functioning cilia as well as the increased production of mucus causes smoker’s cough and leaves the smoker much more prone to lung infections such as pneumonia and tuberculosis.
4. Your Heart and Blood Vessels
The toxic carbon monoxide found in cigarette smoke is instantly absorbed into the bloodstream. It binds with hemoglobin, taking the place of oxygen. The poisoned red blood cells then proceed to circulate through veins and arteries, traveling through the heart to all organs in the human body. In the short term, this leaves the smoker tired and out of breath. In the long term, it can lead to coronary heart disease (the damage to, and weakening of the heart’s major arteries), aneurysms and atherosclerosis (a buildup of foreign matter in arteries that can block them or cause them to rupture). All of those consequences are potentially fatal.
The chemicals in cigarette smoke elevate the smoker’s blood pressure and increase heart rate. This combined with the lowered oxygen intake from the smoker’s lungs gravely increases the risk of heart attack
, as the heart tries to work overtime on insufficient amounts of fuel.
Nicotine is the stimulant drug found in tobacco. After inhaling, it enters the bloodstream and travels to the brain. In response to the nicotine, the brain releases a hit of dopamine and endorphins. These are feel-good chemicals naturally used by the brain to reinforce positive behaviors such as acquiring food or succeeding in social interactions.
Over time, the smoker’s brain gets accustomed to the nicotine stimulation and requires it to function normally. It’s conditioned itself to need cigarettes as it needs food or water, making you repeat the whole process over and over again.
Chemicals in Cigarettes
Although there are too many toxins in cigarette smoke to review here, a few are real eye openers.
Formaldehyde is used as a preservative for dead bodies. It is also commonly used to produce other chemicals. Short term exposure can cause nausea, watery eyes, coughing, and burning of the sensitive eyes, nose, and throat. In 2004, it was classified as being known to cause cancer in humans.
Radioactive metals, specifically Lead-210 (Pb-210) and polonium-210 (Po-210) are present. They are a byproduct of natural decay of uranium, and make their way to the tobacco plant in microscopic amounts. It remains there, right up until the tobacco is burned and inhaled. These bits of radioactive material eventually build into radioactive areas, causing increased risks of lung cancer.
Benzene is another carcinogen, and is specifically linked to leukemia. It is also used to produce nylon and gasoline. A powerful toxin, it can cause coma, paralysis and convulsions when a person is exposed to high amounts in a short period of time, and after long term exposure, can cause immune system problems and genetic damage.
Ammonia is a very common household chemical that is usually reserved for cleaning. Tobacco companies, however, add ammonia to tobacco during processing. Why? It helps boost the effect that nicotine has on the smoker. This helps to ramp up nicotine addiction, helping to keep smokers hooked.
Tobacco-specific N-nitrosamines (TSNAs), are naturally occurring carcinogens that are enhanced during curing to become some of the most potent cancer causing agents in not just cigarettes, but smokeless tobacco products as well. Lung, liver, pancreatic, and possibly cervical cancer are all linked to exposure to TSNAs.
Arsenic is used in pesticides on tobacco plants. It can cause coronary damage and is also a carcinogen.
The nicotine that addicts a smoker causes a dearth of health problems, as does the carbon monoxide that replaces some of the oxygen flowing through the bloodstream. Cadmium, a carcinogen used to make batteries shows up, along with Acrolein, previously used as a chemical weapon.
Everything listed above is just a small sampling of the dangerous chemicals found in tobacco smoke. More information on the many other toxins is available here, and Cancer Research UK also offers a good list of the compounds and the side effects.
Although major tobacco companies gave out a list of the 599 additives it used in cigarettes in 1994, no list has since been released. Additionally, the list did not specify exactly how the ingredients were added, because the blends were what gave each cigarette brand and type its unique flavor. Without a real ‘recipe’, it is hard to determine the complex composition and chemical signature of that particular cigarette. Additionally, tobacco companies have a long and checkered history of doing everything within their power to hide how dangerous their product is, and how often they manipulate it to keep smokers hooked.
For more motivation to quit smoking once and for all, visit The Real Cost of Smoking.
Read more about the effects cigarette smoke has on the human body at The Effects of Smoking.