Inside Your Lungs: How Smoking Does Its Damage

Smoking is bad. We all know that.

In fact, according to the American Cancer Society (ACS), cigarettes are responsible for nearly 1 in 5 deaths in the United States.

But what exactly does smoking do to your lungs?

If you smoke, the answer to that question could be important. It may give you the extra nudge you need to quit tobacco for good.

Peril in every puff

To start with, consider that when you inhale tobacco smoke, it brings more than 7,000 chemicals into your lungs. Here are just a few you might be familiar with:

  • Cyanide — sometimes used to exterminate pests and vermin
  • Formaldehyde — used as a preservative in labs and mortuaries
  • Ammonia — included in many household and industrial cleaners
  • Carbon monoxide — the same poisonous gas that’s in car exhaust fumes
  • Benzene — found in gasoline

At least 70 of the chemicals in cigarettes are known to cause cancer, says the ACS.

Taking your breath away

Tobacco use may harm your body in many ways — from your gums to your eyes to your heart to your bones. And for smokers, the lungs take a terrible hit.

As soon as it’s inhaled, smoke begins to damage and irritate cells. Among other things, it harms your cilia. They are the tiny, hair-like structures that normally sweep mucus and impurities out of your lungs and airways.

Some people develop a “smoker’s cough.” It can be a sign that smoke-damaged cilia are trying to do their job. But the smoke may slow them down.

Smoking is the single strongest risk factor for lung cancer. And smoking is the main cause of another dangerous condition: COPD, or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. With COPD, damaged and inflamed lungs aren't able to fill up and deflate as they should. The two most common forms are emphysema and chronic bronchitis.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, chronic lower respiratory diseases — primarily COPD — are the third leading cause of death in the United States. And smoking is to blame for about 80 percent of cases. The longer and heavier you smoke, the greater your risk of COPD.

And when it comes to cancer, the lungs aren’t the only worry. Smoking has been linked to cancers of the throat, mouth, bladder, pancreas, cervix, breasts, colon, rectum, kidney and stomach — to name a few.

Spreading the risk

When you light up around the people you love, you’re harming them too. People who inhale your secondhand smoke are breathing the same dangerous chemicals you are — and may develop similar health problems. Children are particularly vulnerable to the effects of tobacco smoke.

Be a quitter!

It’s never too late to stop smoking — or kick another tobacco habit. Start by talking with your doctor, who can help you find the best strategy for you. Your plan may include counseling, support groups, nicotine replacement products and other cessation tools.*

Quitting tobacco often takes several tries — so don’t give up. Millions of people have done it. Why not you?

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What to do next

Learn more about the healthy benefits of quitting smoking at uhc.com/quit-clock.


*Check your benefit plan to see what services may be covered.

The information provided here is for general informational purposes only and is not intended to be nor should be construed as medical or other advice. Talk to an appropriate health care professional to determine what may be right for you.

Last reviewed July 2017

© 2017 United HealthCare Services, Inc.