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Keep Your Air Clear: How Tobacco Can Harm Your Lungs

Keep Your Air Clear: How Tobacco Can Harm Your Lungs

Every organ in the human body serves an important purpose in keeping it running and in prime condition. Most healthy people are not cognizant of their organs—like lungs—on a daily basis, because they are able to breathe without difficulty and perform their daily tasks without major effort. But damage to these vital organs can cause serious disease, and sometimes death. Cigarettes can harm the tissue of the lungs, impeding their ability to function properly, and can increase the risk for conditions such as emphysema, lung cancer, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).

The primary function of your lungs is to deliver oxygen-rich blood to the rest of your body from the air you breathe in and expel carbon dioxide as waste when you exhale.  While no tobacco product is safe, combustible products—or those you must light on fire to use, like cigarettes—are especially damaging to the lungs.

Smoking and Your Lungs

Cigarette smoking can cause immediate damage to your health. Each puff of cigarette smoke contains a mix of over 7,000 chemicals.1  When you breathe this in, the smoke hits your lungs very quickly, and the blood that is then carried to the rest of your body contains these toxic chemicals. Because tobacco smoke contains carbon monoxide, this deadly gas displaces the oxygen in your blood, depriving your organs of the oxygen they need.1,2 

Doctor and patient looking at x-rays

Other chemicals found in cigarette smoke include acrolein, which can cause irreversible lung damage, and even in low amounts, it can cause a sore throat in 10 minutes.3  Cigarettes may also contain bronchodilators, or chemicals that are meant to open up the airways of the lungs and could increase the amount of dangerous chemicals absorbed by the lungs.4 

Cigarette smoking can have major consequences on the lungs at all ages. Babies whose mothers smoked during pregnancy may have lungs that develop abnormally,5 and teens who smoke cigarettes can develop smaller, weaker lungs that never grow to full size and never perform at their peak capacity.6 In addition, smoking can destroy the cilia—or tiny hairs in your airway that keep dirt and mucus out of your lungs. When these cilia are destroyed, you develop what is known as “smoker’s cough,” a chronic cough that is often seen in long-term or daily smokers.1 

Lung damage due to smoking does not end there. 8 out of 10 cases of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (or COPD) are caused by smoking.7 People with COPD experience difficulty breathing and eventually die because of a lack of air. There is no cure for COPD. Furthermore, nearly all lung cancer—the top cause of cancer death in both men and women— is caused by smoking, and smokers are 20 times more likely to develop lung cancer than nonsmokers.8 In addition to lung cancer, smoking can lead to other respiratory cancers, such as:

  • The oropharynx (the back of the mouth, including parts of the tongue, the soft palate, the side and back of the throat, and the tonsils)
  • Larynx (the “voice box”)
  • Trachea (the “windpipe”)
  • Bronchus (one of two large airways that connect the trachea to the lungs)9

Not Just Cigarettes: Other Tobacco Products and Lung Health

While cigarettes—given their high rate of use, addictive nature, and toxic mix of chemicals—are the most dangerous tobacco product, any tobacco product you inhale could cause lung damage. Cigar smoking can increase the risk of COPD, and lead to cancers of the lung, oral cavity, and larynx, among other cancers.10,11

Electronic Nicotine Delivery Systems (ENDS), like e-cigarettes, are still relatively new tobacco products and are still being evaluated for their impacts on health. But e-cigarette use—or “vaping”—may be harmful to your lungs. Some e-cigarette aerosols have been found to contain some of the same chemicals in cigarettes, including the lung irritant acrolein, and formaldehyde, which may adversely affect the throat.12,13,14,15 Flavoring chemicals are considered safe for eating, but could be harmful when inhaled.  Buttery flavors like caramel, toffee, and chocolate contain the chemicals diacetyl and acetoin, which can be harmful to your lungs.16 Additionally, fruit flavored e-cigarettes can have higher concentrations of a chemical called acrylonitrile, which is a known respiratory irritant.17


How You Can Protect Your Lungs from Tobacco

Doctor checking a patient's breathing

Your lungs are one of your body’s filtration systems, taking in air from the atmosphere, adding oxygen to the blood for circulation throughout the body, and expelling excess carbon dioxide. When tobacco is inhaled, it interferes with this delicate balance. The best way to ensure lung health is to never start using tobacco, but if you are an addicted smoker, the sooner you quit, the sooner your lungs can begin to heal. Quitting smoking can lower the risk of getting cancer. In fact, when you quit smoking, your risk of:

  • Cancer of the larynx is reduced immediately;
  • Lung cancer drops by 50 percent 10 years after quitting;
  • Mouth and throat cancers drop by 50% five years after quitting.8

Anyone who quits smoking will experience better overall health.  Just 12 hours after quitting, the carbon monoxide level in your blood drops to normal, allowing more oxygen to circulate to your organs.2


Additional Resources

Find information about quitting and more resources on tobacco products and their impact on health:


1. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (USDHHS). A Report of the Surgeon General: How Tobacco Smoke Causes Disease: What It Means to You (Consumer Booklet). Atlanta, GA: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion, Office on Smoking and Health; 2010.
2. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (USDHHS). The Health Consequences of Smoking: What it Means to You (Consumer Booklet). Atlanta, GA: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion, Office on Smoking and Health; 2004.
3. U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Harmful and Potentially Harmful Constituents in Tobacco Products and Tobacco Smoke; Established List. https://www.fda.gov/TobaccoProducts/Labeling/RulesRegulationsGuidance/u… Accessed January 8, 2019.
4. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (USDHHS). How Tobacco Smoke Causes Disease: The Biology and Behavioral Basis for Smoking-Attributable Disease: A Report of the Surgeon General. Atlanta, GA: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion, Office on Smoking and Health; 2010.
5. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (USDHHS). Women and Smoking. A Report of the Surgeon General. Atlanta, GA: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Coordinating Center for Health Promotion, National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion, Office on Smoking and Health; 2001.
6. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (USDHHS). A Report of the Surgeon General: Preventing Tobacco Use among Youth and Young Adults. We Can Make the Next Generation Tobacco-Free (Consumer Booklet). Atlanta, GA: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion, Office on Smoking and Health; 2012.
7. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (USDHHS). The Health Consequences of Smoking—50 Years of Progress: A Report of the Surgeon General (Fact Sheet). Atlanta, GA: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion, Office on Smoking and Health; 2014.
8. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (USDHHS). The Health Consequences of Smoking: A Report of the Surgeon General. Atlanta, GA: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Center for Disease Control and Prevention, National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion, Office on Smoking and Health 2004.
9. National Cancer Institute. NCI Dictionary of Cancer Terms. https://www.cancer.gov/syndication/widgets. Accessed September 10, 2018
10. Shanks TG, Burns DM. Disease consequences of cigar smoking. In: Smoking and Tobacco Control Monograph 9: Cigars–Health Effects and Trends. Bethesda, MD: National Cancer Institute; 1998.
11. International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC). Tobacco smoke and involuntary smoking. In: IARC Monographs on the Evaluation of Carcinogenic Risks to Humans. Vol. 83. Lyon, France: International Agency for Research on Cancer; 2004.
12. Goniewicz ML, Knysak J, Gawron M, et al. Levels of selected carcinogens and toxicants in vapour from electronic cigarettes. Tobacco Control. 2014; 23(2):133-139.
13. Cheng T. Chemical evaluation of electronic cigarettes. Tobacco Control. 2014; 23:ii11–ii17.
14. Bein K, Leikauf GD. Acrolein–a pulmonary hazard. Molecular Nutrition & Food Research. 2011;55(9):1342-1360.
15. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). Occupational Safety and Health Standards. Medical surveillance – Formaldehyde. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Safety and Health Administration. https://www.osha.gov/pls/oshaweb/owadisp.show_document?p_table=STANDARD…. Accessed May 8, 2018.
16. Allen J, Flanigan SS, LeBlanc M, et al. Flavoring chemicals in e-cigarettes: Diacetyl, 2,3-pentanedione, and acetoin in a sample of 51 products, including fruit-, candy-, cocktail- flavored e-cigarettes. Environ Health Perspect. 2016;124. https://ehp.niehs.nih.gov/15-10185/. Accessed March 27, 2018.
17. Rubinstein M, Delucchi K, Benowitz N, Ramo D. Adolescent exposure to toxic volatile organic chemicals from e-cigarettes. Pediatrics. 2018; 141(4):e20173557.