The Scary Effect That Smoking Has on Your Lungs Over Time

March 25, 2019 Updated: March 27, 2019

For years, smoking cigarettes was as common as drinking a cup of coffee with the morning paper.

According to the Population Reference Bureau, as many as 42 percent of all Americans were regular smokers in the 1960s. It was seen as a normal social behavior; not only did people smoke outside, but they did it everywhere from their homes to airline flights as well.

The current generations aren’t nearly as enamored with smoking, as more and more information has come out showing the health risks associated with the practice. There are still millions of Americans who smoke on a regular basis, however. The Population Reference Bureau stated that the percentage of smokers is down by 50 percent but still far above where it should be.

When doctors take a look at what smoking is still doing to people’s bodies across the United States, it’s a pretty scary prospect.

Many people already know that smoking is considered poor for your health, but they don’t often stop to think about the specifics. Here’s what actually happens — not just to the smell of your clothes, but to your lungs in particular — the longer you continue the habit.

smoking bad for your lung
Illustration (Vladibulgakov/Shutterstock)

Your Airways Narrow

Chances are, you’ve met a long-time regular smoker whose sentences are punctuated with hacking coughs and whose exercise routines are stopped early while they gasp for air.

Many people assume this is because they have smoke in their lungs or are simply sick. And while both may be true, the primary reason that many smokers have so much trouble breathing is far more daunting.

The smoke inflames and irritates their lung tissue, which narrows the airways and eventually damages the tissue over time. The airways can close so much that taking a deep breath is nearly impossible, and scar tissue can be produced as the lungs become damaged and inflamed.

This causes breathing to become more and more of a chore the longer you smoke — and it can contribute to more and more illnesses over time.

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You Get Sick More Often

No one enjoys feeling under the weather. But for regular smokers, it becomes routine; the more you smoke, the more likely you are to catch colds, viruses, and more serious, long-lasting illnesses like pneumonia or bronchitis.

There’s clear science behind it, too. It’s not just a loose correlation between smoking and illness.

Every time you smoke, your lungs produce extra mucus to form a protective barrier as a result. Everyone produces mucus, but the excess buildup in your lungs can force you to cough more — and the buildup is susceptible to infection, which leads to more and more illnesses. The more often your body has to fight these illnesses, the weaker it gets. Eventually, a smoker can find themselves battling almost constant colds and upper respiratory infections.

This is a two-pronged problem. Not only does the excess mucus lead to infection, but the smoke inhaled with each cigarette speeds up the aging of your lungs. The result? It becomes tougher and tougher for your lungs to fight off infection on their own, so every illness becomes more and more of a big deal.

It’s never fun to get a cold, but routine smokers often don’t just get a cold. Each sniffle can become pneumonia, which gets pricier and more painful to fight as you get older.

Illustration (Marcos Mesa Sam Wordley/Shutterstock)

Your Lungs Get Dirtier

Everyone has seen a pile of cigarette ash on the ground next to someone who has opted to light up, but few think about what that does to the inside of your body.

A healthy person has microscopic little hair-like appendages in their lungs called cilia that act as brooms to keep the lung clean and airways open.

As soon as you take your first drag of a cigarette, however, these cilia stop working as effectively — and over time, cigarette smoke can damage them permanently and even cause them to disappear.

The result is easy to figure out; the longer you smoke, the dirtier your lungs get with nothing to clean them out. This contributes to that risk for infection and leaves both dust and mucus in the lungs to accumulate over time.

The good news is that those who quit smoking can see marginal lung health improvement over time, and that includes improved cilia efficacy. According to Dr. Norman Edelman, a senior scientific advisor for the American Lung Association, cilia begin to re-grow on the insides of your lungs as soon as you quit smoking. And once they start growing again — and start functioning properly — your lungs can start to clean themselves out and your risk for illness goes back down a bit.

Illustration (Create jobs 51/Shutterstock)

You Put Yourself At Risk For Lung Cancer

Chances are you’ve already heard about this one. As human life expectancies have stretched, those of smokers have remained horrifyingly stagnant; you’re twenty times more likely to succumb to lung cancer when you smoke regularly than when you don’t.

An estimated six percent of the overall population in the United States is at risk of developing lung cancer in their life, but breaking down the risk by smoking statistics paints a horrifying picture.

Less than one percent of non-smokers in a European study developed lung cancer, but the numbers skyrocketed for smokers: 5.5 percent of former male smokers and 2.6 percent of former female smokers found themselves at risk, while 15.9 percent of current male casual smokers and 9.5 percent of current female casual smokers all reported a diagnosis. For current heavy smokers, categorized as those who smoke more than five cigarettes a day, one in four men and one in five women were diagnosed.

Lowering your risk of cancer is always a bit of an imperfect science, but the numbers are staggeringly clear in this instance. For smokers, smoking will almost certainly be the cause of a lung cancer diagnosis for those who end up with the debilitating disease.