You know that smoking isn't good for you. But what exactly happens inside your lungs when you take a drag on a cigarette?
Cilia—tiny, brush-like hairs that sweep mucus from your airways—may be temporarily paralyzed or even destroyed. Normally, mucus helps carry germs and dirt out of your lungs. Damage done to the cilia increases your risk of getting respiratory infections.
Bronchial tubes—airways that connect your windpipe to your lungs—may become inflamed and irritated. Extra mucus is produced, and the combination of swelling and mucus clogs the airways. If the problem becomes constant, it may lead to a smoker's cough and chronic bronchitis.
Bronchioles—smaller airways that branch off the bronchial tubes—may be affected, too. Changes in the small airways and lung tissues may lead to shortness of breath, wheezing, and chest tightness.
Alveoli—small, stretchy air sacs at the ends of the bronchioles—may also be damaged. The crucial exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide occurs there. Smoking may gradually make the air sacs larger, fewer in number, and less elastic. Eventually, it becomes harder for them to move oxygen into your body and carbon dioxide out. The result is emphysema.
The COPD connection
Chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder (COPD) is a general term for lung conditions that get worse over time and make breathing more difficult. The two main conditions comprising the disorder are chronic bronchitis and emphysema. Most people with COPD have both.
Smoking is the number one cause of COPD. It's responsible for as many as 8 out of 10 COPD-related deaths, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The closeness of the connection is apparent when you look at this list of common COPD symptoms:
- Coughing, often with lots of mucus
- Shortness of breath, especially during physical activity
- Chest tightness
Understanding the effects of smoking helps you see where these symptoms come from. It also helps explain why you may be prone to getting more frequent and severe respiratory infections.
Managing the symptoms
If you're a smoker with COPD, quitting smoking is the most important thing you can do for your health. Soon after you quit, cilia may start to regrow and regain their functionality. However, some other damage, such as long-term injury to the air sacs, is irreversible.
Talk to your doctor about other treatment options, which include:
- Bronchodilator medicine, usually taken by inhaler, to open your airways and make breathing easier
- Flu and pneumococcal pneumonia vaccines, to help protect you from potentially serious infections
- Oxygen therapy, if you have low levels of oxygen in your blood due to advanced lung disease
- Pulmonary rehabilitation, to help you learn how to exercise safely and boost your well-being
Once you have COPD, it's with you for life. But treatment can ease your symptoms, slow worsening of your disease, and help you stay more active.