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Does Smoking Increase Your Risk for Heart Disease?

Posted on October 12, 2022
Medically reviewed by
Charles Whitcomb, M.D.
Article written by
Megan Cawley

Many people are aware that smoking increases your risk of developing heart disease and several serious health conditions, including lung cancer, emphysema, and other lung diseases. What some may not know is how smoking can affect the heart — especially if you are at risk of or are living with heart disease.

Here is what you need to know about smoking and heart disease, including whether smoking may increase the risk of developing heart disease down the line and how it may lead to complications if you continue to smoke after diagnosis.

How Does Smoking Affect Heart Disease?

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), smoking is not only a major cause of cardiovascular disease (CVD), but it also causes about 1 in every 4 deaths in those with CVD. Individuals who smoke more frequently and for longer periods of time are at an even greater risk of stroke, heart disease, or heart attack — even if they smoke tobacco products with lower levels of nicotine or tar. Even people who don’t smoke can acquire and even die from heart disease caused by exposure to secondhand smoke.

The chemicals within cigarette smoke can cause alarming reactions from the circulatory system, including both instant and long-term rises in blood pressure and heart rate, an increased risk of blood clots, reduced blood flow to vital parts of the body, and reduced oxygen to the body’s tissues. Cigarette smoke also damages blood vessels. This is because smoking causes the cells within them to become inflamed. This inflammation can result in narrowed blood vessels, as well as new or worsened cardiac issues, including different types of atherosclerosis, such as coronary artery disease (heart attack), peripheral artery disease (poor blood flow to the legs), and cerebrovascular disease (stroke).

You do not need not be a lifetime chain-smoker in order to cause damage to your body. In fact, autopsies performed on young adults who smoked as adolescents showed signs of early heart damage.

Smoking and Cholesterol

The American Heart Association notes that having high cholesterol levels and being exposed to tobacco smoke are two significant risk factors for developing heart disease.

Smoking increases the toxic effects of “bad” cholesterol (LDL cholesterol) in the body by making it easier for the substance to stick to arterial walls — particularly damaged ones — and create narrowing in the arteries. Smoking also lowers the body’s HDL, or “good” cholesterol levels, which normally help improve blood flow by removing LDL from the arterial walls.

Does How Much or What You Smoke Matter?

Smoking in any capacity can harm your health, and those who smoke are encouraged to quit completely to reduce their risks of developing health problems or making them worse.

What if You Don’t Smoke a Lot?

Tobacco smoke can have a negative impact even on people who don’t smoke often or only smoke a few cigarettes a day. A Harvard study found that light and “social” smoking, while not as bad as heavy smoking or chain-smoking, causes substantial health threats to the heart and lungs.

Is Smoking Marijuana Safer Than Tobacco?

Although some individuals may smoke marijuana with tobacco, cannabis cigarettes generally do not contain nicotine or tobacco products, consisting only of the plant and the rolling paper used. However, this does not necessarily make these cigarettes safer than regular ones.

Research into the long-term effects of marijuana use on the body is ongoing, and the CDC warns that smoking marijuana can increase heart rate and blood pressure almost instantaneously, as well as lead to an increased risk of heart attack and stroke. Studies have also shown that marijuana smoke can contain many of the same harmful substances found in tobacco smoke.

Although further study is needed to determine whether marijuana use is as dangerous as tobacco use in the long run, bear in mind that smoking, in general, can have negative health effects.

Are E-Cigarettes Safer Than Conventional Cigarettes?

Electronic cigarettes (also referred to as e-cigarettes, e-cigs, vaporizers, or vapes) carry risks to heart health. Recent studies have shown that e-cigarettes also pose significant health risks. E-cigarettes increase the risk of heart attack, coronary artery disease, depression, and other ailments among those who do not smoke cigarettes.

One study found that, when compared to people who don’t smoke, those who use e-cigarettes were 56 percent more likely to have a heart attack and 30 percent more likely to have a stroke. Those who vape were also at greater risk of developing coronary artery disease and circulatory problems, including blood clots, at rates of 10 percent and 44 percent, respectively.

Quitting Smoking

There is no “safe” way to smoke. To avoid potentially increasing the chances of developing or worsening heart disease and other significant health concerns, it is strongly encouraged that people give up smoking entirely.

Smoking is an addictive habit that can be very difficult to quit. Luckily, there are tools to support quitting.

As the American Heart Association encourages, it is never too late. No matter your age or how much you smoke, quitting is always a possibility. For those with more intense smoking habits, the American Heart Association recommends choosing “quit days” where, for an entire day, you break up your habit by not smoking at all, reducing the number of cigarettes you smoke, or smoking only parts of each cigarette. They also encourage those looking to quit smoking to rely on the support of loved ones to get them through the process.

Other helpful quitting methods include nicotine replacement therapy (which may involve nicotine substitutes like gum or patches to wean people who smoke off their habit), avoiding triggers that may encourage the urge to smoke, and finding distractions in order to “delay” smoking and prolong the periods between smokes. If you want to quit smoking but aren’t sure where to start, ask your health care provider for advice.

Find Your Team

Living with heart disease can be a struggle, but it isn’t one you have to face alone. On MyHeartDiseaseTeam, you’ll find a dedicated community of more than 53,000 like-minded people looking to help you along your journey to better health and wellness. Here, you can join ongoing conversations, ask and answer questions, and connect with members from around the world.

Do you have something to add to the conversation? Share your thoughts in the comments below or by posting on MyHeartDiseaseTeam.

All updates must be accompanied by text or a picture.
Charles Whitcomb, M.D. has been a clinical cardiologist for over forty-five years. Learn more about him here.
Megan Cawley is a writer at MyHealthTeam. She has written previously on health news and topics, including new preventative treatment programs. Learn more about her here.

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