Coughing up heaping globs of mucous isn’t even the half of it. Neither is losing all sense of stamina, or coming home to a stale-smelling house with yellowed walls and furniture. No, the biggest consequences of smoking are, by and large, ones you will never see. These, however, tend to be the deadliest.
As you inhale cigarette smoke, the 7,000 or so carcinogens begin to swirl through the caverns of your body, beginning in your esophagus and winding up in distant locations you wouldn’t give second thought to. The truth is, for all its declining popularity, smoking still emerges as the single greatest preventable cause of death in the United States. Each year, some 480,000 people die from smoking-related causes. Here are six organs that feel the effects in the meantime.
1. Your Lungs
Best to get this one out of the way early. Lung cancer, emphysema, and bronchitis are three of the most common diseases directly associated with smoking. Eighty percent of lung cancer cases are due to smoking.
Columns of harmful smoke pour into the organs, paralyzing the delicate cilia lining the inner walls and irritating them to the point where they overproduce mucous. When these cilia die, and mucous builds, respiration suffers. Once the soft healthy tissue turns hard and black, asthma and cancer tend to follow. While many of the body’s processes stabilize after someone quits smoking, damaged lung tissue can never heal.
2. Your Skin
It’s easy to forget the largest organ in your body is even an organ at all. Smoking damages the skin in more ways than one. On the one hand, you’ll notice some profound cosmetic changes, such as bags under the eyes, a toughening of the skin, wrinkles, and stretch marks — all stemming from the skin’s dying elasticity. But you should also expect major health risks to rise. Among the heavy-hitters: skin cancer, warts, psoriasis, and poorer wound healing.
We don’t think of skin as playing much more than a cosmetic role, but the largest organ in the body is the first line of defense for keeping out invading forces, like bacteria and viruses. Psoriasis, for instance, was found in 2007 to double in risk for people who smoked a pack a day for 20 years. To put it bluntly, when there’s a tear in the sheath of shrink-wrapped flesh draped over the other organs, getting sick becomes a lot easier.
3. Your Uterus
Among smoking’s long cons is its effect on reproductive health. Cigarettes significantly raise a woman’s risk for ectopic pregnancy — the maturation of an embryo outside the walls of the uterus, typically in the fallopian tubes. One 2010 study suggested this was due to an overproduction of the protein PROKR1, making it harder for the fallopian tubes to contract and send the egg all the way to the womb.
In addition to ectopic pregnancies, research has found cigarette smoking to lead to more failures involving in vitro fertilization, adverse reproductive outcomes, and a lower fecundity rates overall. Women have also been having kids later in life, upping their risk even further, as it means they’ll have been smoking longer before pregnancy.
4. Your Penis
The ability to achieve and maintain an erection could suffer drastically if a man smokes. That finding has been repeated over and over throughout the decades, most compellingly in a 2011 study that found men who kicked the habit had quicker, firmer, and most durable erections than men who smoked — achieving that erection up to five times faster than smokers who relapsed.
Important to keep in mind: Nicotine, not smoking, determined men’s physical arousal. They didn’t see full return to health until after they quit nicotine patches or gum. Also, study co-author Christopher Harte, of the VA Boston Healthcare System, pointed out, a man’s success depends on his relationship with his sexual partner.
5. Your Eyes
As previously stated, expect some under-eye droopage after having smoked for a while. More than that, cigarette smoking has been found to lead to a raft of conditions related to vision loss, such as age-related macular degeneration, cataracts, glaucoma, diabetic retinopathy, and dry eye syndrome.
Smoking attacks the eye from two fronts. The first is the smoke itself, which collects in front of your face as you smoke and again after you exhale. The constant exposure to the smoke can dry your eyes out and irritate them. Combine this with smoking’s effects on blood flow, which stops the optic nerve from getting enough antioxidants. As a result, scientists believe, the chemicals in cigarette smoke pollute the blood and starve the ocular organs.
6. Your Liver
The liver isn’t confined to damage from alcohol consumption. Smoking ups people’s risk for liver cancer dramatically, according to a 2011 study that found nearly half of all liver cancer cases were the result of smoking. By contrast, 21 percent were associated with hepatitis C, 16 percent from obesity, 13 percent from hepatitis B, and, all the way at the bottom, 10 percent for alcohol consumption.
The majority of liver cancer deaths are the result of hepatocellular carcinoma, a leading cause of cancer deaths worldwide, among sub-Saharan African and Southeast Asian countries. Cirrhosis — when liver cells turn to scar tissue — is one of the greatest non-cancerous forms of liver damage; in the U.S. cirrhosis is often alcohol-related, which is why the conventional wisdom keeps the two so closely linked.