Think there’s no harm in just a cigarette here and there? Think again.
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Even light smokers who puff on just a few cigarettes a day run an increased risk of developing potentially deadly chronic lung diseases like emphysema and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).
Add those respiratory issues (as well as lung cancer) to the long list of reasons why cigarette smoking ranks as the No. 1 cause of preventable disease, disability and death in the United States and the world.
Let’s take a closer look at how smoking harms your lungs with pulmonologist Humberto Choi, MD — plus steps you can take to reverse the damage. (SPOILER ALERT: A move toward better health involves the word “quit.”)
Chronic lung disease isn’t just one single type of respiratory disease. Think of it more as an umbrella term covering an assortment of conditions that prevent your lungs from working the way they should.
Common types of chronic lung disease include:
Chronic lung disease can be traced to many causes, but smoking tops the list. Others include environmental factors (such as air pollution, asbestos and second-hand smoke), infections and even genetics.
Breathing in chemicals certainly sounds bad for your lungs, right? Well, consider this: Lighting up a cigarette and taking a puff releases thousands of chemicals, many of which carry a toxic designation.
Chemicals in cigarettes can irritate and damage your airways and lungs, says Dr. Choi. Research shows that smoking just a few cigarettes a day can cause immense harm over time.
“It’s a misconception to think that smoking very lightly, just one or two cigarettes a day, could somehow be a safe practice,” states Dr. Choi. “There’s a body of evidence showing that it is not.”
The cumulative effect of smoking can lead to noticeable changes in your breathing and lung health, including:
If you smoke and are worried about getting chronic lung disease, here’s your best solution: Quit smoking. It’s really that simple. In fact, research shows that heavy smokers who kick the habit have a lower risk of lung disease than current light smokers.
“Quitting smoking at any point in life can lower a person’s chance of developing chronic lung disease,” emphasizes Dr. Choi. “It is never too late to quit.”
Within three days of quitting smoking, breathing typically becomes easier. Chronic coughing may ease up after a few months, too, as the cilia (small hairs) in your airways gradually begin to regrow. (Learn more health benefits that come when you stop smoking.)
Talk to a healthcare provider about your options for a smoking cessation program.
Unfortunately, the answer is no. Years or decades of abusing your lungs can’t just be erased. Some damage will be lasting.
But that doesn’t mean chronic lung disease can’t be managed for better quality of life, says Dr. Choi. Various treatment options can help your lungs. Lifestyle changes, such as quitting smoking, can prevent additional damage and allow for some recovery.