Nicotine and other toxic chemicals in cigarette smoke cause lung-related conditions and heart disease. Quitting smoking can reduce the chances of developing cardiovascular diseases such as stroke, hypertension, and heart attack.

Smoking can increase a person’s risk of health problems in every part of the body, especially the lungs and heart. Smokers have an increased risk of high blood pressure, stroke, heart failure, and other cardiovascular diseases (CVDs).

People who inhale secondhand smoke are also at risk of heart disease. Smoking can also cause cancer and chronic respiratory conditions.

This article explains the effects of cigarette smoke on the cardiovascular system and the reasons to quit.

A heart outline in red neon.Share on Pinterest
Carol Yepes/Getty Images

Cigarette smokers are more likely to get a CVD than nonsmokers.

Heart disease is the leading cause of death in the United States, with around 800,000 people dying from it annually. Smoking cigarettes accounts for around 2 in 10 of those deaths. In addition, more than 33,000 nonsmokers die every year from exposure to secondhand smoke.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) provide the following statistics for CVDs:

  • more than 8 million Americans have heart disease
  • 7 million have had a stroke
  • nearly 8 million have had a heart attack

The risk of CVD increases with the number of cigarettes a person smokes per day and how many years they smoke. Choosing low-nicotine and low-tar cigarettes makes no difference to a person’s risk.

The heart needs oxygen-rich blood to work properly. When a person inhales cigarette smoke, the toxic chemicals contaminate the blood and reduce the oxygen that the heart and other body parts receive.

The chemicals cause the cells lining the blood vessels to become swollen and inflamed, leading to CVDs such as:

  • coronary artery disease
  • stroke
  • peripheral artery disease
  • abdominal aortic aneurysm

The underlying pathological process in all the conditions above is known as atherosclerosis. This occurs when plaque forms on artery walls, making them harden and narrow. This reduces the space that blood can flow through.

Plaque is a sticky mixture of cholesterol, blood cells, fat, and other substances. Eating a diet high in saturated and trans fats contributes to plaque formation, and smoking also accelerates the process.

Atherosclerosis may lead to blood clots that can block the artery or travel to other parts of the body. It can lead to high blood pressure, heart attack, stroke, and death.

Learn more about atherosclerosis here.

The following sections outline the CVDs that we have listed above.

Coronary artery disease (CAD) is the most common heart disease in the U.S. It happens when the large arteries on the heart’s surface cannot supply enough oxygen-rich blood to the heart.

Nicotine and other toxic chemicals in cigarette smoke can contribute to the narrowing and hardening of the artery walls, restricting blood flow to the heart and increasing the risk of blood clots.

Many people are unaware they have CAD until they have chest pain, a heart attack, or cardiac arrest, which is when the heart suddenly stops working.

Learn about the difference between cardiac arrest and heart attack here.

According to the CDC, about 795,000 people in the U.S. have a stroke each year. A stroke happens when there is decreased blood flow to the brain or when a blood vessel in the brain bursts. This causes damage or death to parts of the brain.

Smoking encourages plaque buildup and clot formation, which can restrict blood flow to the brain.

Stroke can cause long-term complications, such as:

  • paralysis
  • muscle weakness
  • difficulty speaking
  • cognitive impairment
  • difficulty swallowing
  • seizures
  • incontinence

Learn more about stroke here.

Peripheral arterial disease (PAD) is often a result of atherosclerosis. In PAD, the arteries are too narrow to send sufficient blood to the blood vessels in the legs and feet. PAD can also affect the arms and hands, although that is rare.

Symptoms of PAD include discomfort, cramping, fatigue, pain, and aching in the leg and hip muscles while walking. The symptoms often improve with rest.

People with PAD often do not get a diagnosis, but if they do not receive treatment for the condition, it can lead to tissue death, gangrene, and amputation.

Smoking is a major risk factor for PAD and can worsen its symptoms by causing inflammation.

Read about smoker’s leg here.

The aorta is the major artery that distributes blood to different parts of the body. It stretches from the chest to the abdomen. An abdominal aortic aneurysm is a balloon-like bulge that forms in an area of the aorta.

Smoking can cause plaque to form on the aorta walls, making them weaker. High blood pressure can further damage the walls and cause an aneurysm to form. When it bursts, it can lead to sudden death.

Female smokers die from abdominal aortic aneurysms more often than male smokers.

Learn about ascending aortic aneurysms here.

According to the CDC, quitting smoking significantly reduces a person’s risk of heart attack within a year. Within 5 years, most smokers lower their risk of stroke to levels that match those of nonsmokers.

Quitting smoking has many other benefits, including:

  • reduced heart rate
  • reduced risk of respiratory disease
  • improved lung function
  • an improved sense of taste and smell
  • reduced financial burden

Learn about what happens after quitting smoking here.

A person should contact a doctor if they experience:

Regular smokers or former smokers may wish to have regular blood pressure monitoring. High blood pressure can be a sign of CVD.

The leading preventable cause of most heart conditions is smoking. The best way for a person to lower their risk of having these conditions is to quit smoking.

Quitting smoking reduces a person’s risk of developing heart conditions, lung-related conditions, and cancer. The earlier a person quits smoking, the better.

Within as little as 8 hours of quitting smoking, a person’s oxygen levels begin to recover and carbon monoxide in the blood reduces by half. In addition, a person’s sense of smell and taste begins to improve after 48 hours. After about a year, the lungs are healthier, and breathing is easier.

After 8 hours

Your oxygen levels are recovering, and the harmful carbon monoxide level in your blood will have reduced by half.

Find 11 tips for quitting smoking here.

Smoking and breathing in secondhand smoke can cause heart disease. Smoking causes plaque to build up in the arteries, reducing blood flow to the heart and other vital organs.

This may lead to conditions including stroke and heart attack.

Quitting smoking is the best way to avoid these heart conditions and prevent them from worsening.

Find more cardiovascular health resources here.