Smoking is a known risk factor and cause of cardiovascular disease. Quitting smoking following a heart attack can help reduce a person’s risk of having another.

Smoking has numerous negative health implications. It increases a person’s risk of having a heart attack and can continue to keep them at an elevated risk of another following their first.

Quitting smoking can help someone person reduce their risk of subsequent heart attacks and early mortality.

This article reviews what a heart attack is, the risks of smoking after a heart attack, and the benefits of quitting smoking.

Black and white image of a person's hand over their heartShare on Pinterest
luísa sequeira/EyeEm/Adobe Stock

A heart attack, which healthcare professionals call a myocardial infarction, occurs when a sudden blockage prevents oxygen-rich blood from reaching the heart. When the heart does not get enough oxygen, it can cause the heart muscle to start dying.

Rapid restoration of blood flow is crucial for overall health and survival. A person should seek immediate treatment if they have any of the following symptoms:

People commonly experience heart attacks in the United States. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that every year, about 805,000 individuals experience a heart attack. Of these, about 200,000 occur in those who have already had at least one previous heart attack.

Additionally, about 1 in 5 are silent heart attacks, which means a person does not realize they have had one. They may discover it on an unrelated health check appointment.

In the U.S., heart disease is the leading cause of death, with one person dying every 34 seconds from cardiovascular disease. The CDC lists smoking as a key risk factor for heart disease, which makes quitting smoking an important step in reducing someone’s risk of having another heart attack.

Is it a heart attack?

Heart attacks occur when there is a lack of blood supply to the heart. Symptoms include:

  • chest pain, pressure, or tightness
  • pain that may spread to arms, neck, jaw, or back
  • nausea and vomiting
  • sweaty or clammy skin
  • feeling of heartburn or indigestion
  • shortness of breath
  • coughing or wheezing
  • lightheadedness or dizziness
  • anxiety that can feel similar to a panic attack

If someone has these symptoms:

  1. Dial 911 or the number of the nearest emergency department.
  2. Stay with them until the emergency services arrive.

If a person stops breathing before emergency services arrive, perform manual chest compressions:

  1. Lock fingers together and place the base of hands in the center of the chest.
  2. Position shoulders over hands and lock elbows.
  3. Press hard and fast, at a rate of 100–120 compressions per minute, to a depth of 2 inches.
  4. Continue these movements until the person starts to breathe or move.
  5. If needed, swap over with someone else without pausing compressions.

Use an automatic external defibrillator (AED) available in many public places:

  1. An AED provides a shock that may restart the heart.
  2. Follow the instructions on the defibrillator or listen to the guided instructions.

Experts strongly recommend stopping smoking following a heart attack. Evidence suggests that quitting smoking before the age of 40 years can have up to a 90% reduction in the excess risk of death.

The following are some of the risks relating to smoking and heart attacks or heart disease.

Proinflammatory effects

Inflammation has links to cardiovascular disease. Smoking increases inflammation, which may contribute to stiffening and plaque buildup in the arteries. Plaque consists of cholesterol and other substances.

When a person stops smoking, many of the markers of inflammation begin to return to baseline levels.

Increased risk of atherosclerosis

Atherosclerosis occurs when the arteries narrow and become more rigid due to a buildup of plaque on the artery walls. This buildup leads to blockages that can cause a heart attack. Smoking increases the formation of plaque in a person’s blood vessels.

Smoking also has links with higher levels of low-density lipoprotein (LDL) and triglycerides and lower levels of high-density lipoprotein (HDL). Some people refer to LDL as “bad” cholesterol and HDL as “good” cholesterol.

Learn more about the difference between HDL and LDL.

Increased risk of clots

Blood clots can cause a blockage in a person’s blood vessels, resulting in a heart attack or stroke. The chemicals in cigarettes can lead to the formation of clots that may cause sudden death from a heart attack.

Increased risk of diabetes

Smoking can increase the risk of a person developing type 2 diabetes. People with type 2 diabetes who also smoke typically require more insulin. This combination increases the risk of heart disease, kidney disease, and blindness.

Increased mortality

According to the CDC, continuing to smoke following a diagnosis of cardiovascular disease increases the likelihood of a more negative outcome. It notes a person has an increased risk of:

  • premature death
  • cardiovascular related death
  • having another heart attack

Quitting smoking can help improve a person’s overall health and reduce their risk of experiencing another heart attack.

According to a 2019 observational study of almost 9,000 people, those who quit smoking reduced their risk of cardiovascular disease significantly compared with those who continued to smoke. However, their risk was still higher for 5–25 years after they quit compared with individuals who had never smoked.

The CDC indicates that even within 1 year, a person who has had a heart attack will see a reduction in their risk of future heart attacks.

In addition to heart related benefits, some other benefits of quitting smoking include:

  • an increase in life expectancy by up to 10 years
  • a reduced risk of certain cancers and chronic diseases
  • improved overall health and quality of life
  • better health for pregnant people and their babies
  • a reduced financial burden on the person who smokes and the healthcare system
  • a decreased risk of secondhand smoke for family, friends, coworkers, and others

By quitting smoking early, a person may improve their overall health. However, they should consider quitting at any age to see potential benefits to their overall health.

Someone interested in quitting may find that speaking with a doctor helps them develop a successful plan to stop smoking. Alternatively, they may find useful self-help resources from organizations such as the CDC.

Quitting smoking after a heart attack has several potential benefits. It can help reduce many of the risks relating to smoking and heart disease.

By quitting, individuals can reduce their overall risk of continued cardiovascular issues, improve their quality of life, and increase life expectancy, among other benefits.

A healthcare professional can offer further advice to people who wish to quit smoking.