Smoking and its associated risks to human health have been a topic of concern in the medical field and society at large for as long as the activity has been popular. Smoking has consistently been linked to the increase in various chronic health issues globally; and sadly, quite a number of these ailments affect more women than men. In 2020, a report by the World Health Organization (WHO) revealed that tobacco kills more than 8 million people yearly, and over 7 million of those deaths result from different chronic illnesses directly attributed to the use of tobacco. While 1.2 million of the total deaths recorded are non-smokers being exposed to second-hand smoke. With these alarming figures, the adverse effect of smoking on human health cannot be ignored.
Harmful Effects of Smoking
From a health and wellness standpoint, there is no benefit to smoking whatsoever. Smoking has been known to cause major damage to almost every organ in the human body, key of which are the brain, lungs, kidneys, liver, heart, blood vessels, reproductive organs, digestive organs, skin, hair, eyes, mouth, bones, and bladders. The majority of the time, these damages are irreparable and fatal.
Although the act of habitual smoking is more common in men, a large number of health hazards related to smoking develop faster in women, putting them at a higher risk than men. While some of these diseases may develop shortly after the habit is picked up, others take time to surface. Nevertheless, it is almost certain that any smoker will develop not one, but several of these diseases; and unfortunately, women are at far more at risk than men of experiencing health complications from smoking.
In addition to this, it has been discovered that addiction to nicotine, a potent chemical in tobacco and therefore one of the main ingredients of cigarettes, tends to develop faster in women than in men. What this means for women is a quicker addiction to smoking and a higher chance of developing smoking-related diseases than men. Although nicotine is a harmful component in tobacco, it is not solely responsible for the havoc tobacco wrecks on the human body. Tobacco and its smoke contain thousands of chemicals and toxins, that, when combined can cause chronic illnesses and eventual death.
Impact of Smoking on Women’s Health
The internal and external body structures which are unique to females put them more at risk of easily developing diseases caused by harmful toxins ingested via smoking. Highlighted below are the 10 most commonly found health conditions in women who smoke.
Studies show that women who smoke are at a higher risk of developing cervical cancer, an especially fatal form of cancer. Furthermore, female smokers risk a 40 percent higher chance of developing vulvar cancer, a devastating type of gynecological cancer, than other women. This type of cancer occurs as a lump or sore on the outer surface of the female genitalia. Alongside the possibility of developing these kinds of cancer from smoking, women who smoke increase their exposure to other gender-specific types of cancer, a common one being breast cancer. In Breast Cancer Research, findings have revealed that young and premenopausal women who smoke are at a higher risk of developing breast cancer. Smoking, in general, has also been linked to various kinds of non-gender specific cancers such as that of the throat, liver, lungs, kidneys, and other organs used for breathing and the cleansing of toxins.
2. Cardiovascular Diseases
Smoking is a huge threat to the proper functioning of the human cardiovascular system. Coronary Artery Disease, CAD, is one of the major cardiovascular diseases that are more likely to plague smokers than non-smokers. Coronary Artery Disease occurs when blood vessels that feed the heart are blocked or narrowed, resulting in an increased chance of rupture leading to internal bleeding, which is very fatal.
It has been shown that female blood vessels age faster and bleed more than male blood vessels, making Coronary Artery Disease even more life-threatening to women who smoke than their male counterparts. Compared to male individuals who smoke, a female smoker has a far greater risk of dying from an abdominal aortic aneurysm, which is a weakening of the main blood vessel that transports blood from the heart to the body. As such, studies in cardiovascular health have revealed that women over the age of 35 who smoke face a significantly higher risk of dying from heart diseases compared to men who smoke.
Smoking throws a wrench into the process of female reproduction, from altering menstrual and ovulation cycles, to possibly hindering conception, as well as affecting fetal gestation. Studies show that women who smoke are more likely to experience irregular or painful periods than women who don’t. In addition, studies on the impact of nicotine on the human body have revealed that its presence in a woman’s system impacts the function of the fallopian tubes by hindering an egg from travelling properly to the uterus, leading to life-threatening conditions like an ectopic or tubal pregnancy. In a nutshell, women who smoke are more likely to face difficulties in conceiving or having normal and safe pregnancies.
4. Respiratory Diseases
A large number of respiratory diseases are a result of the harmful toxins deposited in respiratory organs from cigarette smoke. People who smoke are more prone to chronic irreversible lung conditions such as emphysema, chronic bronchitis, and Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD). Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease is an inflammatory lung disease that obstructs airflow from the lungs, making it hard to breathe. This disease has no cure and causes the affected individual to deteriorate over time. Women are more likely to develop severe COPD at younger ages than men, and more women than men die annually from the disease.
Another respiratory condition that can be triggered by smoking is asthma, swelling of the airway resulting in its partial blockage. According to a study conducted on a group of Canadian citizens, it was discovered that the presence of asthma in female smokers was 9.3 percent compared to that in male smokers which stood at 6.6 percent.
5. Integumentary System Diseases
The Integumentary system comprises the skin, hair, and nails. Notwithstanding gender, people who smoke are faced with difficulties in maintaining their integumentary system. Smoking prevents oxygen from reaching the skin and toxins in tobacco smoke change the structure of the skin, causing coarseness, wrinkling, and uneven skin tones. The risk of a particular type of skin cancer called squamous cell carcinoma is also increased, as is the likelihood of fungal nail infections. Lastly, and exclusively to women, nicotine can cause major hair loss, balding, and early greying.
6. Hormonal Imbalance
Two important hormones in the female body are estrogen and progesterone, and these are greatly affected when nicotine and other chemicals derived from tobacco are present in the system. Smoking affects estrogen levels in women, especially later in life when they reach their post-menopausal stages. These low estrogen levels can lead to several symptoms such as hot flashes, mood swings, and breast tenderness. Smoking inhibits the production of progesterone which helps in stabilizing menstrual cycles and preparing the body for pregnancy. Also, nicotine and some other components of tobacco smoke result in different endocrine imbalances, taking their toll on the pituitary, thyroid, adrenal and ovarian functions.
7. Bladder Conditions
Smoking puts strain on the bladder and alters the urgency and frequency of urination. Urinary Incontinence, which refers to ‘leaking of urine’ and Overactive Bladder (OAB) affects over 33 million men and women who smoke. In women who smoke this leads to a lot of irritation in the bladder and raises the risk of developing Interstitial Cystitis (IC) or Painful Bladder Syndrome. This condition, which is a chronic bladder health issue, is said to affect more women than men; and around 12 percent of women have early signs of this ailment. It is also important to note that smoking heightens the risk of developing kidney stones, which are anomalies that affect the urinary tract.
8. Cerebrovascular Diseases
Increased risk of cerebrovascular diseases such as strokes, or bleeds in the brain, can be linked to prolonged smoking habits. Notably, this also increases the risk of developing dementia. People who smoke are also at greater risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease because the harmful toxins in tobacco smoke drive up oxidative stress and inflammation, which have been identified as part of the factors which cause Alzheimer’s disease. Smokers are also exposed to other vascular diseases like blood clots, Peripheral Artery Disease, PAD, critical limb-threatening ischemia, and deep vein thrombosis.
The chemicals in tobacco combined with the toxins in smoke tamper with the proper functioning of the human heart, as well as the structure of blood vessels. Toxins from cigarette smoke can damage blood cells over time, leading to the development of diseases of the arteries like atherosclerosis. Atherosclerosis is a condition where a wax-like substance called plaque builds up in the arteries. The buildup of this plaque inside the blood vessels causes them to narrow and prevents sufficient blood from reaching the heart. This in turn can damage the heart, and cause chronic fatigue or weakness in the body.
10. Early Menopause
Women who smoke are more likely to reach menopause earlier than women who don’t smoke, because tobacco toxins reduce circulating estrogen, pushing the body into menopause faster than normal. Studies have shown that smokers often notice symptoms of menopause two to three years earlier than nonsmokers.
Where it comes to the dangers of smoking for human health, the list is endless. As a result, health experts have continued to stress the urgent need for smokers to be provided with ways of quitting this harmful habit. However, the responsibility ultimately lies with those who are stuck with the habit to either make a decision of tracing their steps back to good health or living a life burdened with a myriad of chronic and fatal health conditions.
Stay healthy and happy!
If you are thinking of quitting smoking, check out this resourceful piece for great tips- Harvard Health Publishing: What’s the Best Way to Quit Smoking?
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