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The effects of smoking

This information was published by Bupa's health information team and is based on reputable sources of medical evidence. It has been peer reviewed by Bupa doctors. The content is intended for general information only and does not replace the need for personal advice from a qualified health professional. 

Smoking causes serious health problems, many of them life-threatening. 

Smoking is by far the greatest avoidable risk for developing many types of cancer including throat, mouth, oesophagus, lung, stomach, kidney, bladder and cervical (neck of the womb). It’s also linked to some types of leukaemia (cancer of the white blood cells).

Key facts

  • About nine out of 10 lung cancers are caused by smoking, either directly or through passive smoking.
  • If you smoke, you’re approximately three times more likely to develop bladder cancer than someone who has never smoked.
  • Hand-rolled cigarettes have a greater effect than manufactured ones on your risk of developing mouth cancer.

Smoking damages your blood vessels and increases your risk of heart disease and stroke. It can also affect how well your blood, and therefore oxygen, flows around your body – for example, you may notice you often have cold hands and feet, which is a result of not enough blood getting to them.

Key facts

  • If you smoke 20 or more cigarettes a day, your risk of having a stroke can be up to six times that of a non-smoker.
  • If you’re under 40 and a smoker, you’re five times more likely to have a heart attack than a non-smoker of the same age.
  • Smoking makes you up to 16 times more likely to develop blocked blood vessels in your legs or feet. This can lead to gangrene (where tissues in your body die) and possibly the need for amputation.
  • The risk of developing a blood clot (deep vein thrombosis, DVT) is greater if you smoke. If you’re a woman who smokes and you’re taking the contraceptive pill, you’re nearly nine times more likely to develop DVT than a woman who doesn’t smoke and doesn’t take the contraceptive pill.

It’s hardly surprising that if you’re regularly breathing in smoke, your airways can become damaged, making it harder for you to get air in and out of your lungs. When your lungs are damaged in this way, it’s called chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). COPD describes a number of long-term lung conditions that cause breathing difficulties, the main two of which are bronchitis and emphysema. Smoking can also mean that if you get flu, you’re more likely to develop complications.

Key facts

  • Nearly nine out of 10 people who die from COPD are smokers.
  • If you smoke, you’re more likely to get pneumonia – the more you smoke, and the longer you have smoked, the greater your risk.
  • Children of parents who smoke are more likely to have asthma or other breathing problems.

It might be news to you but smoking can seriously affect your sex life and both men’s and women’s fertility. It can also harm your unborn child during pregnancy and after he or she is born.

Key facts

  • Smoking not only makes men more likely to have erectile dysfunction, but it also damages sperm and reduces how much of it is produced.
  • If you smoke and are taking the contraceptive pill, you’re 20 times more likely to have a heart attack than a woman who doesn’t smoke.
  • On average, women who smoke go through the menopause two years earlier than women who don’t smoke.
  • Smoking reduces fertility in both men and women, meaning it’s likely to take longer for you to conceive.
  • If you’re having fertility treatment such as in vitro fertilisation (IVF), smoking can affect how successful this is.

One of the most noticeable effects of smoking is how it affects your appearance. It also reduces your sense of taste and smell, and that smoky odour that clings to your hair and clothes isn’t very attractive either.

Key facts

  • Smoking can prematurely age your skin by between 10 and 20 years, and you’re more likely to have facial wrinkles at a younger age.
  • The tar in cigarettes stains your fingers and teeth, so they become discoloured and yellow.
  • If you smoke, you’re more likely to store fat around your waist rather than around your hips. Having this body shape, in which you have a high waist-to-hip ratio, is linked to a higher risk of developing type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure and heart disease.
  • If you smoke, you’re two to three times more likely to develop psoriasis than a non-smoker. Psoriasis is a skin condition that causes patches of inflamed skin.
If you smoke and you need an operation – whether it’s related to smoking or not – your body will take longer to repair itself afterwards, and you may be more at risk of complications, such as DVT, both during and after the surgery. This means a longer recovery period with more time in hospital and off work.
The good news is that it’s never too late to stop smoking, and when you do, the risks to your health drop dramatically. Within a month of quitting, your appearance will improve. After one year, your risk of heart attack is cut in half compared with that of a smoker. And if you stay a non-smoker for 10 years, you will also reduce your risk of lung cancer by half compared with someone who smokes.

Further information

Sources

  • Smoking statistics. ASH. www.ash.org.uk, published May 2012
  • People ignorant of cancers caused by smoking. CancerHelp UK (Cancer Research UK). http://cancerresearchuk.org, published June 2012
  • Smoking and respiratory disease. ASH. www.ash.org.uk , published February 2011
  • Bladder cancer – risk factors. CancerHelp UK (Cancer Research UK). http://cancerresearchuk.org, published January 2012
  • Roll-your-own cigarettes as deadly as ready mades. CancerHelp UK (Cancer Research UK). www.cancerresearchuk.org , published July 2009
  • Smoking and the risk of stroke. Stroke Association. www.stroke.org.uk , published April 2012
  • Smoking, the heart and circulation. ASH. www.ash.org.uk , published March 2011
  • Pomp ER, Rosendaal FR, Doggen CJM. Smoking increases the risk of venous thrombosis and acts synergistically with oral contraceptive use. Am J Hematol 2008; 83:97–102. doi:10.1002/ajh.21059
  • 2009 Influenza A (H1N1) virus. BMJ Best Practice. www.bestpractice.bmj.com , published December 2011
  • Smoking and reproduction. ASH. www.ash.org.uk , published February 2011
  • How quitting smoking benefits your body. Men’s Health Forum. www.menshealthforum.org.uk , published May 2011
  • Smoking and pregnancy. Substance.org. www.substance.org.au , published May 2012
  • How smoking affects the way you look. ASH. www.ash.org.uk , published November 2009
  • Moller AM, Villebro N. Interventions for preoperative smoking cessation. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews 2005, Issue 3. doi:10.1002/14651858.CD002294.pub2
  • Stopping smoking: the benefits and aids to quitting. ASH. www.ash.org.uk , published July 2009

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