How harmful is smoking really?

Smoking affects the body in far more ways than just increasing the lung cancer risk. Harmful substances also attack other organs. Despite this knowledge, quitting can be hard as nicotine is addictive.

22.01.2020 Lara Brunner 3 minutes

Nearly one in three people over the age of 15 smoke. The most recent Swiss Health Survey by the Federal Statistical Office in 2017 revealed that 15 to 24-year-olds smoke the most. In Switzerland, around 9,500 people die from the effects of tobacco consumption every year. Smokers live an average of ten years less than non-smokers. The most common cause of death is lung cancer.

Tobacco smoke: what does it contain?

Tobacco smoke consists of a number of toxins and gases such as nitrogen and carbon dioxide. These have a negative effect on the body:

  • Carbon monoxide: impaired oxygen uptake in the body
  • Hydrocyanic acid: headache, dizziness, vomiting
  • Nitrogen oxide: irritated airways
  • Ammonia: irritated eyes and airways
  • Formaldehyde: carcinogenic

Various solid particles, such as tar, are also found in tobacco smoke. Tar contains a number of carcinogenic substances, including hydrocarbons, phenols and benzene.

Health consequences

The harmful substances in tobacco smoke are distributed through the bloodstream to the entire body. They attack organs such as the lungs, oesophagus and pancreas, where they impair the body’s own defences against cancer cells, which in turn increases the risk of developing cancer. What's more, smoking weakens the effect of chemotherapy and other cancer treatments.

In addition to lung cancer, smoking can also cause chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and tuberculosis. It increases the risk of cardiovascular diseases. The blood vessels and coronary arteries constrict, circulatory problems occur and there is even the risk of stroke.

The mental effects should not be ignored: initial studies indicate that smokers have more psychological disorders than non-smokers.

Smoking has a negative effect on the overall state of health. Wounds heal more slowly, smokers have more respiratory problems and are they more likely to suffer broken bones.

How nicotine addiction happens

Even a single cigarette can lead to addiction. When tobacco smoke is inhaled, it passes through the lungs directly into the bloodstream, where it travels through the blood vessels to all of the organs. The harmful substances found in cigarettes are especially dangerous for the body. However, nicotine creates the addiction. It only takes between 9 and 19 seconds for nicotine to reach the brain once it is inhaled. There, it releases various neurotransmitters that make us feel good, enable us to concentrate better and also help us feel relaxed and level-headed. As soon as we stop consuming nicotine, withdrawal symptoms appear. Our mood and ability to concentrate deteriorate. We become irritable and anxious. As a result, there is a strong craving for more right after the next cigarette.

The psychological addiction should also not be discounted: smoking a cigarette after lunch or during one’s coffee break quickly becomes a habit. This makes it even more difficult to quit.

Take a dependency test

The Fagerström Test uses six questions to assess how strong your physical dependency is. This can help you better plan measures to quit smoking.

Reducing tobacco consumption: is it helpful or not?

Reducing tobacco consumption only has a minimal positive effect on health. Even smoking just a few cigarettes a day increases the risk of developing smoking-related illnesses. Moreover, the quantity of consumed tobacco smoke often barely decreases: the number of cigarettes smoked may decline – but the tobacco smoke is inhaled all the more deeply in return.

Potential withdrawal symptoms

When you quit smoking, you should expect a number of negative sensations such as irritability, anxiety and trouble concentrating. These are common symptoms of nicotine withdrawal. Withdrawal also causes stress, which can in turn lead to nausea and constipation. As the bronchi start to clear up after quitting, the potential symptoms also include sore throat and cough with sputum. It is important to eat a balanced diet and to get plenty of exercise in order to prevent weight gain, as nicotine suppresses the appetite and causes the body to burn more calories and these effects disappear after quitting.

How to quit smoking

These tips will help you quit smoking. You will also learn how this will impact your health.

Read more

Become smoke-free with the quit smoking plan
Do you want your next cigarette to be your last? This quit smoking plan will make giving up easier.
March 28, 2023 3 minutes

Lung cancer – primarily caused by smoking
Lung cancer is often only detected at an advanced stage. Its primary cause is smoking. The sooner you can stop smoking, the better.
February 13, 2017 3 minutes

What is COPD?
COPD is a serious lung disease that is often only identified when it has reached an advanced stage. Smoking is the primary cause of COPD.
February 13, 2019 2 minutes


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