Reaching for that next cigarette can put you at increased risk of cardiovascular conditions. Nicotine, a highly addictive chemical present in tobacco, along with other harmful carcinogens (cancer-causing substances), trigger inflammation in the blood vessels. This can cause high blood pressure, increased heart rate and narrowing of the arteries, which in turn can lead to serious heart conditions, including heart attacks.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), 1.9 million people die from tobacco-induced heart diseases every year. This corresponds to one in every five deaths resulting from such ailments.
Dr Arun Kalyanasundaram, director & chief cardiologist, Promed Hospital, Chennai, says people usually associate smoking with lung disorders. However, it has a significant impact on the heart as well. Smoking directly affects the lining of the heart and promotes inflammation inside the body, including the blood vessels. “Smoking can increase your blood pressure. It makes the heart work harder and causes the blood to become thicker,” he explains.
Cardiovascular conditions caused by smoking
The main cardiac complications that can result from smoking are:
1. Coronary heart disease
Dr Pradeep G Nayar, interventional cardiologist, Fortis Malar Hospital, Chennai, says chemicals in cigarette smoke can give rise to coronary heart disease (also known as coronary artery disease), characterized by inflammation and constriction of the arteries. “There are multiple inflammatory chemicals in cigarette smoke that affect the inner lining of blood vessels and cause inflammation. This causes plaque buildup in the arteries [known as atherosclerosis], due to which the blood vessels become narrow over time. As a result, there’s reduced blood flow to the heart, which increases the risk of several cardiovascular conditions, including coronary heart disease,” he explains.
2. Peripheral arterial disease (PAD)
PAD is a condition where the narrowing of the arteries causes a reduction in blood flow to the arms or legs (usually to the legs). “The chemicals present in cigarette smoke can cause a buildup of cholesterol and other fatty materials in the arteries. Eventually, the buildup starts to clog the arteries, leading to poor blood flow to the lower limbs,” explains Dr Kalyanasundaram. The symptoms of PAD can include leg pain while walking as well as numbness and skin color changes in the legs.
Arrhythmia or an irregular heartbeat occurs when your heart beats either too fast (tachycardia) or too slow (bradycardia).
Constituents of cigarette or tobacco smoke like nicotine and carbon monoxide cause oxidative stress and induce fibrosis (scarring of the heart muscle), which are likely to contribute to the development of arrhythmias.
4. Heart attack
Smoking is a major risk factor for heart attacks. According to Dr Kalyanasundaram, it can damage the heart and blood vessels. The plaque that builds up in the arteries can sometimes rupture and form blood clots. If a clot develops within the coronary artery, blood flow to the heart is blocked, which in turn can cut off the oxygen supply. This puts a smoker at increased risk of heart attacks.
5. Heart failure
Heart failure occurs when the heart isn’t able to pump enough oxygen-rich blood to meet the body’s demands. Atherosclerosis caused by the harmful chemicals (like nicotine) present in cigarettes puts additional strain on the heart due to restricted blood flow. This weakens the heart muscles over time, says Dr Nayar. “Smoking also raises the blood pressure and heart rate. The poor blood supply and weakening of heart muscles increase the risk of heart failure,” he notes.
Secondhand smoking: The threat often ignored
Experts point out that those exposed to secondhand smoke are equally at risk of developing heart complications and brain strokes. People who take in secondhand smoke at home or work have a 25 to 30 percent higher risk of developing heart conditions. Exposure to secondhand smoke can damage the blood vessels, increasing the risk of heart attacks, coronary heart disease and lung cancer in non-smokers. “The risk of developing health conditions due to secondhand smoking is approximately equal to that of someone who smokes,” says Dr Nayar.
Benefits of quitting smoking
Dr Nayar lists the following benefits of quitting smoking:
- Not smoking for two years reduces the risk of heart attacks to that of a non-smoker.
- Within five years of quitting, smokers lower their risk of stroke to that of an individual who has never smoked.
- Within ten years, the risk of lung cancer is reduced to that of a non-smoker.