A single cigarette contains nearly 7,000 chemicals, out of which at least 69 have been proven to be carcinogenic, states the World Health Organization (WHO). Besides being the leading cause of lung cancer, tobacco consumption also increases the risk of cancer in the oral regions (mouth and throat), stomach and urinary bladder. While quitting smoking is the ideal option to safeguard yourself, there are specific tests for smokers that can reveal their health status. Experts say that while test results may not show any deviation from the normal parameters during the early years, the burden imposed by cigarettes starts to reflect gradually as one ages.
Can the lungs recover after you quit smoking?
Dr Satyanarayana Mysore, HOD & consultant – pulmonology and lung transplantation, Manipal Hospitals, Bangalore, points out that while quitting smoking improves one’s quality of life, the damage to the lungs cannot be completely reversed. “Smoking does not affect the large airways of the lungs, but the tiniest ones. If a person quits smoking, its effects may be experienced 20 years later. The inflammation of the tiny airways continues even after quitting smoking,” he explains.
However, he adds that while the lungs can recover to some extent, the cells can regenerate. “There are several studies which show that some of the repaired cells regenerate, and the process of rejuvenation causes a problem. In the long run, people become susceptible to pulmonary fibrosis, a lung condition that affects the tissues around the air sacs,” he notes, emphasizing that no amount of smoking is safe.
How tobacco affects your body
Dr Sachin Kumar, senior consultant, pulmonology & critical care medicine, Sakra World Hospital, Bangalore, explains, “Inhaling the carcinogenic chemicals in cigarettes and other tobacco-based products damages one’s windpipe and body cells. It affects their genetic composition, increasing the risk of tumors. These tumor cells multiply rapidly and uncontrollably, increasing the risk of lung cancer.”
Agreeing with him, Dr Mysore, who’s a staunch advocate of a cigarette-free lifestyle, adds that most smokers (including those who quit) may not show any symptoms except for the occasional cough. “However, this does not rule out serious lung conditions in the future, especially pulmonary fibrosis,” he notes.
Tests for smokers to assess health risks
According to Dr Kumar, those with a history of tobacco use are at higher risk of cardiac issues, hypertension, impaired muscle growth, high cholesterol levels and kidney complications. Additionally, gastric issues, irritability and loss of sleep can also be related to smoking. He adds that the risk of developing lung issues, even among those who quit smoking, persists for at least 15 years. Hence, it’s important to get screened regularly during that time period.
Proactive screening and regular health check-ups can help in the early detection of lung cancer and other health conditions, says Dr Mysore. Some essential tests that smokers should undergo to keep track of their health status include:
This test measures one’s lung function by checking the amount of air that’s inhaled and exhaled with ease and quickness.
♦ Chest X-ray
A chest X-ray helps detect any blockages in the blood vessels of the lungs and heart. It can also show congestion in the lungs. “In rare cases, a chest X-ray may show nodules or shadows, which could be suspected as tumors. In such cases, doctors recommend bronchoscopy, a test that uses a camera to examine the windpipe for an in-depth diagnosis,” explains Dr Kumar.
Spirometry and a chest X-ray are mandatory once a year for active smokers in the age group of 40–65 years and those with a history of smoking (even if they’ve quit).
♦ Electrocardiogram (ECG or EKG)
Smoking increases one’s heart rate, putting them at higher risk of heart attacks, blocked arteries (resulting from constriction of blood vessels) and arrhythmia (an irregular heartbeat), explains Dr Kumar.
ECGs, which record the electrical activity of the heart, help detect heart issues by revealing patterns indicative of heart stress or ischemia, explains Dr Prashant Chhajed, senior consultant, chest medicine, Nanavati Max Hospital, Mumbai. “Habitual smokers, tobacco users or second-hand smokers above the age of 40, those exposed to smoke through vehicular or industrial fumes and those with underlying respiratory complications must undergo regular ECG tests for preventive care,” advises Dr Chhajed.
♦ Blood sugar test
“Smokers are highly susceptible to developing type 2 diabetes, as nicotine affects insulin sensitivity, disrupting the body’s ability to regulate blood sugar levels. Thus, blood sugar tests are needed,” explains Dr Chhajed.
♦ Vitamin D test
Smokers are vulnerable to vitamin D deficiency despite abundant sun exposure, as smoking interferes with the body’s ability to absorb this crucial vitamin. “Low levels of vitamin D can lead to weak bones and a compromised immune system, putting one at higher risk of developing bone and respiratory infections,” adds Dr Chhajed. Hence, it’s essential to get this blood test done.
♦ CT scans
A low-dose computed tomography (LDCT) scan, specifically used to diagnose lung cancer and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), can show in-depth images of the lungs, says Dr Chhajed. A 2021 report on lung cancer screening published by the US Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF) recommends CT scans for:
- Those in the age group of 50–80 years who have a smoking history of 20 packs per year
- Those who have quit smoking within the past 15 years
“People exposed to certain chemicals or fumes are also advised to undergo LDCT scans,” explains Dr Chhajed. Dr Kumar warns, “CT scans should only be performed on a clinician’s suggestion and must be low dose to avoid unnecessary exposure to radiation.”
Awareness and a healthy lifestyle can help
People who lay off cigarettes are not out of harm’s way. They are at risk of certain conditions (pulmonary fibrosis), irrespective of the number of cigarettes smoked, says Dr Mysore. “One may not be safe even if their lung X-ray and other tests turn out to be normal,” he cautions.
According to him, educating people about smoking hazards and appointing smoking cessation counselors in hospitals will help. Those who have quit smoking should work out and practice breathing exercises on a regular basis. In addition, a healthy diet will also help reduce further health damage, advises Dr Mysore.
- Besides several forms of cancer, smokers are highly susceptible to cardiac issues, hypertension, high cholesterol levels and kidney conditions.
- According to experts, while quitting smoking can improve one’s quality of life, the damage to the lungs cannot be reversed. Even if one quits smoking, the risk of lung conditions persists for at least 15 years.
- Regular health check-ups can help in the early detection of lung cancer and other health conditions. Smokers, as well as those who have quit, should undergo tests like spirometry, chest X-ray, ECG, etc., to keep track of their health status.