What Do Smoker’s Lungs Look Like?

smokers lungs, smoker's lungs, unhealthy lungsIn the United States alone, 480,000 people lose their lives to tobacco-related deaths every year. Worldwide, that number increases to 6 million. If you’re a lifetime smoker, the chances of you dying from an illness caused by smoking is approximately 50%. While many of us have heard the term “smoker’s lung,” understand what it means, and have even seen pictures, smoking remains the leading cause of preventable death worldwide.[1] What can we do about it? Understanding the health effects of smoking on your lungs and other organs in your body is a good place to start.

Smoker’s Lung Defined

The term “smoker’s lung” refers to the structural and functional abnormalities in the lungs caused by smoking. The chemicals found in cigarette smoke – nicotine, hydrogen cyanide, formaldehyde, lead, arsenic, ammonia, uranium and other radioactive elements, benzene, tar, carbon monoxide – are just some of the harmful chemicals responsible for causing smoker’s lung.[2]

Harmful Effects of Smoking on the Lungs

Cigarette smoking causes a large number of lung diseases, with lung cancer, emphysema and chronic bronchitis standing on the forefront.

Smoking and Emphysema

In emphysema, smoking destroys the walls of the alveoli (air sacs), the tiny, grape-like clusters responsible for gas exchange deep within the lungs. Consequently, the individual alveoli become larger, irregular in size and decrease in number. These large, irregular air spaces are less efficient than normal alveoli, impairing the diffusion of oxygen and carbon dioxide to and from the lungs. The more severe the damage to the lungs caused by emphysema, the poorer the gas exchange. Smoking also causes damage to tiny blood vessels called capillaries in the lungs, thus disrupting normal blood supply. The carcinogenic (cancer-causing) ingredients in cigarette smoke are inhaled deep into the lungs every time someone smokes. Over time, this particulate matter builds up, causing the lungs to go from being a healthy light pink to a morbid grey-black in color. In autopsies, smoker’s lung is visible to the naked eye.[3]

Smoking and Chronic Bronchitis

In chronic bronchitis, smoking causes irritation and inflammation in the airways, the tubes that carry air and oxygen to and from your lungs. When the airways become inflamed and irritated, thick mucus forms in them, plugging them up and making it more difficult to breathe. Over time, this thick mucus pools in the airways, becoming a breeding ground for infection. Thus the endless cycle of smoking, infection, more smoking and more infection causes the hallmark symptoms of chronic bronchitis: recurring infections, long-term cough, increased mucus production and labored breathing.[4]

Smoking and Lung Cancer

Lung cancer is by far, the leading cause of cancer deaths among both men and women worldwide, claiming the lives of 1.4 million people every year. Because cigarette smoke contains over 60 carcinogens and 200 other toxic substances, it is the leading cause of lung cancer, responsible for approximately 80% of all cases. If lung cancer is larger than an inch in diameter or has spread to other parts of the body, fewer than 50% of affected individuals will survive another 5 years.1

How to Quit Smoking

According to the American Lung Association (ALA), most smokers today know the harmful effects of smoking that also extend to the people around them. That said, many have a strong desire to quit but realize it’s going to be hard. The ALA urges people to figure out their reasons for wanting to quit and then take the necessary steps of quitting for good. Here are some smoking cessation tips they recommend to all smokers who want to quit:
quit smoking

  • Know your reason for quitting – figuring out the most important reasons you want to quit is an important first-step of quitting. To fully commit to this step, grab a pen and paper and jot it down. Post it on your refrigerator so you can see it every day.
  • Talk to your doctor – your doctor has expert knowledge about medications that can help you quit smoking. Once you decide to kick the habit, make an appointment with her to discuss your options.
  • Understand your expectations – is it reasonable to expect quitting smoking may be associated with some uncomfortable withdrawal symptoms? How long will it take you to quit? Quitting smoking is a journey; not one that’s based on a single event. Know your expectations and write them down, then discuss them with your doctor.
  • Don’t do it alone – the ALA has lots of options available to smokers who have a desire to quit. Visit their website to find out what those options are. You don’t have to do this alone.

To find out more about smoker’s lung, smoking cessation and quit smoking medications, talk to your primary care provider. Additionally, knowing your lung age may help you quit smoking.

[1] Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Tobacco-Related Mortality. Updated: August 18, 2015. 

[2] American Cancer Society. Harmful Chemicals in Tobacco Products. March 12, 2017.

[3] Fishbein, Michael C., MD. Smoker’s Lung Pathology Essay. Medicinenet.com. Accessed January 31, 2018.

[4] Smeltzer, Suzanne C. & Bare, Brenda, G. (1996).Brunnuerand Suddarth’sTestbookof Medical-Surgical Nursing(8th Edition). Pennsylvania, PA:Lipponcott-Raven Publisher

One thought on “What Do Smoker’s Lungs Look Like?”

  1. Elma Hagemeier says:

    I started smoking when I was about 14 years old. They didn't tell you it was harmful to you then. About 4 years ago, I was told I have severe COPD and I quit immediately with out any help. You can if you really want to quit.

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