Smoking and COPD

Lighting up is the leading cause of this pulmonary disease

Smoking is an unhealthy habit for many reasons, not the least of which is that it causes irreversible lung damage that defines chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). In fact, smoking is the leading cause of this life-threatening pulmonary disease; according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), smoking accounts for 80% of all COPD-related deaths.

Once you are diagnosed with COPD, your doctor will strongly suggest that you quit smoking to slow down the progression of your lung disease. In fact, smoking cessation is the most effective strategy for preventing further decline.

Affect on Your Lungs

Among people who smoke, chronic lung disease accounts for 73% of all smoking-related illnesses. In former smokers, chronic lung disease accounts for 50% of all smoking-related conditions. That's because smoking causes a number of different harmful reactions in the lungs. Each of these can contribute to COPD.

When you smoke, your lungs become inflamed. The inflammation damages lung tissue, causing it to thicken. Thickened bronchi (airways) obstruct air as you inhale and exhale, causing the symptoms of COPD. Resulting oxygen deprivation makes you feel short of breath and exhausted, and your risk of lung infections increases.

The harmful chemicals introduced to your lungs when you smoke lead to cellular changes that permanently interfere with your airway expansion and contraction. The resulting lung stiffness further contributes to shortness of breath and exercise intolerance.

Smoking continues to damage the lungs even after COPD develops, worsening the disease and triggering exacerbations (sudden airway narrowing and severe respiratory distress). Exacerbations can be life-threatening and can add to underlying disease severity.

In addition to this, smoking induces an abrupt elevation of chemicals in the blood that are linked with COPD-associated death.

Other Smoking-Related Illnesses

Smoking is a known risk factor for a number of diseases, including lung cancer, heart disease, stroke, breast cancer, stomach cancer, esophageal cancer, and osteoporosis.

Some of these—such as heart disease and lung cancer—cause dyspnea (shortness of breath) and fatigue that amplify the symptoms of COPD.

Each year, 450,000 Americans lose their lives to smoking-related illnesses. This represents one in five deaths, making it the leading preventable cause of death in the U.S.

The Impact of Quitting

Smoking cessation is an important part of managing COPD and of preventing the disease from worsening. People who have COPD and continue to smoke are more likely to need higher medication doses, use urgent rescue inhalers, have more exacerbations, and experience an overall worsening of the disease and a decline in health.

Lung function declines naturally with age, but stopping smoking will slow the decline.

The best time to quit smoking once you are diagnosed with COPD is as soon as possible.

Smoking Cessation: Where to Begin

It's important to recognize that the process of quitting smoking isn't easy while remembering that it is entirely worthwhile. Since quitting can be a challenge, you may be more successful in your efforts if you ask for professional guidance to help you through the process.

There are a variety of cessation strategies you can consider, from using medication to drawing strength from support groups and therapy. Start by talking to your doctor about the best method for you. You might benefit from a carefully designed combination of approaches.

Medication

Your doctor might prescribe nicotine replacement therapy in the form of a patch or a pill to help you avoid nicotine withdrawal symptoms as you work on getting over your smoking habit.

Keep in mind that some prescription medications used in smoking cessation might not be safe for you if you have a systemic disease, such as heart disease or vascular disease.

Therapy

Counseling and behavioral approaches can help you understand your feelings about smoking. You can also learn to shift your mindset and use strategies like meditation to cope with the challenges of smoking cessation.

In fact, mindfulness has been shown to induce changes in the brain that are associated with success in smoking cessation.

Lifestyle Strategies

It might help to make other healthy changes while you are quitting smoking. Exercising keeps you busy and improves your mood, alleviating some of the negative feelings associated with smoking cessation. Keep in mind that if smoking is a social activity for you, exercising with other people can help fill that void. Speak to your doctor before beginning a new exercise routine.

Adding healthy habits like drinking more water and eating nutritious food can help replace the habit of smoking at certain times as well.

Websites and Support Groups

Websites like smokefree.gov, Better Breathers Club, and COPD360social can offer tools to help you quit.

No support program has everything or is right for everyone. So you can "shop around" to look for characteristics that are right for you, such as help with pacing your program, setting goals, tracking strategies that work for you, keeping a journal, and live support. Several of these sites even facilitate networking with others.

Local and online support groups may provide a social network, encouragement, advice, and friendships that can help you feel that you aren't alone in this challenging journey.

Obstacles to Quitting

There are a number of things that get in the way of quitting, including a lack of motivation to quit, enjoying smoking, withdrawal symptoms, and the difficulty of leaving the habit behind.

Acknowledge these challenges and discuss them with your doctor.

Lack of Motivation

There's no question that quitting has to be your choice. You might feel that everyone is telling you to quit smoking, but you might not be so convinced about it yourself.

Smoking cessation is not something that anyone can do for you. You have to do it yourself.

There is an abundant amount of scientific evidence that smoking is harmful. If you are not convinced that it's time to make the change, consider examining how long you plan to continue smoking and make a realistic timeline of the financial and health costs. Your doctor may be able to help with the latter.

Doing this and seeing this information in black and white may help motivate you to see the value in quitting.

Smoking Is a Habit

There may be certain times of the day when you like to smoke, or friends or places that you associate with smoking.

Stopping requires a new mind frame and an acceptance that you can enjoy life even if you don't smoke at specific times, with certain people, or in certain locations.

Giving up a habit often involves replacing it with a new routine—such as walking or knitting or volunteering—with the same friends you used to smoke with or with different friends.

Withdrawal Symptoms

Even if you decide to stop smoking, the withdrawal symptoms—which include irritability, anxiety, jitteriness, trouble concentrating, and changes in appetite—can be unpleasant enough to make you turn back to smoking.

Withdrawal symptoms are temporary, but they can make you feel miserable for days and lag for up to two months. You don't have to put up with these symptoms. Medication and/or anxiety reduction therapy can help minimize or alleviate the effects of nicotine withdrawal.

Smoking Is Comforting for You

The reason that smoking is such a habit-forming addiction is that it induces a sense of enjoyment and relaxation for some people. It can be hard to give that up.

When you are stressed or anxious, you might not have another way to deal with your feelings other than smoking. And you might want to keep getting that enjoyment and pleasure that you get from smoking.

Behavioral therapy or counseling might be helpful as you deal with losing these positive feelings that you get from smoking.

A Word From Verywell

Smoking cessation is a powerful step in preventing your COPD from getting worse. Yet, according to the CDC, 38% of adults diagnosed with COPD continue to smoke. Acknowledge that you need to move forward on a path to a healthier life and that you need help to do it. Smoking is a medical problem—quitting involves medical guidance and support.

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