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The Effects of Smoking on Respiration

Normal human respiration in the absence of cigarette smoking draws oxygen from the air, sends it to the cells of the body, and expels the waste product carbon dioxide. Tobacco use changes the amount of oxygen in the blood and the force with which it travels. This alters a person's metabolic rate and efficiency. The body must work harder to achieve respiration adequate for cell growth and maintenance. Over time, this stress can cause health problems that affect many vital body functions.

The nicotine in cigarettes reaches the brain seconds after it is inhaled and acts on the nerves that regulate breathing, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse. Individuals with asthma or other breathing disorders may have more severe attacks after smoke contact, while otherwise healthy respiratory systems compensate temporarily for the extra stress. Health problems develop when the body responds by producing more mucus than usual, which the cilia in healthy airways sweep into the digestive tract. Cilia damaged by tobacco use, however, can't perform this function, and the mucus obstructs their inhalation. A "smoker's cough" develops to eject this material as phlegm, indicating the onset of chronic bronchitis.

Breathing stress and the toxins in cigarette smoke eventually affect tobacco users' lung tissue. The weakened lungs also sustain more frequent viral and bacterial infections, report the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which may further damage and scar the lungs. Longtime cigarette smoking degrades the elasticity of the alveoli, or air sacs that are directly involved in oxygen and carbon dioxide exchange. The American Lung Association, ALA reports that this irreversible condition, emphysema, severely obstructs breathing. Holes form in the more rigid alveoli, reducing their efficiency. Health problems include shortness of breath, specifically characterized by difficulty in exhaling.

Oxygen Transfer
These effects on respiration link cigarette smoking with the body's limited tolerance for exercise, the ALA notes. The inability to move a full load of oxygen into the bloodstream slowly starves the cells. This health problem can become exacerbated if tobacco use continues, because the carbon monoxide in smoke binds with blood cells, usurping the space normally reserved for oxygen. Cardiovascular stress from smoking combines with low-oxygen conditions to create pulmonary hypertension, or high blood pressure in the loop between the lungs and heart. Smokers may have trouble breathing during physical exertion, such as in climbing stairs or walking any distance. The American Heart Association relates that the total effect of decreased oxygen transfer can be heart failure, which may be fatal.

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