No one who smokes these days does so without knowing that there are risks to their coronary and respiratory systems. For women, though, the risks may be greater and more specific. Women and smoking make up their own special category of health issues.
Are you a smoker, a former smoker, or hoping to stop your own daughter from picking up the habit? Find out exactly what smoking does to a woman's body.
You've likely already heard about the increased lung cancer risk that comes with smoking cigarettes, but were you aware that the lungs are only one of the organs that can be affected by the chemicals in cigarette smoke?
Female smokers not only run a greatly increased risk of lung cancer (as much as 80% according to some studies), but they are also more likely to develop a number of other cancers. Cancers of the mouth, esophagus and larynx, for example, all occur at much higher rates in female smokers than in nonsmokers.
While these cancers may not surprise you, women who smoke are also much more likely to develop bladder, kidney and uterine cancers than those who do not use cigarettes. In fact, women's reproductive organs are especially sensitive to carcinogens, meaning simply by being a woman you increase your cancer risk. Smoking amplifies that to an even greater magnitude.
The drive to keep women from smoking while pregnant comes from much more than a simple social taboo. In fact, the reproductive organs that are so sensitive to smoking otherwise are also very susceptible to issues related to fertility and pregnancy.
To begin with, if you are trying to conceive, you may negatively impact your fertility by being a smoker. Secondhand smoke is problematic for fertility, as well. In either case, you are exposed to chemicals that may hinder your ovulation, making it more difficult to get pregnant.
Once you become pregnant, the risks encompass your baby, as well. Smoking during pregnancy has been linked to vaginal bleeding, placental problems, ectopic pregnancy and even stillbirth. Assuming a successful pregnancy, babies born to mothers who smoke have a much higher incidence of birth defects. Your baby may be born premature or with a low birth weight, and may also experience other birth defects, including cleft palate.
It's important to keep your child away from secondhand smoke after he or she is born, as well. Babies' still-developing respiratory systems are extremely sensitive to the effects of being near smokers, with a documented rise in ear, nose and throat infections, and some studies even linking some SIDS deaths with secondhand smoke exposure.
Even if everything you've read here is old news, it may surprise you to learn that smoking can affect a woman's body in other specific ways, many of which become more noticeable during and after menopause.
For example, bone density becomes an issue for women as they age. Post-menopause osteoporosis is a very real concern for all women, but even more so for women who smoke. Female smokers have a highly increased incidence of hip fractures after menopause, and measurably lower bone density compared to their nonsmoking counterparts.
In addition, smokers have been found to have more and stronger hot flashes during menopause than nonsmokers, and smoking has been linked in some studies to early menopause.
Beyond these concerns, women who are conscious of the physical appearance of aging are fighting an uphill battle when they smoke. Smoking dries out the skin, which can cause wrinkles to appear prematurely. Smokers also get very distinctive lines around the mouth after years of pursing their lips repeatedly to inhale cigarettes.
The one bright spot in all of this is that many of these changes are reversible, but only once you have quit smoking. Research has shown that a number of the body's systems will revert back to their previous state over a period of years after a patient gives up cigarettes.
Smoking and your health is a well woman care issue that shouldn't be pushed aside. Every day that you smoke, you continue a cycle that is indisputably harmful to your body. If you need help quitting smoking, call your doctor.
And to learn about women's health, pregnancy and much more, we invite you to browse our knowledge center and blog. Check back often as we're always adding new material to help women of all ages better understand their unique health needs.