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How Smoking Affects Immune Function

How Smoking Affects Immune Function

It has been long understood that smoking negatively affects health in a variety of ways. While the majority of people associate smoking with lung cancer and other types of cancer, there is much more to be said about the negative effects smoking has on the entire body. Every organ and bodily system can be harmed through regular smoking. The most serious of the effects, including deadly cancers, heart attacks, and strokes, are just the tip of the iceberg.

In the United States alone, roughly 20% of all deaths can be attributed to smoking. That number translates to almost half a million people each year losing their life to cigarettes. According to research, your immune system and your body’s ability to fight off disease can also be hindered greatly due to cigarette smoke. Read on to learn how smoking affects immune function.

Smoking and the immune system

Smoking has the ability to affect both the innate and adaptive immune function. The innate system is the one you are born with; it’s non-specific in nature, whereas the adaptive is designed to recognize and defend against specific pathogens. The adaptive system creates new cells that can target particular pathogens (such as influenza) in the event that you come across that same virus again after you have already contracted it.

Smoking deregulates the innate immune system by making you more susceptible to infection as well as weakening your immune system’s response to various threats by negatively affecting immune cells (known as natural killer cells, macrophages, and DCs).

In terms of the adaptive system, things get a bit more complicated. The adaptive immune cells known as T helper cells, B cells, and memory cells can also become dysregulated due to the effects of cigarettes. T lymphocytes, for example, are tasked with mediating the adaptive immune response. They are required to activate and deactivate at specific times so that they can address any threat to the body, but smoking has been shown to compromise their efficacy when trying to do this specific task. T-helper cells are also affected by cigarettes in the sense that their numbers are lower in people who smoke.


Image by Ricardo IV Tamayo on Unsplash: Are smokers immunocompromised?


Those who are exposed to secondhand smoke on a regular basis can also have their immune systems compromised. Research has found that in people exposed to secondhand smoke, immune cells that are meant to mature in order to seek and identify specific pathogenic cells do not reach full maturation. 

To put it simply: the actions of various types of immune cells within the body can be hindered by smoking, and the number of disease-fighting cells can also decrease within the body. When this happens, the immune system does not function at its best, leaving people who smoke more likely to contract infections, experience worsened infections, and develop chronic disease.  

Short-term effects of smoking on the immune system

The short-term effects of smoking can leave a person more susceptible to illness. During the COVID pandemic in particular, being more susceptible and having less fighting power behind you leaves you much more likely to contract and experience serious or even fatal consequences from the infection.

People who smoke may be doing themselves a huge disservice when it comes to COVID-19 in particular. According to the World Health Organization, tobacco use has been shown to increase a person’s likelihood of suffering from a severe COVID infection.


Image by Mael Balland on Unsplash: What’s the connection between smoking and immune health?


The immediate effects of smoking can also be taken into account when determining the short-term effects smoking has on the immune system. For example, smoking can immediately increase levels of stress. When people experience stress, their immune system can suffer because of the way the stress hormone, cortisol, affects the immune response.

Long-term effects of smoking on the immune system

Along with short-term effects, there are also some long-term side effects to contend with if you smoke. The most notable long-term effect is the immune system’s inability to fight off infections properly, avoid infection altogether, and protect itself from the worst-case scenarios if infections are contracted.

The way smoking affects antioxidant levels is also important to consider. Antioxidants are designed to help balance out free radicals. When there aren’t enough antioxidants within the body, free radicals can build up to dangerous levels, causing oxidative stress and widespread inflammation. Oxidative stress has been shown to hinder immune function greatly.

Even though it is common knowledge that smoking can lead to early illness and death, many people still participate in this addictive activity. The good news is that quitting isn’t impossible. While it is difficult, there are several resources you can turn to when you want to kick your smoking habit. Not only will your immune system thank you, but your overall health will, too! Once you stop smoking, your body begins repairing itself immediately, and eventually you’ll be able to fight off infection just as well as any non-smoker.


Featured image by Franco Alva on Unsplash

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