We all know the answer to that one, so let’s discuss a really smart question: How bad is it?

When people think of cigarette smoke, they don’t usually think of inflammation. But in my Pathophysiology class at Front Range Community College, understanding inflammation is so important we spend at least 4 to 5 hours of class time — for this topic alone.

What is Inflammation?

Inflammation is a very complex process, so we’ll keep it simple. Inflammation involves the use of white blood cells (WBCs) and several types of chemicals.  The job of WBCs is to fight pathogens, stop infections, reduce tissue injury, and assist with the healing process.

Our body responds to any type of cell or tissue injury by mounting an inflammatory response. Toxins from cigarette smoke cause cell injury; therefore they also cause inflammation within the lungs — and throughout the body.

WBCs: Our Own Defense Department

WBCs are the ultimate military machine — our very own Defense Department. They also clean up the mess created during battle — infectious debris, dead cells, and even our own “fallen soldiers.” WBCs are skilled, aggressive, determined fighters! Every day they die by the millions as they protect our lungs and other vital tissue from toxins and pathogens. You should reserve a moment of silence each and every day, and give thanks to your WBCs!

It is believed that habitual smoking reduces the effectiveness of this “military machine.” Also, the defense mechanisms in our lungs  (WBCs, mucus, and cilia) are overwhelmed by the daily barrage of tobacco toxins. Battles are more frequent, become more difficult, and some can be lost.

Inflammation Makes for a Really Bad Neighborhood

Inflammation also involves the release of chemicals from various WBCs and tissue cells. These chemicals include enzymes that break down proteins. Often cells release these chemicals as part of normal function, or they “escape” from cells that are damaged or have died. However, some of these chemicals (enzymes and free radicals) damage healthy cells and important proteins in the area. I tell my students a region of inflammation is a toxic zone, a really bad neighborhood — not a place to hang out and have a latte!

Inflammation is a Proper and Necessary Response to Injury

It repairs damaged tissue (healing) and fights infections. If we can’t initiate inflammation, we will die. This process is vital, but inflammation is intended to be temporary!

Too Much Inflammation is a Bad Thing

If the inflammatory response occurs frequently (as with daily smoking), the daily release of chemicals and aggressive actions of WBCs progressively damage normal, healthy lung tissue.

With habitual smoking, excessive inflammation, free radicals, and tobacco toxins cause progressive damage to functioning lung tissue. The toxins also travel in the blood, causing inflammation and damage to the walls of blood vessels, leading to plaque formation and clots (atherosclerosis). Major smoking-related diseases (involving chronic inflammation) include chronic bronchitis, emphysema, lung cancer, heart attacks, strokes, and high blood pressure.

Chronic Inflammation Overworks Your WBCs

In essence, with habitual smoking, inflammation becomes chronic (persistent). WBCs are overworked constantly; the battle never completely stops. In the political world, this is known as a “quagmire.” It’s also an appropriate description for the constant struggle within the inflamed lungs of a smoker.

Prolonged smoking leads to illness and early death. Are cigarettes really just poison-delivery devices? Should the sale of tobacco even be legal?

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