How Does Cigarette Smoke Affect Alveoli in the Lungs?

How Smoking Affects the Lungs

How Does Cigarette Smoke Affect Alveoli in the Lungs?

Each organ in your body plays an important role in keeping your body healthy. If you have healthy lungs, you probably don’t think much about them. Damage to your lungs, however; can quickly cause a noticeable difference in your ability to breathe easily.

The primary role of the lungs is delivering oxygen-rich blood throughout the body. You breathe in air and breathe out carbon dioxide as waste exhaling.  No tobacco product is safe. However, combustible products—those that you burn to smoke—are exceptionally harmful to the lungs.

How does smoking hurt your lungs?

When you smoke, the tissue of the lungs receive damage, impeding them from functioning properly. Smoking also increases your risk of serious health issues. Some examples include: lung cancer, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and emphysema.

Upon your very first puff, immediate damage to the lungs begins. Every puff of cigarette smoke contains over 7,000 chemicals.1 When you inhale, the smoke hits your lungs almost instantly.

The blood then carries these toxic chemicals throughout the body. Tobacco smoke contains carbon monoxide, a deadly gas that then displaces the oxygen in your blood.

This deprives all your organs of needed oxygen.

What chemicals are found in cigarettes?

Cigarettes also include acrolein. This chemical causes lung damage and a sore throat. Cigarettes may also contain bronchodilators. These chemicals are meant to open up the airways of the lungs. They also can increase the amount of dangerous chemicals absorbed by the lungs.

What are the consequences of smoking?

Cigarette smoke has negative consequences for individuals of all ages. Babies born to mothers that smoked during pregnancy may have abnormal lung development. Teens who smoke may develop weaker lungs which never operate at full capacity or develop to their full, adult size.

Additionally, smoking can destroy the cilia. These tiny hairs in the airway keep dirt and mucus your lungs. This may then lead to the development of “smoker’s cough,” a chronic cough common for long-term smokers.

Smokers are also at risk for chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (or COPD). 80% of cases of COPD are due to smoking. 2  People with COPD have difficulty breathing and eventually die because of the lack of oxygen.

COPD has no cure. Moreover, nearly all lung cancer—the top cause of cancer death— is due to smoking. Smokers are 20 times more ly to develop lung cancer than nonsmokers. 3  Lung cancer may also lead to other respiratory cancers.

Are e-cigarettes also harmful?

Because e-cigarettes are still relatively new tobacco products, many do not realize the harm they cause. We discussed this in a recent article “Juuling Much More Dangerous than Teens Realize”.

Some e-cigarette aerosols contain some of the same chemicals as cigarettes. This includes the lung irritant acrolein, and formaldehyde. Some chemicals that create flavor could be harmful when inhaled too.  Furthermore, fruit flavored e-cigarettes often large amounts of acrylonitrile, a known respiratory irritant.

Can I reverse the damage of smoking to my lungs?

When you stop smoking, you have overall better health. Lung cancer risk drops drastically in the years after quitting. Furthermore, only 12 hours after quitting, the carbon monoxide level in your blood drops to normal. This, of course, allows more oxygen to circulate to your organs.

If you’re struggling to stop smoking, reach out to a CCMH Provider by visiting We would love to help!


1 U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (USDHHS). A Report of the Surgeon General: How Tobacco Smoke Causes Disease: What It Means to You (Consumer Booklet). Atlanta, GA: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion, Office on Smoking and Health; 2010.

2 U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (USDHHS). The Health Consequences of Smoking—50 Years of Progress: A Report of the Surgeon General (Fact Sheet). Atlanta, GA: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion, Office on Smoking and Health; 2014.

3 U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Harmful and Potentially Harmful Constituents in Tobacco Products and Tobacco Smoke.


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Emphysema: Causes, Symptoms, Diagnosis & Treatments

How Does Cigarette Smoke Affect Alveoli in the Lungs?

Emphysema is a disease of the lungs that usually develops after many years of smoking. Along with asthma and chronic bronchitis, emphysema belongs to a group of lung diseases known as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).

  • Overview
  • Symptoms and Causes
  • Diagnosis and Tests
  • Management and Treatment


Emphysema is a disease of the lungs that usually develops after many years of smoking. Both chronic bronchitis and emphysema belong to a group of lung diseases known as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).

Once it develops, emphysema can’t be reversed. This is why not smoking or stopping smoking is very important.

Emphysema is a condition that involves damage to the walls of the air sacs (alveoli) of the lung.

Alveoli are small, thin-walled, very fragile air sacs located in clusters at the end of the bronchial tubes deep inside the lungs. There are about 300 million alveoli in normal lungs.

As you breathe in air, the alveoli stretch, drawing oxygen in and transporting it to the blood. When you exhale, the alveoli shrink, forcing carbon dioxide the body.

When emphysema develops, the alveoli and lung tissue are destroyed. With this damage, the alveoli cannot support the bronchial tubes.

The tubes collapse and cause an “obstruction” (a blockage), which traps air inside the lungs. Too much air trapped in the lungs can give some patients a barrel-chested appearance.

Also, because there are fewer alveoli, less oxygen will be able to move into the bloodstream.

Who gets emphysema?

Over 3 million people in the United States have been diagnosed with emphysema. Over 11 million Americans have COPD. Emphysema is most common in men between the ages of 50 and 70.

Smoking is the number one factor. Because of this, emphysema is one of the most preventable types of respiratory diseases. Air pollutants in the home and workplace, genetic (inherited) factors (alpha-1 antitrypsin deficiency), and respiratory infections can also play a role in causing emphysema.

Cigarette smoking not only destroys lung tissue, it also irritates the airways. This causes inflammation and damage to cilia that line the bronchial tubes. This results in swollen airways, mucus production, and difficulty clearing the airways. All of these changes can lead to shortness of breath.

What are symptoms of emphysema?

Symptoms of emphysema may include coughing, wheezing, shortness of breath, chest tightness, and an increased production of mucus. Often times, symptoms may not be noticed until 50 percent or more of the lung tissue has been destroyed.

Until then, the only symptoms may be a gradual development of shortness of breath and tiredness (fatigue), which can be mistaken for other illnesses. People who develop emphysema have an increased risk of pneumonia, bronchitis, and other lung infections.

See your doctor if any of these symptoms arise:

  • Shortness of breath, especially during light exercise or climbing steps
  • Ongoing feeling of not being able to get enough air
  • Long-term cough or “smoker’s cough”
  • Wheezing
  • Long-term mucus production
  • Ongoing fatigue

The diagnosis of emphysema cannot be made solely on symptoms. Several tests are used to make the diagnosis. One simple test is to tap on your chest and listen with a stethoscope for a hollow sound. This means that air is being trapped in your lungs. Other tests include:

  • X-rays: X-rays are generally not useful for detecting early stages of emphysema. However,
    X-rays can help diagnose moderate or severe cases. Either a plain chest X-ray or a CAT (computer-aided tomography) scan can be used. Once the test is completed, the readings are compared to X-rays of healthy or normal lungs.
  • Pulse oximetry: This test is also known as an oxygen saturation test. Pulse oximetry is used to measure the oxygen content of the blood. This is done by attaching the monitor to a person’s finger, forehead, or earlobe.
  • Spirometry and pulmonary function tests (PFT): This is one of the most useful tests to determine airway blockage. A spirometry or PFT tests the lungs’ volume by measuring airflow while a patient inhales and exhales. This test is done by taking a deep breath and then blowing into a tube that is hooked up to a specialized machine. These tests are compared to normal results from people of similar gender, age, height, weight and ethnic background.
  • Arterial blood gas: This test measures the amount of oxygen and carbon dioxide in blood from an artery. It is a test often used as emphysema worsens. It is especially helpful in determining if a patient needs extra oxygen.
  • Electrocardiogram (ECG): ECGs check heart function and are used to rule out heart disease as a cause of shortness of breath.

You might also talk to your doctor about whether testing for alpha-1 antitrypsin deficiency is appropriate for you.

Because emphysema can worsen over time and there is no known cure, treatment is focused on slowing the speed of decline. The type of treatment will depend on the severity of the disease.

Quitting smoking: If you smoke, quit. This is the most important step you can take to protect your lungs. It is never too late to quit. Your doctor can help you find the best smoking quitting method for you.

Bronchodilator medications: These medicines relax the muscles around the airways. They are often used to treat asthma. Bronchodilators, given through hand-held inhalants, produce more immediate results and have fewer side effects than oral medications.

Anti-inflammatory medication: These medications reduce inflammation in the airways. However, long-term side effects of these drugs include osteoporosis, hypertension, high blood sugar, and fat redistribution.

Oxygen therapy: Oxygen therapy is prescribed for patients whose lungs are not getting enough oxygen to the blood (hypoxemia). These patients can’t absorb enough oxygen from the outside air and need to get more oxygen through a machine (a nasal catheter or a facemask).

Lung volume reduction surgery: Lung volume reduction surgery involves removing a portion of diseased lung tissue, then joining together the remaining tissue.

Doing this may relieve pressure on the breathing muscles and help improve lung elasticity (or stretch). The results of the surgery have been very promising.

Not all patients with emphysema are candidates for this surgery.

What are some tips for managing emphysema?

The best way to prevent or reduce further problems is to prevent respiratory infections by:

  • Practicing good handwashing methods
  • Brushing and flossing teeth daily, and using an antibacterial mouth rinse after meals
  • Keeping breathing equipment clean
  • Keeping your house clean and free of dust
  • Getting a flu shot every year
  • Following a doctor-prescribed exercise program
  • Avoiding irritants such as:
    • Cigarette smoke
    • Exhaust fumes
    • Strong perfumes
    • Cleaning products
    • Paint/varnish
    • Dust
    • Pollen
    • Pet dander
    • Pollution

Last reviewed by a Cleveland Clinic medical professional on 08/07/2019.



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