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Damaging the Cilia
A person's lungs are equipped with a natural cleaning and protective system to keep unwanted irritants (such as atmospheric smoke and debris) from causing damage. Much of this cleaning is performed by tiny hairs in the lungs called cilia. Repeated exposure to cigarette smoke damages the cilia and creates a situation wherein the natural mucus in the lungs no longer operates efficiently. This means that all of the cancer-causing chemicals in the cigarettes (known as carcinogens) are no longer being expelled; instead, they simply stay in the lungs and coat them. This is why the lungs are so susceptible to cancer after a long period of smoking.
Cigarette smoking has a more immediate impact on the health of the lungs, wholly separate from the cancer-causing agents. The lungs are equipped with alveoli, which are small air sacs at the ends of the bronchial passages. These air sacs help you process the oxygen from the air you breathe, transporting it into the body and getting rid of the carbon dioxide waste afterward.
Smoking causes these air sacs to function less efficiently, meaning it can become harder to breathe after only a short time of regular smoking. This means that the heart must work harder to process oxygen, and the smoker will feel out of breath and fatigued more easily than a nonsmoker. Over time, this can lead to heart disease and Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD).
Signs and Symptoms
Smokers often have a multitude of signs that smoking is causing long-term damage to the lungs, though many of these signs are mistakenly downplayed or dismissed. These include regular coughing, becoming easily tired or out of breath, and coughing or spitting up mucus. These are not simply signs of "getting older", but have direct correlation to chronic issues related to smoking.
The good news is that the lungs---like most of the body's organs---are remarkably resilient. Quitting smoking can greatly reduce the chance of developing cancers and heart disease, and with enough time, the lungs (as well as a person's risk to smoking related diseases) can return to near non-smoker levels. According to a 1990 report from the Surgeon General's office, former smokers have been shown to live longer than those who continue to smoke. An example is a person who quits before the age of 50. He reduces his chance of dying from heart or lung-related deaths to 50% of those who continue to smoke past that age.
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