Smoking & Carotid Artery Disease
Smoking has been shown to have a wide range of negative health effects, but what can it do to your blood vessels? Carotid artery disease is when plaque builds up in the main blood vessel that runs up your neck and into your brain: the carotid artery. When the artery becomes fully blocked, such as with a clot, it results in a stroke.
When a stroke occurs, it can have a wide range of long-lasting effects, including loss of motor control, vision, memory, cognitive abilities and speech. Stroke is the number five cause of death in the U.S. and the leading cause of disability.
Why does smoking increase the risk of carotid artery disease?
The chemicals in cigarettes affect the body in a number of ways. Unfortunately, many of them can increase the risk of carotid artery disease.
Lowering HDLs — and making them worse
Cigarette smoke has been shown to affect the HDLs in your blood (also known as "good cholesterol") in two different ways. HDLs travel in your blood and remove plaque buildup from the walls of your veins and arteries, making them stronger, healthier, and allowing blood to pass through easier.
Cigarettes make your blood more likely to clot
There are several factors that affect your blood's ability to clot, and cigarettes are one of them. They do this by affecting the surface of the blood platelets themselves, making them clump together much more easily than they otherwise would. Blood that clots more easily is much more likely to create a clog in an artery. Nowhere is this more of a problem than in the carotid artery — which, if clogged, results in a stroke.
Cigarettes affect the blood vessels directly
Nicotine, the addictive substance in cigarettes, also has a negative affect on your blood vessels. It causes them to shrink and narrow, making it more difficult for blood to get through. This directly affects your blood pressure, causing it to skyrocket. Cigarettes also cause your blood vessels to become less elastic. As blood vessels stiffen, they are more likely to clot.
Another chemical in cigarettes, carbon monoxide, inhibits your blood vessels' ability to take in oxygen. When your body isn't getting enough oxygen, your heart can enlarge in response to an effort to make up the difference. An enlarged heart has to work harder and is less efficient at pumping blood, putting stress on your whole cardiovascular system.
What happens if you quit smoking?
The good news is, the damage done to your heart and blood vessels can usually be reversed if you quit smoking. HDL levels can start returning to normal, blood gets back to its normal consistency, and blood vessels regain their elasticity.
This is especially true if you quit smoking and make other heart-healthy lifestyle changes like exercising regularly and start incorporating foods into your diet that are good for your heart.
A healthier heart and blood vessels means a lower risk of developing carotid artery disease. Not only that, it also lowers your risk of developing a number of other cardiovascular issues like peripheral artery disease, heart attack, stroke, or even heart arrythmias like atrial fibrillation.
The Bottom Line
Most people understand that smoking is harmful. However, knowing the specifics of how it affects your body hopefully makes that danger much more clear. This article didn't even address how cigarette smoke can negatively affect your lungs or cause the development of multiple cancers.
Not only that, but someone who is routinely taking in secondhand smoke (for instance, if they live with a smoker) is going to suffer many of the same consequences even if they don't smoke themselves.
If you are a smoker who wants to quit, there are lots of free resources available to help you achieve your goal. Whether you are over 50 or a teenager who just started, there are major health benefits to quitting smoking.
If you would like to assess your current risk for carotid artery disease, Life Line Screening can help you with that. Our Carotid Artery Screening uses a noninvasive ultrasound machine to scan your carotid artery to look for plaque buildup. If your results are concerning, you can take them to your doctor to develop a treatment plan. Having the right information is so important, because many people don't show any warning signs before suffering a stroke or heart attack.