What happens to your body when you use tobacco and nicotine?

Short-Term Effects

When nicotine enters the body, it initially causes the adrenal glands to release a hormone called adrenaline, which stimulates the body and gives it a pleasurable “kick.” But the rush of adrenaline also causes the following:

  • increased blood pressure
  • increased heart rate
  • faster breathing

Long-Term Effects

The nicotine is addictive, and as people keep using tobacco, they are continually exposed to many toxic chemicals found in the tobacco (or produced by burning it). These include carbon monoxide, tar, formaldehyde, cyanide, and ammonia. Tobacco use harms every organ in the body and can cause many serious health problems, listed below.

Smoking Tobacco

  • Cancers. Cigarette smoking can be blamed for about one-third of all cancer deaths, including 90% of lung cancer cases. Tobacco use is also linked with cancers of the mouth, pharynx, larynx, esophagus, stomach, pancreas, cervix, kidney, ureter, bladder, and bone marrow (leukemia).       
  • Lung Problems. Bronchitis (swelling of the air passages to the lungs), emphysema (damage to the lungs), and pneumonia have been linked to smoking. People who smoke can’t exercise or play sports for as long as they once did.
  • Heart disease and stroke. Smoking increases the risk for stroke, heart attack, and other diseases of the blood’s heart and circulation system that can lead to death.
  • Cataracts. People who smoke can get cataracts, which is clouding of the eye that causes blurred vision.
  • Loss of sense of smell and taste. This also includes bad breath.
  • Aging skin and teeth. After smoking for a long time, people find their skin ages faster and their teeth discolor.
  • Risk to unborn baby. Pregnant women who smoke are at increased risk for delivering their baby early, having smaller babies, or suffering a miscarriage, stillbirth, or experiencing other problems with their pregnancy. Smoking by pregnant women also may be associated with learning and behavior problems in children.
  • Fire-related deaths. Smoking is the leading cause of fire-related deaths—more than 600 deaths each year, in some cases caused by people falling asleep with a lit cigarette that causes a house fire.6

Secondhand Smoke

People who do not smoke but live or hang out with smokers are exposed to secondhand smoke—smoke that is exhaled or given off by the burning end of tobacco products. Just like smoking, regularly standing near smokers increases your risk for disease. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that there is no risk-free level of exposure to secondhand smoke. Each year, an estimated 58 million Americans are regularly exposed to secondhand smoke and more than 42,000 nonsmokers die from diseases caused by secondhand smoke exposure.2 Since the 1964 Surgeon General’s Report, 2.5 million adults who were nonsmokers died because they breathed secondhand smoke. It is unclear what long- term side effects there are from exposure to e-cigarette vapor, but one in four U.S. middle and high school students say they've been exposed to unhealthy secondhand aerosol from e-cigarettes.3 Long-term effects can include: 

  • Cancer. People exposed to secondhand smoke increase their risk for lung cancer by 20% to 30%. About 7,300 lung cancer deaths occur per year among people who do not smoke but were exposed to second hand smoke.4
  • Lung problems. Secondhand smoke causes breathing problems in people who do not smoke, like coughing, phlegm, and lungs not working as well as they should.
  • Heart disease: Secondhand smoke increases the risk for heart disease by 25% to 30%. It is estimated to contribute to as many as 34,000 deaths related to heart disease.5
  • Health problems for children: Children exposed to secondhand smoke are at an increased risk for sudden infant death syndrome, lung infections, ear problems, and more severe asthma.        

Smokeless Tobacco

The health effects of smokeless tobacco are somewhat different from those of smoked tobacco, but both can cause cancer and other effects: 

  • Cancers. Close to 30 chemicals in smokeless tobacco have been found to cause cancer. People who use smokeless tobacco are at increased risk for oral cancer (cancers of the mouth, lip, tongue, and pharynx) as well as esophageal and pancreatic cancers.
  • Heart disease and stroke. Recent research shows smokeless tobacco may play a role in causing heart disease and stroke.
  • Mouth problems. Smokeless tobacco increases the chance of getting cavities, gum disease, and sores in the mouth that can make eating and drinking painful.

2Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Smoking and Tobacco Use: Fast Facts. Atlanta, GA. January 2018. Available at http://www.cdc.gov/tobacco/data_statistics/fact_sheets/fast_facts/index.htm.

3 Wang TW, Marynak KL, Aguku IT, et al. Secondhand Exposure to Electronic Cigarette Aerosol Among US Youths. JAMA Pediatrics. 2017, e1. 

4 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Smoking and Tobacco Use: Health Effects of Secondhand Smoke. Atlanta, GA. January 2018. Available at http://www.cdc.gov/tobacco/data_statistics/fact_sheets/secondhand_smoke/health_effects/index.htm.

5 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Smoking and Tobacco Use: Health Effects of Secondhand Smoke. Atlanta, GA. January 2018. Available at http://www.cdc.gov/tobacco/data_statistics/fact_sheets/secondhand_smoke/health_effects/index.htm.

6 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Smoking and Tobacco Use. Tobacco-Related Mortality. Atlanta, GA. January 2018. Available at http://www.cdc.gov/tobacco/data_statistics/fact_sheets/health_effects/tobacco_related_mortality/.