If you are a smoker you are probably aware that it can have a devastating effect on your heart and lungs as well as your skin. But many don’t realize that tobacco can also prevent or slow down wound healing. In fact, according to the World Health Organization, tobacco smokers are at significantly higher risk for impaired wound healing than non-smokers.
Whether you have a serious wound, suffer from diabetes, or are scheduled for surgery, having a better understanding of how smoking can affect how the body heals can make the difference between a full recovery and serious complications.
Why is Smoking So Bad for You?
We know that smoking is known to cause most cases of lung cancer, but there is more evidence than that as to why it is horrible for you. Smoking has been shown to harm almost every single organ in the body, including the skin. Additionally, chronic exposure to tobacco can also result in dangerous physiological changes in cardiovascular and pulmonary function as well as tissue healing. All of which play a role in wound healing.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 16 million Americans have a disease caused by smoking and it is the leading cause of preventable death. In fact, more than 480,000 deaths each year in the U.S. are attributed to smoking. Smoking can also increase the risk of problems with the immune system and has been shown to cause conditions such as:
- Heart and lung disease
- Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)
Effect of Smoking On the Wound Healing Process
Research has uncovered a strong correlation between smoking and poor wound healing. The key to this effect is largely due to oxygen and nutrients in the blood which are essential to how the body heals wounds. Smoking essentially narrows the blood vessels; slowing the supply of oxygen and nutrients which in turn can impair the healing process. What’s even worse is you are replacing the fresh oxygen your body needs with a deadly combination of chemicals.
But that isn’t the only way smoking can affect how wounds heal. Let’s explore some of these effects in greater detail.
1. Nicotine in Your Blood
Nicotine (the addictive chemical found in tobacco) can cause your arteries to spasm and become more narrow. This effect can interfere with the body’s ability to send the necessary blood and nutrients to the wound site in order to heal it.
2. Immune System Function and Risk of Infection
Having a healthy immune system plays a crucial role in helping the body fight off illness or infection. When you have a wound, you need your immune system more than ever. Smoking reduces the effectiveness of your immune system because the cells and antibodies in your body can no longer function optimally. Because these cells and antibodies help protect the body against harmful substances like bacteria; it can cause the wound to heal more slowly and increases your risk of developing an infection. Further, it can make it more difficult for the body to carry any medicine used to treat the infected area.
3. Vitamin C Deficiency
Vitamin C is known to help with immunity in the body. It is also an essential vitamin that supports healthy skin and blood flow. Vitamin C levels are commonly lower in smokers because the body is busy using it to protect against its harmful effects instead of where it needs to be.
This means the body is lacking the necessary amount of Vitamin C to support blood flow and skin health, thus leaving the body undernourished. Even with supplements, smokers show lower levels of vitamin C in the body versus nonsmokers according to multiple studies.
4. Poor Nutrition
One of the lesser known ways smoking can impair wound healing is its relation to nutrition in the body. Your body requires a significant amount of calories and energy to heal. However, because nicotine can suppress appetite, combined with smokers’ tendencies to eat poorly, drink heavily and be less active, it can impede the body’s ability to heal wounds efficiently and effectively.
5. Smoking and Diabetes
People who have diabetes are already in a position where their wounds do not heal as easily. However, one thing you might not know is that people who smoke cigarettes are 30 to 40 percent more likely to develop type 2 diabetes than people who do not smoke. This means that smokers with diabetes are at an even higher risk of having complications with their wounds.
Effect of Smoking On Healing After Surgery
Our blood contains cells that naturally fight off infection (also referred to as neutrophils). Because the chemicals found in tobacco products can limit the function of these cells it dramatically increases the risk of infection which can result in additional surgeries or the use of antibiotics. Fortunately, if you quit smoking before surgery it can decrease your chances of experiencing these effects.
In fact, one study that explored the link between smoking and adverse postoperative outcomes found that “smoking cessation at least 1 year before major surgery abolishes the increased risk of postoperative mortality and decreases the risk of arterial and respiratory events evident in current smokers“.
In addition to its effects on wound healing, smoking after surgery can disrupt the healing process by:
- Reducing the effectiveness of some medications.
- Increasing the risk of infection.
- Getting in the way of the body’s ability to provide oxygen to organs.
- Increasing the risk of necrosis.
- Causing irregular or unstable blood pressure.
- Reducing blood flow and increasing heart rate.
Tips to Help You Quit Smoking
While everyone should consider quitting smoking; if you are suffering from a serious wound or about to have surgery it is even more important to have a plan in place to stop for good. A healthcare professional can help you develop a plan and offer recommendations for lifestyle changes to help you through the process.
In the meantime, here are a few tips you can try to get you started:
- Learn to identify what triggers your cravings and have a plan in place for how to manage them if they can’t be avoided.
- Try to find something to distract you when cravings are strong.
- Keep physically active and develop an exercise routine.
- Learn stress management and relaxation techniques such as yoga, deep breathing, or meditation.
- Have a strong support system you can turn to. Whether it’s family, friends, or a counselor, support can be key to staying on track.
- Call a free help hotline (1-800-QUIT-NOW) or look for online resources and coaching.
- If the cravings are really strong keep reminding yourself of the reasons you want to quit and the benefits of not smoking.
You can also consider using nicotine replacement therapy for a short period of time, but as this could affect wound healing make sure to first consult with a wound care specialist or healthcare provider.
If you do relapse don’t be discouraged, rather use it as a learning opportunity to adjust your course of action.
Holistic Wound Care and Healing
Unlike most wound care centers, at West Coast Wound and Skin Care, we do not just focus on the surgical aspects of the wounds, we take into consideration the most important extrinsic and intrinsic factors that affect healing. As such, we strive to not just treat the wound but address the underlying causes as well.
Our holistic wound and dermatology services consider the whole person — body, mind, spirit, and emotions — in the quest for optimal health and wellness. We constantly discuss everything about our patients’ lives that may affect the wound healing and recovery process.
Don’t wait until your wound gets worse. Book an appointment today and let our specialists help you heal.