5 Most Surprising Reasons to Quit Smoking

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If I were to tell you that smoking causes cancer, ups your risk of heart attack and COPD, and could subtract as many as ten years from your expected life span, I'm guessing you'd nod and smile -- after all, you've heard it all before. But what about damage that's a little more, well, personal? What if I told you that smoking could wreck your chances of having a baby, make you look 60 when you're 45, and -- for the guys out there -- sabotage your abilities in the bedroom? And more? Here are 5 surprising reasons to quit smoking -- and how you can reverse past damage once you do.

Reason #1: Smoking sabotages sexual prowess.

To put it bluntly, men who smoke have a harder time getting and staying up, studies show. In fact, a study published in Addiction Behavior demonstrated that smoking just two cigarettes could cause softer erections in male smokers. And numerous studies have shown that men who smoke have as much as a 60 percent higher rate of erectile dysfunction than nonsmokers. Men who smoke are also more likely to be shooting blanks, and over time cigarettes may even cause the male equipment to shrink.

How smoking harms virility: Nicotine functions as a vasoconstrictor, which means that it constricts blood vessels, impairing blood flow. (This effect is responsible for the "rush" that sometimes comes with smoking.) Since erections depend on blood flow, it makes sense that smoking would affect a man's ability to get and maintain an erection. The damage is cumulative, and nicotine has been shown to cause, over time, permanent damage to arteries. Animal experiments have also found that nicotine decreases testicle size and blocks sperm production.

How quitting helps: The studies are mixed on this topic because it depends how long you've smoked, how much you smoke, and whether permanent damage has occurred to the arteries. But doctors report that many men who quit smoking notice an immediate improvement in the strength and length of their erections. The good news is that over time, at least some damage to the vascular system can heal. And the sooner you quit, the less long-term damage you do to arteries and blood flow to vital parts.

Reason #2: Smoking makes you lose your teeth.

Forget stains; yes, smokers have brown teeth, but that's not the surprise. The "you're kidding" factor comes when you talk to dentists and discover that smokers are twice as likely to lose teeth as nonsmokers. The reason? Gum disease. Heavy smokers, according to one study, are six times as likely to get periodontal disease as nonsmokers. And getting good dental care doesn't mitigate the damage; one study found that even after five years of periodontal treatment, smokers lost teeth at twice the rate of nonsmokers.

How smoking damages gums and teeth: The periodontal tissue, which includes both gum and bone, holds the teeth in place and provides the oxygen and nutrition necessary to sustain the living tooth. By reducing blood flow, smoking starves the periodontal tissue of oxygen and nutrients, causing it to age prematurely. Smoking also inhibits the body's ability to fight off infection from the bacteria that naturally occur in the mouth, leading to chronic inflammation. Eventually the bone begins to erode and the teeth loosen and fall out.

How quitting helps: Experts say that within months of quitting smoking, circulation is restored to normal or near-normal levels. And studies show that within a year, the risk of developing heart disease drops to half that of people who still smoke, suggesting that cardiovascular damage isn't permanent. Your body will regain its ability to fight off infection, including the gum disease that can cause you to lose your teeth.

Reason #3: Smoking makes breasts sag.

Really?! Yes, really. In the past year, researchers have actually named smoking as one of the top causes of sagging breasts. British plastic surgeon Brian Rinker studied 132 American women in their mid-30s who sought breast lifts and discovered that breastfeeding wasn't associated with saggy breasts -- but smoking was. (Guys, you'd be forgiven if you brought this information to your partner's attention.)

How smoking causes breasts to sag: Scientists don't know exactly how smoking contributes to breast ptosis, which is the medical term for drooping breast tissue. But Rinker attributed the results to the fact that smoking breaks down elastin, the protein fibers in skin that lend it firmness and elasticity. Smoking also damages breast skin the same way it does the face, depriving it of oxygen and nutrients.

How quitting helps: Once breasts are lower and flabbier, nothing's going to make them lift back up short of surgery. But the loose crepey skin that makes them look saggier will improve rapidly once you quit smoking. Try this test: Pinch the skin on the inside of your arm and on the side of your breast under your arm. Look and see how much loose skin you can pull together. Six months after quitting, try the same test and you should see a dramatic improvement in tone and elasticity. Meanwhile, the sooner you quit, the sooner you halt the process that's causing them to droop.

More surprising reasons to quit smoking

Reason #4: Smoking causes wrinkles and dark circles.

No, this isn't just something your mother told you to get you not to smoke. Smoking damages skin to such an extent that dermatologists recently announced that smoking results in more premature skin damage than sun exposure. Smoking seems to be particularly harmful to the delicate skin under the eyes, leading smokers to develop those telltale puffy pouches and dark circles.

How smoking harms your skin: The nicotine in cigarettes narrows the blood vessels in the outermost layers of your skin, impairing blood flow. And less blood flow means less oxygen and important nutrients, like vitamin A, reaching your skin and nourishing it to stay healthy and moist. Meanwhile, chemicals in tobacco smoke damage collagen and elastin, the fibers that give skin its underlying structure, strength, and elasticity. As a result, the skin of smokers begins to sag and wrinkle prematurely. The same chemicals damage the blood vessels around the eyes, resulting in dark circles and eye bags. And that's not all; the muscular action of smoking, such as pursing the lips and sucking in the cheeks, causes wrinkles too, which is why smokers tend to have all those wrinkles in the upper lip and around the mouth. And if, like many smokers, you squint your eyes to keep out the smoke, you'll get more wrinkles around your eyes as well.

How quitting helps: Studies show that within months of quitting smoking, blood flow throughout the body improves, and over time damage to blood vessels and arteries can be reversed, at least to some extent. That means that while you can't erase the wrinkles already formed, you can restore the nutrient balance to the skin, so it will start to look younger and healthier fairly quickly. Also, as soon as blood flow is restored, your skin will start receiving more oxygen and nutrients, allowing it to heal itself. And the sooner you stop smoking, the fewer "smoker's lines" you'll develop.

Reason #5: Smoking increases infertility.

If you hold out hope that a baby is in your future, banish the cigarettes -- and demand that your partner do so, too. That's the message from the American Society for Reproductive Medicine, which wants women to know that smoking harms their fertility in a number of ways. Women who smoke take longer to conceive, suffer from infertility at higher rates, and have higher rates of miscarriage and ectopic pregnancy leading to miscarriage, experts say. A study just published in Italy found that women who smoked started menopause at an average of 47 -- two and a half years earlier than nonsmokers, who tended to go into menopause at 49 and a half. And women who were found to have stopped producing eggs before age 46 were more likely to be smokers.

Ladies, your partner's smoking is messing with your chances of a baby, too. Studies show that men who smoke have lower sperm counts and their sperm have lower motility, meaning they're not strong swimmers. Male smokers also have increased abnormalities in sperm shape and function. And when your guy lights up, it's bad for you; studies show secondhand smoke is almost as damaging to a woman's fertility as if she smoked herself.

How smoking harms fertility: Cigarettes seem to derail the reproductive process at every step. Cigarette smoke contains more than 4,000 chemicals, some of which can damage both the ovaries and the eggs themselves, making them more prone to genetic abnormalities and increasing the risk of miscarriage. Tobacco causes changes to cervical mucus, making it more difficult for sperm to reach the egg. Smoking also accelerates the loss of eggs that comes with aging and interferes with the body's ability to make estrogen, which may be why it hastens the onset of menopause.

How quitting helps: Studies show that the degree to which smoking messes with the ovaries and hormones is directly dependent on the number of cigarettes you smoke a day and how long you smoke. Quit smoking and you halt the damage to your eggs, your hormones, and your fertility, and you also stop the acceleration process that hastens menopause. And the beneficial effects happen quickly: One important study found that quitting smoking for at least two months before attempting IVF (in vitro fertilization) significantly improved chances for conception.

Melanie Haiken

Melanie Haiken discovered how important it is to provide accurate, targeted, usable health information to people facing difficult decisions when she was health editor of Parenting magazine. See full bio