Smoker's Lung Pathology Photo Essay

  • Medical Author:

    Dr. Fishbein received his undergraduate and medical degrees from the University of Illinois. He completed a residency in anatomic and clinical pathology at Harbor General Hospital/UCLA Medical Center. He is board certified in anatomic and clinical pathology.

  • Medical Editor: Jay W. Marks, MD
    Jay W. Marks, MD

    Jay W. Marks, MD

    Jay W. Marks, MD, is a board-certified internist and gastroenterologist. He graduated from Yale University School of Medicine and trained in internal medicine and gastroenterology at UCLA/Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles.

View How Smoking Affects Your Looks and Life Slideshow Pictures

Are any of the pulmonary consequences of smoking reversible?

First, the bad news is that emphysema is not reversible. But now, the good news! If a person stops smoking, the inflammatory changes (chronic bronchitis) in the airways probably will go away. Furthermore, when a person stops smoking, the risk of developing lung cancer decreases, although it never goes back to normal. In other words, the risk of cancer in ex-smokers is less than in smokers, but remains greater than in non-smokers.

From what do smokers die?

Remarkably, despite a wealth of information on death rates (mortality) from cigarette smoking, little information is available on the specific causes of death in smokers. Smokers with COPD can die from lack of oxygen (hypoxia) in the tissues of the body. The hypoxia occurs because there is so little functioning lung left and/or the effort of breathing is so great that affected individuals just stop breathing from exhaustion. Other important causes of death in smokers include lung infection (pneumonia), lung cancer, cancers of the digestive, urinary, and genital systems, and leukemia. Indeed, because smoking can cause cancer in so many organs, 30% of all cancer deaths can be related to cigarette smoking.

Nevertheless, because smoking is such a powerful risk factor for the development of coronary atherosclerosis (hardening and blockage of the arteries of the heart), heart disease is by far the most common cause of death in smokers. Moreover, since autopsies are done in less than 10% of patients who die in hospitals and less than 1% of patients who die in nursing homes, we really can't prove why most smokers die. You see, even though a clinician is often correct about the cause of a person's death, only an autopsy can be definitive.

Medically reviewed by Avrom Simon, MD; Board Certified Preventative Medicine with Subspecialty in Occupational Medicine


"Cigarette smoking and other risk factors for lung cancer"

Medically Reviewed by a Doctor on 6/10/2015

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