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Study Reveals Prolonged Impact of Smoking on Immune System, Even After Quitting


Smoking is so bad for the body that it alters a person’s immune system, making them more susceptible to illness and infection even years after they have stopped.

Despite a decrease in smoking rates since the 1960s, it remains the primary cause of preventable deaths in the United States, resulting in over 480,000 fatalities annually.

Health care providers have long warned smokers about the serious health risks associated with the habit, such as lung cancer, heart attack, and stroke. However, a recent study published in the journal Nature provides yet another compelling reason to kick the habit.

A study by researchers at Institut Pasteur in Paris has found that smoking can decrease the body’s ability to fight off infections and increase the risk of chronic diseases like rheumatoid arthritis and lupus. The researchers examined blood samples from 1,000 healthy people aged 20 to 69, examining how 136 variables, including lifestyle, socioeconomic issues, dietary habits, age, sex, and genetics, affected the immune response.

They exposed the samples to common germs like E. coli bacteria and the flu virus and measured the immune response. The study found that smoking, body mass index, and a latent infection caused by the herpes virus had the most impact, with smoking creating the biggest change. The study warns that there is a significant interest in long-term immunity and encourages people to quit smoking as soon as possible.

“The good news is, it does begin to reset,” Dr. Duffy stated, emphasizing the importance of quitting smoking sooner rather than later. The study highlighted that individuals who smoked more experienced greater alterations in their immune response.

The research identified lasting epigenetic effects on both forms of the immune system’s protection: the innate response and the adaptive response. While the innate response quickly rebounds after smoking cessation, the impact on the adaptive response persists even in those who have quit smoking.

Smoking’s Impact on Adaptive Immunity

Smoking is so bad for the body that it alters a person’s immune system, making them more susceptible to illness and infection even years after they have stopped.

The innate immune response involves the skin, mucous membranes, immune system cells, and proteins combating germs. In contrast, the adaptive immune system, comprising antibodies and specific cells, retains a memory of past threats for targeted responses.

“The major discovery of our study is that smoking has short-term but also long-term effects on adaptive immunity associated with B cells and regulatory T cells and with epigenetic changes,” explained a researcher involved in the study.

Despite the significance of the findings, the study has some limitations, primarily relying on lab-based blood samples. The real-life response of the immune system may vary. However, the researchers contend that the large collection of blood samples provides valuable insights, even as they acknowledge the need for further exploration.

Dr. Yasmin Thanavala, a professor at the Roswell Park Cancer Institute, commended the study as a validation of her own research on smoking’s impact on the immune response. She emphasized the need for future studies to address participant homogeneity, as the current research focused exclusively on French participants with no consideration for body weight variations.

Dr. Albert Rizzo, Chief Medical Officer of the American Medical Association, lauded the study for shedding light on the why behind the link between smoking and immune system issues. He noted that the study helps explain the development of conditions like chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) even in individuals who have quit smoking.

As the medical community gains deeper insights into the intricate relationship between smoking and immune function, these findings underscore the critical importance of smoking cessation for long-term health.

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