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Multiple Sclerosis Centers of Excellence


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Smoking and Multiple Sclerosis

Aaron Turner, PhD, ABPP (RP)

All VA medical facilities are smoke-free. Most people are aware that smoking is the leading cause of preventable death in the US, and that it is associated with numerous health problems including cancer, stroke, and heart disease. Smoking worsens many chronic illnesses, decreases sexual functioning, and shortens the life span of the average smoker by 8 to 13 years.

Fewer people know that smoking may also be linked to MS. Several studies have shown that smokers have a higher risk of developing MS and that loved ones exposed to second-hand smoke may also have an increased risk of MS. Some evidence suggests that smoking may be linked to a more aggressive disease course including increased brain lesions, greater brain atrophy, higher levels of disability, and faster progression to secondary progressive presentation. Smoking may also complicate other challenges people face with MS, like decreasing lung functioning, making wounds or ulcers heal more slowly, and increasing fatigue.

The Good News

It is never too late to quit smoking and enjoy improved health and quality of life. Some benefits can be felt almost immediately. Many last for years to come.

Within 20 Minutes:

  • Blood pressure, pulse rate and body temperature return to normal

Within 24 Hours:

  • Oxygen level in blood increases to normal
  • Smoker’s breath disappears
  • Your chance of a heart attack decreases

Within 72 Hours:

  • Bronchial tubes relax making it easier to breathe
  • Lung capacity increases making it easier to do physical activities

Within 2 Weeks to 3 Months:

  • Circulation improves
  • Walking becomes easier
  • Lung function increases up to 30%

Within 1 to 9 Months:

  • Coughing, sinus congestion, fatigue and shortness of breath decrease
  • Your body’s overall energy level increases
  • Cilia re-grow in lungs, increasing the ability to handle mucus, clean lungs and reduce infection

Within 2 Years:

  • Risk of coronary heart disease is half that of a smoker
  • Heart attack risk drops to near normal

Within 5 Years:

  • Lung cancer death rate decreases by almost half
  • Stroke risk is reduced
  • Risk of mouth, throat and esophageal cancer is cut in half

Within 10 Years:

  • Lung cancer death rate is similar to that of a lifetime non-smoker
  • Pre-cancerous cells are replaced

It's Never Too Late to Quit

Quitting isn’t easy. Many people have smoked for years and just thinking about quitting is stressful and overwhelming, but it can be done. In fact, over the years millions of people have quit and so can you. People have many reasons for stopping their smoking, not all are related to health. Smoking is also expensive and time consuming. Think about why you want to quit. Write down the reasons you want to quit and keep the list where you can see it. Another helpful strategy for people thinking of quitting is to keep track of when and why you smoke. It is easy to light up without giving it much thought. Knowing yourself, and what places, activities, people, and moods are associated with your smoking, will help you combat your triggers for cigarette use and avoid high risk situations when possible.

Getting Started

If you’re ready to quit smoking, your chances are better if you make a plan. Quitting works best when you are prepared. Here are some tips to START.

  • S = Set a quit date
  • T = Tell family and friends
  • A = Anticipate and plan for challenges you’ll face
  • R = Remove cigarettes and other tobacco from your environment
  • T = Talk to your doctor about getting help to quit

Getting Help

All VA facilities offer some assistance with smoking cessation. Often people start by talking to their doctor or another provider. We’ve found that people with MS usually have a long list of things to discuss with their doctors. Remember, quitting smoking is probably the single best thing you can do for your long-term health. It deserves a place on your list!

Many people quit smoking on their own, but your provider can put you in touch with a VA smoking cessation program that may include medications and counseling, both things that have been shown to be helpful to assist quitting. Help and support are also available from the VA’s National Quitline 1-800-QUIT NOW. You can call this number any time, or in conjunction with the plan you establish with your healthcare team.