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Women and Smoking: It’s Time to Take a Breath-er


By Mary Lizabeth Aquavia, Medical Director, Women’s Health Program

Smoking poses a serious risk to women’s health. Every year, cigarette smoking kills an estimated 202,000 women in the U.S., according to the American Lung Association.

It’s important to know that many of these deaths are preventable – as are many of the other harmful effects of smoking on women. And while it’s true that quitting smoking can be a challenge, many women are successfully giving up cigarettes and going on to live happier, healthier lives!

November is Lung Cancer Awareness Month, a time when we focus on raising awareness of this disease, which is the leading cause of cancer deaths in the U.S. Also in November, the American Cancer Society sponsors the Great American Smokeout on the third Thursday of the month each year, challenging smokers to give up cigarettes for 24 hours as a first step toward quitting this unhealthy habit for good. This year’s event is on Nov. 17.

So, if you’re a smoker, there’s no better time than the present to take that step – for your health’s sake!

Smoking and Women’s Health

While smoking is harmful for both men and women, some negative effects of smoking are unique to women’s health. If you’re a smoker, or if you know a woman who smokes, here are some of the health risks that you need to be aware of. 

Reproductive Issues

Women who smoke are more likely than women who don’t smoke to:

  • Have more irregular or painful periods
  • Have low estrogen levels
  • Go through menopause at a younger age – with more severe symptoms
  • Have a harder time getting pregnant


When women who smoke do become pregnant, the nicotine from cigarettes can affect the development of their baby, both in the womb and after they’re born, including such issues as:

  • Greater risk of being born too early
  • Greater risk of some side effects, such as a cleft palate or cleft lip
  • Lower chance of a healthy birthweight
  • Reduced chance of normal brain development
  • Greater risk of dying from sudden infant death syndrome

Respiratory Disease

Women who smoke are more likely than men who smoke to:

  • Develop severe chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) at a younger age
  • Die from COPD 

Cardiovascular Conditions

Women who smoke while using oral contraceptives, especially if they’re over 35, have a greatly increased risk of heart disease. Compared to men who smoke, women who smoke have:

  • A slightly increased risk of dying from heart disease if they’re over the age of 35
  • A greater risk of dying from an abdominal aortic aneurysm (a weakening of the main blood vessel that carries blood from the heart to the body)


People who smoke have a greater risk of developing cancer, including lung, pancreatic, kidney, liver, throat, bladder, and colorectal cancers. For women:

  • Smoking is associated with a greater risk of cervical cancer
  • Smoking is the most common cause of lung cancer (as it is for men); more women die from lung cancer than from any other cancer

Successfully Quitting Smoking

Quitting “cold turkey” is not your only option if you want to stop smoking. The National Institutes of Health offers a very useful website with specific tips for women on how to successfully give up smoking. Here are a few of their recommendations:

  • Have a plan – Creating a personalized quit plan will help you stay on track and make it through the rough times without going back to old habits. The plan should include such things as a specific quit date, your reasons for quitting, and a list of the triggers that are likely to make you want to smoke again.
  • Find ways to handle nicotine withdrawal – Withdrawal from nicotine can make you feel depressed, anxious, nervous, or cranky. It can also disrupt your sleep and leave you less able to think clearly. Nicotine Replacement Therapy (NRT), in the form of a patch or lozenge that can be bought over the counter, can help reduce your cravings for nicotine. Please note: NRT is not recommended for women who are pregnant or trying to become pregnant. Other prescription medicines are also available, so ask your doctor or health care provider if these are right for you.
  • Tell your family and friends that you plan to quit – You don’t have to go through this alone. Having the support of your family and friends will not only make it easier for you to quit, it will also increase your chances of becoming smoke-free for the long term.

Remember: It may take you a few times to quit for good, so don’t be too hard on yourself. When you do stop smoking permanently, the chances are that you will notice an immediate beneficial impact on your health and well-being.  

It’s never too late to gain the benefits from quitting smoking – so make this a November to remember!