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Four ways that smoking affects your sinuses

Expert Chats

Smoking is known to be especially harmful on your respiratory system, and has been linked to numerous types of cancer. But did you know that it can wreak havoc on your sinuses, too?

A recent study led by the Sinus Center at Mass. Eye and Ear quantified the detrimental effects of smoking on the sinuses, measuring severity of symptoms and quality-of-life impact. They also found a silver lining — on average, these detrimental effects resolve about ten years after breaking the habit.

Dr. Ahmad Sedaghat, senior author on the study and a sinus surgeon at Mass. Eye and Ear, says that many of his patients who smoke complain of sinus issues.

He tells his patients: “It’s making those symptoms, the same symptoms that are making you miserable, worse.”

But how does smoking affect your sinuses?

#1: Smoking changes the lining of your nasal passages.

The nasal passages are lined with hair-like cells called cilia, which move back and forth. They work with mucus to prevent infection by trapping foreign particles and then “sweeping” them away, expelling the potential infection out of the body.

The chemicals used in cigarettes, like hydrogen cyanide and ammonia, are toxic to cilia and impair movement. Without movement, there’s a buildup of mucus in the nasal passages.

#2: Smoking increases the risk of infection.

The sinuses are the body’s first line of defense against foreign particles. When exposed to irritants like pollen or moderate amounts of smoke, the cilia and mucus in the nasal passages can do their jobs, and clear the passages effectively. But high volumes of smoke can impair the body’s ability to sweep away harmful bacteria and viruses, essentially opening a door of pathogens to enter the body.

Smokers tend to get sick more often and more easily than non-smokers because of an impaired immune system. Despite being relatively healthy, many young smokers are at risk for developing pneumonia.

#3: Smokers experience chronic facial pain and headaches

As a symptom of chronic sinusitis, facial pain is common among smokers. Without the movement of the cilia, nasal passages may become blocked. This causes inflammation and pain felt from the cheekbones, to the nose bridge, to under the eyes. The pain may even manifest as pressure on the upper rear teeth, which are near the sinuses.

#4: Smokers have difficulty sleeping through the night

The paralyzing effects that cigarette smoke has on nasal cilia also affect the cilia in the passages leading to the lungs. Without the cilia moving irritants along, people who smoke may feel congested, and wake up coughing because of the mucus buildup.

Smokers are also at risk of developing sleep apnea. A 2011 study found that smokers are 2.5 times more likely to have sleep apnea because cigarette smoke induces swelling that restricts air flow.

There’s still a chance for symptoms to reverse.

If you smoke, however, don’t lose all hope. Our recent study shows that symptoms of sinus disease abate after stopping. Dr. Sedaghat says this should provide some motivation for his patients to put down the cigarettes.

“If patients tell me that they are smoking, I now have direct evidence to say that the same symptoms that are making them miserable are exacerbated further by smoking,” he says. “On the other hand, we can also be optimistic, because we have evidence to suggest that if you quit smoking, things will get better – on the order of 10 years.”

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