Smoking doesn’t just harm your lungs and your heart. It is also a major risk factor for a condition that harms millions of Americans’ feet.
You’ve likely read how smoking can cause lung cancer and heart disease. Now it’s time to read about what smoking does to your feet.
Sometimes a doctor can tell just by looking at patients’ feet whether they smoke, says James Mahoney, DPM, an associate professor of podiatric surgery at Des Moines University in Iowa. The skin on their feet is often thinner, shinier, and reddish in color, he says.
Your feet are located a long way from your heart, which means that even under the best of circumstances, they don’t receive as much blood circulation as other parts of your body. And if you smoke, your body is definitely not working under peak conditions. A condition called peripheral arterial disease — which affects about 8 million Americans — is one way that smoking can seriously harm your feet.
Feet and Smoking: Peripheral Arterial Disease
With peripheral arterial disease, or PAD, a substance called plaque builds up in your arteries, often affecting the arteries that run down the length of your legs to your feet. As the arteries become stiff and narrowed, blood has trouble reaching your feet. According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), you may feel leg pain while you’re walking around, and you may notice that sores or injuries on your feet heal poorly, if at all. But in many cases, PAD doesn’t alert you with signs or symptoms.
If you smoke, your risk of developing this condition is four times greater than if you don’t. Also, according to the NIH, if you develop the condition, you’ll get it 10 years earlier than non-smokers who develop PAD. If you also have diabetes — another common risk factor for decreased circulation to the feet — you’re putting your feet at particularly high risk of damage, Dr. Mahoney warns.
Patients with PAD have a five times greater risk of dying from issues associated with cardiovascular disease, and more than six times greater risk of dying specifically from coronary heart disease.
In some cases, doctors can improve the circulation through the leg by bypassing a narrowed section of artery by attaching a piece of blood vessel to it, or by pushing a tube with a small balloon on the end through the blockage to dilate the artery. However, if a foot is badly damaged due to lack of blood flow, it may need to be amputated, Mahoney says.
Feet and Smoking: Quitting
If you’re concerned that cigarettes are putting your feet — and other body parts — at risk, here are a few steps that may help you finally quit:
- Start planning ahead to help prepare yourself for quitting. Set a date for when you will quit, and beforehand remove cigarettes and ashtrays from your home, car, and other surroundings. Ask your friends and family for encouragement and support.
- Talk to your doctor. Several medications — including different types of nicotine products, such as nasal spray, lozenges, and patches — can double your chances of quitting. Some antidepressant medications can also help with cravings for nicotine.
- Avoid triggers. Being around other people who are smoking can make you want to smoke. In addition, drinking alcohol makes you more likely to smoke. If you frequent bars and other places where alcohol and smoking tend to come together, now’s a good time to find a new hangout.
And don’t forget to do something nice for yourself. Since you’re stopping a practice that may give you pleasure, do something fun that keeps your mind off the cigarettes. Taking regular baths or exercising are healthy, stress-reducing ways to distract yourself.