An estimated 40 million adults in the US smoke cigarettes – that’s more than 15% of the population. The number of smokers has been in steady decline for decades, but we’re nowhere near zero yet. You’ve probably seen ads highlighting health risks associated with smoking in general and during pregnancy in particular, but what are the actual risks of smoking during pregnancy?
Tobacco And Your Body
Tobacco is native to the Americas and it’s believed that Native Americans began using it in religious and medicinal practices more than 2000 years ago. Christopher Columbus brought it back to Europe after his 1492 trip and it spread like wildfire across the continent, often promoted for its supposed health benefits. Scientists started to discover negative effects of tobacco use in the 19th century, but it wasn’t until the 1960s that the word started to spread. In the 1960s, about 2/3 of Americans smoked cigarettes. With extensive campaigns highlighting the health hazards of smoking, that rate is down to less than 17% today.
So what exactly are the effects of smoking tobacco? When you light a cigarette, the contents of the cigarette (tobacco and added chemicals) burn and you inhale the smoke. Parts of that smoke form tar in your mouth, down your throat, and in your lungs. The chemicals in the smoke are absorbed into your bloodstream. Right off the bat, they increase your heart rate and blood pressure and decrease your blood oxygen (because you’re inhaling carbon monoxide). The nicotine in cigarette smoke stimulates the production of adrenaline and dopamine – that’s why it’s addictive.
Over the long term, the decreased blood oxygen levels cause wrinkles and can affect the color of your skin. Smoking increases your risk for stroke, heart attack, blood clots, and other cardiovascular problems due to its effects on your circulatory system. It also increases your risk for cancer – not just lung cancer, but pretty much every kind of cancer. Many of the chemicals in cigarette smoke are carcinogens and they travel through your whole body in your bloodstream.
Of course, many people continue to smoke (and perhaps always will), ad campaigns and Surgeon General’s warnings notwithstanding. We already know that smoking is bad for us – it causes about half a million deaths in the US every year – but what about its effect on a growing baby?
Smoking And Pregnancy
First, smoking is linked to decreased fertility in both men and women and increases the risk of ectopic pregnancies, which are not viable and can be very dangerous for the mother. It also poses risks to the baby if you’re pregnant. As with alcohol, babies’ bodies can’t process the chemicals in cigarettes the way adults can. That means they’re even more susceptible to the risks associated with smoking – those chemicals pass straight from your bloodstream to the baby’s. The increased levels of carbon monoxide in the mother’s blood can deprive the little one of oxygen, which seriously affects the baby’s development and can lead to brain damage.
In addition, smoking during pregnancy increases the risk of premature birth, which can cause a variety of health problems, and low birth weight. It can also cause birth defects, including cleft lips and cleft palates. It increases the risk of miscarriage or stillbirth before delivery and the risk of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS) after delivery. The risk for placental abruption (when the placenta separates from the wall of the uterus and causes severe bleeding) and placenta previa (where the placenta obstructs the cervix) are increased by smoking; both of those conditions can be life-threatening for both mother and baby. Finally, pregnancy already increases the risk of blood clots and smoking compounds those risks.
What Should I Do?
Doctors recommend quitting smoking in general, regardless of pregnancy. If you’re pregnant, however, the risks to your little one are serious and can even be life-threatening. Even if you’re already pregnant, quitting will significantly lower these risks. Of course, quitting isn’t a simple thing – if it were easy, no one would smoke. If you can’t quit cold turkey on your own, you should talk to your doctor about support for quitting. Your doctor needs to know whether you smoke anyway so that he or she can keep an eye out for signs of smoking-related troubles. You may be able to use nicotine patches, gums, or sprays, but you should consult with your doctor first to determine if they’re safe for pregnancy. Quitting isn’t easy, but it’s better for you and your baby – smoking and pregnancy make a dangerous combination.