Smoking and Strokes - A Guide to Stop Smoking

Strokes, heart disease and cancer are major causes of death in the UK. They occur for a variety of reasons which include genes, lifestyle factors, the environment and age.

One particularly important lifestyle factor is that of smoking. Smoking leads to high blood pressure, increased blood clotting and a hardening (or ‘furring’) of the arteries, called atherosclerosis.

These all double your risk of having a stroke.

Cigarette smoke contains many poisonous chemicals which are inhaled into your lungs and then enter your bloodstream. Once in this bloodstream they are then able to travel to any area within the body. And cause damage within that area.

For example the heart: the arteries to the heart can narrow as a result of the effects of these chemicals which reduce the blood supply, and oxygen to the heart. This forces the heart to pump much harder which puts pressure on these arteries. This causes your blood pressure to rise which then increases the risk of a stroke.

A stroke can either be small (‘mini’) or large (‘major’) but either way they are largely preventable. There are people who are at grater risk than others, mainly due to factors beyond their control such as family history, gender, age and ethnicity.

But they along with others can still take steps to reduce their risk which includes the following:

  • Maintaining a healthy weight
  • Having your blood pressure checked on a regular basis
  • Reducing stress levels
  • Eating healthily
  • Moderate alcohol consumption
  • Stop smoking
  • Taking exercise
  • Choosing the right hormone treatment (women only)
  • Monitoring any medical conditions you have, especially those which increase your risk of a stroke.

What is a stroke?

A stroke is the medical term for a ‘brain attack’. The brain requires a constant supply of oxygen and nutrients to function normally. If this blood supply is suddenly cut off then brain cells are destroyed which impairs that normal functioning.

The brain controls everything that you do so if it is damaged then it will affect a particular function of the body. For example, if the brain attack occurs in a part of the brain which controls speech then that will be affected.

In fact, one of the characteristic symptoms of a stroke is slurred speech.

The brain controls both our physical and mental processes so if any of these are affected by a stroke then the results can be devastating.

A stroke can happen suddenly with an immediate effect on the body.

A brain attack is a good way of describing this condition as the effects are very similar to a heart attack. If the blood supply to the heart is cut off then this leads to a heart attack and permanent damage to the heart muscle.

There are two types of stroke:

  • Ischaemic
  • Haemorrhagic

An ischaemic stroke is a common form of stroke in which a clot blocks the flow of blood (and oxygen) through an artery.

A haemorrhagic stroke occurs if a weakened artery bursts and bleeds into the surrounding areas of the brain.

A stroke can happen at any age although it most commonly affects people aged 65 and over.

Smoking increases the risk of an ischaemic stroke happening as it lowers oxygen levels and causes a hardening of the arteries (narrowing) which makes the blood more likely to clot.

You might be at risk of a stroke irrespective of being a smoker, mainly for reasons which are beyond your control, for example, your family history.

However, this doesn’t mean that a stroke is inevitable. There are still things you can do to reduce your risk which include following a healthy lifestyle and quit smoking.

A point of interest to women: if you smoke and are taking an oral contraceptive then this increases your risk of a stroke. We are not advocating that you stop taking contraceptives rather that you stop smoking instead.

To learn more visit our Stopping Smoking section.

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