There’s no such thing as a “healthy smoker.” Even smokers with clean X-rays and normal chest exams have airway cells with similarities to those found in lung cancer, finds new Cornell University research.
In the study, participants had all smoked between 10 and 40 “pack years”—one pack per day for 10 years equals 10 pack years, while half a pack a day for 10 years is 5 pack years.
Many of these smokers seemed healthy; their exams were normal and they had no symptoms of lung disease, such as shortness of breath and chest pain.
But here’s the thing: Cell transformations are present in all smokers, even occasional ones, says study coauthor Ronald G. Crystal, M.D. You don’t have to worry if your only exposure to smoke is passing puffers on the street, but you do if you’re the one inhaling—or are exposed to secondhand smoke on a regular basis. (Live with a smoker? You’re at risk.)
As with all smoking-is-bad news, the real take-home is to quit your habit, stat. Equally important: making sure you don’t start up again. Some cell damage is reversed after you stop, but your cells don’t completely go back to normal once you quit, Dr. Crystal says. So if you pick back up, you’ll just compound the existing damage.
Ask your doc for a treatment plan—support groups, Rx drugs, or nicotine-replacement products—and stay active. Exercisers are 55 percent more likely to quit and avoid relapsing than couch potatoes, according to a 2012 Taiwanese study.