Can Smoking Really Affect MS?

You don’t need us to tell you smoking is bad for your health. There’s a scary enough warning on every packet! One thing you may not know about smoking, however, is it holds extra risks for people with multiple sclerosis. If you’re a smoker who has MS, this may be the last thing you want to hear, but knowing the facts is an important part of managing your health, whether you decide to quit or not. So here is some of the data behind MS and smoking.

For starters, there’s evidence smoking increases your risk of developing MS in the first place. Exposure to cigarette smoke appears to be an environmental risk factor for MS, with smokers one and a half times more likely to be diagnosed with the disease than non-smokers. And it seems the more you smoke, the higher your risk – a study found risk increases the more cigarettes you smoke per day and the longer you smoke.

If that makes you want to stub out your ciggie right now then fine, but don’t go beating yourself up. Smoking is just one of many possible triggers, it doesn’t cause MS. If it was that simple, then everybody who smoked would develop the disease, and clearly that isn’t the case. It’s more likely smoking compounds other factors. Low vitamin D levels for example, are suspected to be associated with an increased risk of developing MS. We also know smoking reduces vitamin D absorption, so these two factors may be connected. Exposure to certain viruses has also been put forward as a possible environmental trigger. As smoking compromises the immune system, it’s possible it affects the way the body responds to a virus, so again, the two things may compound each other. One study, for example, found people who had high levels of antibodies to the Epstein–Barr virus (suggesting they had been exposed to it) and who also smoked, were seven times more likely to develop MS than those with neither risk factor. Eek.

If you’re a smoker a time machine would be handy – who wouldn’t want to go back and never take that first puff? But all any of us can really do is focus on the things we can change. Like being mindful of the risks smoking poses once you’re diagnosed with MS.

Which brings us to some additional research. Unfortunately, there is fairly compelling evidence a tobacco habit affects the course of your MS. One 2005 study suggests smoking may be a risk factor for transforming a relapsing–remitting clinical course into a secondary-progressive course, for example. The researchers found the risk of developing secondary progressive MS was more than three times higher in smokers than in non-smokers who had the relapsing–remitting form of the disease. More recently, researchers found links between smoking and brain tissue damage seen on MRI scans of people with MS. As well as a greater volume of brain lesions and more brain atrophy (shrinkage) than non-smokers, smokers also displayed greater physical disability as measured on the Expanded Disability Status Scale.

However, while one study found disability appeared to progress more quickly in smokers than non-smokers, in some measures there was no difference between non-smokers and former smokers. In other words, quitting now may still help delay the progression of your MS.

Whether you’re an occasional-glass-of-wine-and-a-sneaky-ciggie person, or you puff your way through a packet a day, it’s never too late to make healthy changes. For an occasional smoker’s take on weighing up the risks, take a look at resident blogger Jamie Tripp Utitus’s thoughts here. And if the time does feel right to stub out your cigarette habit for good, speak to your doctor. Studies show smokers who receive a combination of counselling and medication have the highest success rate when it comes to quitting. Sure it might take a few attempts – but, hey, you’re only human!

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