The Effects of Smoking On the Throat – Why Does Your Throat Burn After Smoking?

There’s no disputing the fact that smoking causes damage to multiple organs in the human body – the heart and the lungs being the ones that are highlighted the most. However, we often neglect the effect that smoking has on the throat.

And that’s quite a list:

  • Smoking-induced vocal changes – if you’re going for a ‘Joplinesque’ quality to your voice, smoking a pack of cigarettes will get you there in no time.
  • Increased risk of oral cancer – close to 50,000 new cases of oral cancer are diagnosed every year in the United States (including mouth, lip, and oropharyngeal cancers).
  • Throat irritation also known as ‘throat hit’, is the constant companion of smokers. In scientific terms, it’s a mild irritation accompanied by the contraction of the pharynx.

Your throat is at the forefront of your body’s war with cigarettes. It’s the first to experience the effects of smoking, that assault of hot smoke which carries thousands of chemical compounds, almost all of which are toxic to some extent.

The reason why I’ve decided to write a post about how smoking affects the throat is simple: vapers (especially beginners) constantly talk about something called the ‘throat hit’. You’ll hear it often – ‘adjust the throat hit so it mimics real cigarettes closer’, or ‘I’m not getting the throat hit I need with e-cigs and I’m thinking about going back to analogs’.

Honestly, I’ve never heard of throat hit before I started vaping (and I’m was a smoker for 15 long years). However, I remember getting a feeling that I was missing something vital when I was puffing on my first e-cig. As it turns out, what I was missing was my throat ‘burning’ (and contracting – the actual sensation is quite difficult to put into words, which is not surprising) as it did when I was smoking.

Before I go too deep into throat hit (or throat irritation induced by smoking, which is what it really is), let’s take a look at other throat-related issues that might come up if you’re a smoker.

Vocal Changes Triggered by Smoking

Cigarettes smoke does a real number on the vocal cords. After you light up, your body goes on the defensive, producing more mucus in the throat in an effort to protect the vocal cords. Short exposure to smoke will not affect your voice, but if that exposure is prolonged (as it is with smoking), the mucus will start messing with your singing voice. Unfortunately, that’s one of the more benign effects.

Long-term smokers have an increased risk of developing vocal cord nodules. These nodules are actually swellings that have turned into blisters, and eventually (and without treatment) into nodules. They can significantly affect your voice box. Any one of the following symptoms might indicate that you have vocal cord nodules:

  • Raspy and hoarse voice
  • Breathlessness
  • Stabbing pain from ear to ear
  • Lumpy and painful throat
  • Vocal fatigue
  • Decreased vocal range

There’s a clear link between nodule formation and smoking. Cigarette smoke is hot and dry and, as such, it drys out the cords, which then swell and blister. The formation of nodules happens as a result of repeated vocal cord irritation.

Smoking and Increased Risk of Throat Cancer

Cancers affecting the oral cavity are sneaky bastards because they are usually very difficult to diagnose early and because they are numerous. Surveillance, Epidemiology, and End Results Program estimates that there will be close to 50,000 new cases of various types of oral cancers in 2017 in the United States. That accounts for around 2.2% of all cancers in the country.

Out of those 50,000, around 13,500 will be larynx (throat) cancers. One of the first symptoms of throat cancer are changes in the voice, which is unfortunate because smokers tend to dismiss those changes as something inconsequential or something that’s, in and of itself, the result of smoking.

In truth, if you’re a smoker you’re 10 to 15 times more likely to get laryngeal cancer. In fact, according to research, 85% of neck cancers can be linked to tobacco use (which means that both smoking and chewing tobacco are equally risky).

Throat Irritation and Contraction Caused by Smoking

Since there are thousands of compounds in cigarette smoke, it’s not too big of a stretch to assume that some of them will cause throat irritation. Some studies have confirmed that formaldehyde and acrolein are, in fact, the primary irritants in cigarette smoke, though I have no doubt that everything else contributes.

These irritants cause a slight inflammation of throat tissue every time you smoke. Think of it as a scab you can’t stop picking – it’s never going to heal, right? In addition to that, these irritants, coupled with nicotine (which is a vasoconstrictor) also cause tightening of the throat, a contraction that I’ve already mentioned and that is known as ‘throat hit’ in the vaping community.

Smoking & Vaping – Throat Hit As the Common Denominator

This is the actual reason that prompted me to write this post.

As I’ve mentioned, as vapers we hear a lot about throat hit. Actually, I tend to advise beginner vapers to make sure that their vape juice can deliver sufficient throat hit because, for some, that will make or break their transition.

But why is that? What’s so appealing about your throat contracting and burning that we actively seek the sensation out even when we attempt to quit smoking?

For me (and for many others) it seems as if it’s a question of sensory deprivation – or, at least it was when I was switching to vaping. I’ve come to associate that slightly uncomfortable burning sensation in my throat with cigarettes and I couldn’t shake the feeling that I need it. In a sense, my throat became an important sensory canal – as one researcher nicely puts it.

Will You Be Hooked On Throat Hit Forever?

It’s pretty twisted to miss something that’s essentially a ‘condition’ caused by smoking, but there you have it. Luckily, as a beginner vaper, you can tailor throat hit with nic level (more nicotine equals harsher throat hit), by choosing predominantly PG-based vape juices and by going with tobacco flavors for a more authentic feel. As your taste buds recover, you’ll find that you’re more into the actual flavors and less into throat hit so that will become a non-issue.

However, identifying that ‘burning throat’ sensation in smoking as something that ex-smokers actually miss and that can cause them to go back to analogs is pretty much a stroke of genius. Since we know about it, we can replicate it by tinkering with vape juices to create a similar feel, at the same time avoiding other detrimental effects that smoking has on the throat. That small trick works wonders and has already helped hundreds of vapers to stick with their e-cigarettes.

Now that you know exactly what smoking does to your throat, aren’t you glad you switched to vaping? I sure am, despite the fact that it’s been a bumpy road. Feel free to post a comment letting us all know how you’ve dealt with throat hit (or lack of it) when switching to vaping. If you have any tips for struggling beginner vapers, I’m sure they would be appreciated so don’t hold back!