According to an article featured in the American Heart Association’s Cardiology Patient circular in 2014, risk factors for varicose veins are grouped into four categories: hereditary, hormonal, acquired, and lifestyle. More specifically, hereditary risk factors include a family history of varicose veins. Pregnancy and menopause are the largest hormonal factors. Acquired risk factors include obesity, diabetes, blood clots, and venous insufficiency. And, lifestyle choices, such as smoking, also play a big role in developing varicose veins.

Smoking Affects the Veins in Two Ways

The immediate effects of smoking include vasoconstriction or narrowing of the veins. The effects are short-lived; however, over time, permanent changes occur inside the venous linings, which increase muscle tone within the veins. When veins become narrowed, this makes blood flow against gravity back to the heart more difficult. As the blood pools, the hardened veins distend and lead to varicosities.

Studies show that the carbon monoxide and tar present in cigarette smoke have damaging effects to the venous system. Carbon monoxide reduces the amount of oxygen found in the blood.  Because of lower oxygen levels, veins may become inflamed and injured. This response triggers the body to release infection-fighting white blood cells to remove the irritating substances, releasing free radicals. Free radicals have been linked to causing more inflammation and injury to the vein walls, leading to varicose changes.

Higher Stakes for Older Female Smokers

Females smoking over 19 cigarettes daily after the age of 45 with a family history of varicose veins and who are also entering menopause are most likely to develop varicose veins. Middle-aged male smokers with other risk factors are also more prone to develop them. Older female smokers, however, reported more associated symptoms than younger women or male smokers of the same age. These symptoms include, pain, heaviness, numbness, discoloration and ulceration.  Higher reports of associated symptoms are due to insufficient blood flow to the lower legs caused by continued effects of smoking.

Smoking is a Modifiable Risk Factor

Some risk factors, such as age, a family history of varicose veins and menopause cannot be changed. Lifestyle factors, such as smoking, and inactivity can be. In fact, by quitting smoking and beginning an exercise program—with your doctor’s approval—may reverse some damage to your veins. And, cardiovascular exercises using the calf muscles will also improve circulation through narrowed veins lessening associated symptoms and improving their appearance.

If you smoke and have varicose veins, it is important that you speak to your doctor or vein specialist regarding your treatment options, especially if you are experiencing symptoms, like pain, numbness, discoloration, or changes in the skin around the areas. There are many programs and several medications that may assist you to stop smoking. Your vein specialist is an important resource in determining the best course of action for your individual case.

Contact a specialist at The Vein Centre today to speak about your treatment options