Does smoking increase my risk of rheumatoid arthritis?

Answers from April Chang-Miller, M.D.

Studies show that a person's risk of developing rheumatoid arthritis isn't limited to genetic predisposition. Environmental risk factors also play a role in who develops rheumatoid arthritis, and smoking has been shown to be one of the strongest environmental risk factors.

The mechanism isn't well-understood, but researchers suspect smoking somehow ignites faulty immune functioning in people who are genetically predisposed to rheumatoid arthritis. This risk is thought to be greater in people with certain types of genetic factors that are associated with rheumatoid arthritis.

Bottom line — smoking is a major risk factor for developing rheumatoid arthritis that is completely preventable. Smoking also decreases the effectiveness of drugs prescribed to treat rheumatoid arthritis and can be a barrier to engaging in activities that may relieve symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis, such as exercise.

Many people with rheumatoid arthritis aren't aware that smoking makes their condition worse, so they don't recognize this as a reason to quit. Other factors unique to rheumatoid arthritis present additional challenges to quitting. These include the idea that smoking is a distraction that helps people cope with the pain of rheumatoid arthritis and feelings of isolation and lack of support.

Of course, smoking isn't good for anyone and also increases your risk of:

  • Lung and other cancers
  • Stroke
  • Respiratory disease
  • Cardiovascular disease
  • Osteoporosis

If you have rheumatoid arthritis and also smoke, quitting could have numerous benefits. Talk to your doctor about strategies to help you quit and improve your overall health as well as the progression of your rheumatoid arthritis.

Dec. 17, 2014 See more Expert Answers