Immune response in asymptomatic smokers

Acta Anaesthesiol Scand. 2002 Sep;46(8):959-64. doi: 10.1034/j.1399-6576.2002.460806.x.


Background: It has been demonstrated that cigarette smoking affects the immune system. Impairment of alveolar mononuclear cell function, described previously, may contribute to the higher rate of postoperative respiratory infections. However, increased susceptibility of smokers to infections of other origin (e.g. wound-related) implies that tobacco effect is not restricted to the respiratory immune competent cells. The present study was designed to investigate the systemic effect of tobacco smoking as it exerted on blood-derived immune cells. We measured systemic cytotoxic activity of natural killer cells, production of pro- and anti-inflammatory cytokines by blood mononuclear cells and their proliferation in response to mitogens. To minimize the immunosuppressive effect of other smoke-related factors, the smokers with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) were excluded from this study.

Methods: Peripheral blood mononuclear cells (PBMC) from 24 chronic asymptomatic smokers, and 28 controls, age and gender matched, were isolated and incubated in vitro with lipopolysaccharide (LPS) or phytohemagglutinin (PHA) to induce secretion of IL-1beta, IL-1ra, IL-6, IL-10, TNFalpha and IL-2, respectively, from mononuclear cells. The level of the cytokines in the supernatants was measured using ELISA kits. The proliferative response to the mitogens PHA and concanavalin A (ConA) was evaluated by 3H-thymidine incorporation and NK cell cytotoxicity by 51Cr release assay.

Results: Mononuclear cells from smokers showed increased production of the pro-inflammatory cytokines IL-1beta, IL-6 and TNFalpha and enhanced proliferative response to mitogens as compared to non-smoking population. The secretion of IL-2 and the anti-inflammatory cytokines IL-1ra and IL-10 was similar in both groups. NK cell cytotoxic activity was suppressed in the smokers.

Conclusion: Cigarette smokers without chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) exhibit impaired NK cytotoxic activity in peripheral blood and unbalanced systemic production of pro- and anti-inflammatory cytokines. These changes may serve as predisposing factors for respiratory and systemic infections in the postoperative period and should alert an anesthetist during perioperative management.

MeSH terms

  • Cytokines / biosynthesis*
  • Cytotoxicity, Immunologic
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Interleukin-1 / biosynthesis
  • Interleukin-6 / biosynthesis
  • Killer Cells, Natural / immunology
  • Lymphocyte Activation
  • Lymphocytes / immunology*
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Smoking / immunology*
  • Tumor Necrosis Factor-alpha / biosynthesis


  • Cytokines
  • Interleukin-1
  • Interleukin-6
  • Tumor Necrosis Factor-alpha