Smoking damages the body in many ways. It is the number one risk factor for lung cancer, and many smokers, particularly heavy or long-term smokers, experience a tobacco-related cough. You may be wondering why you’re coughing after quitting smoking. This can be especially confronting if you didn’t have a cough while you were smoking. The quitter’s cough, as it’s known, can actually be a good sign — it signals that your lungs are beginning to function properly again. Here, we explain why you may be coughing after quitting smoking, and what you can do to manage it.
Why Do I Cough When I Smoke?
Smoking has a significant impact on the health of our lungs.
Cilia are the fine, hairlike structures that line our airways. They are responsible for pushing inhaled debris and nasty stuff like bacteria and viruses out of our lungs so that we can breathe properly. When you smoke, you inhale toxins and chemicals which damage the cilia. This means toxins collect in your lungs and the cilia need to work harder to push them out, which can result in a persistent cough.
Cilia regain movement when you haven’t smoked for a while. This is why your cough may be worse in the morning. Your lungs are working harder to get rid of the bacteria that became trapped while you smoked the day and night before.
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Smoking can also cause a postnasal drip — where mucus leaks down into the back of the throat — which can lead to coughing.
In the early stages, a smoking-related cough will likely be dry. As you continue to smoke, your cough will likely progress and become productive (meaning you cough up mucus). You may also experience wheezing or chest-crackling when you breathe, which signals that the lungs have not properly cleared.
Why Is My Breathing Worse After Quitting Smoking?
It can be confusing and concerning to experience increased coughing after quitting smoking, particularly if you weren’t coughing all that much while smoking. However, it can be a signal that your body is healing.
As mentioned, smokers often find their cough is worse in the morning because the cilia have begun moving again, forcing you to cough to clear out the chemicals from the lungs. In the same way, when you quit smoking the cilia start to function properly again. This can trigger a cough. As more time passes since your last cigarette, the cilia are able to clear more mucus out of the lungs, which is why you may consistently cough up phlegm when you quit smoking.
So, you may feel that your breathing is worse after quitting smoking, but it can actually be a good sign. Coughing indicates that your lungs are beginning to function normally again.
Flu-Like Symptoms When Quitting Smoking
Smoker’s flu or quitter’s flu is the term used to describe some of the most common nicotine withdrawal symptoms.
The nicotine in cigarettes is addictive. When you smoke, your body and brain become used to receiving regular doses of nicotine. If you wait too long in between cigarettes, your body will produce withdrawal symptoms, and these sensations prompt you to smoke another cigarette. These symptoms are uncomfortable and can be distressing, which is why quitting can be so challenging.
Depending on how frequently you smoke, your body may start firing off withdrawal sensations in as little as a few hours after your last cigarette. The symptoms of quitting smoking can be more intense if you’re quitting cold turkey.
Quitter’s flu refers to a particular group of flu-like nicotine withdrawal symptoms, which include:
- Sore throat
- Headaches and dizziness
A key sign that you’re experiencing quitter’s flu as opposed to the actual flu is the absence of a fever.
Other nicotine withdrawal symptoms include:
- Mood swings
- Digestive issues
- Increased appetite
Why Am I Coughing Up Phlegm When Quitting Smoking?
One of the most common experiences reported by motivated smokers who quit smoking is the production of excess phlegm and persistent coughing.
This phenomenon might seem counterintuitive – after all, quitting smoking should improve lung health, right? However, coughing up phlegm during the early stages of smoking cessation is a normal part of the body’s healing process.
Is it normal to cough up phlegm after quitting smoking? The answer is yes, it is, and it should disappear after a few days or weeks.
Why Does it Happen?
Smoking irritates the delicate lining of the lungs and airways. Over time, the toxic substances found in tobacco smoke can damage cilia – tiny hair-like structures responsible for sweeping mucus and foreign particles out of the respiratory tract.
As a result, the lung’s natural defense mechanisms become compromised, leading to an accumulation of mucus and debris within the airways.
When a person quits smoking, the body’s self-cleaning processes start to kick back into gear.
The rejuvenation of cilia begins, and the mucociliary escalator – the mechanism that moves mucus and trapped particles out of the respiratory tract – becomes more effective.
As cilia regain function, they work to clear out the excess mucus and trapped particles that have accumulated due to years of smoking, which causes you to cough phlegm.
Your phlegm’s color indicates something about your current health:
Black: If you’re coughing up black phlegm after quitting smoking, your cilia could be expelling various residual chemicals and substances from your lungs. However, it might also be due to an infection – make sure to see a GP once you start coughing up black phlegm.
Brown: Coughing up brown phlegm after quitting smoking is a sign that your cilia have started removing the tar blocking your lung lining. This might last for a few weeks.
Green: Green phlegm signifies that your immune system is fighting a possible bacterial lung infection with varying degrees of severity. A motivated smoker coughing up green phlegm may need to see a GP right away to treat the infection.
White: Coughing up white phlegm indicates that you might have a viral infection. A slightly yellow phlegm is a possible bacterial infection similar to green phlegm.
How Long Do You Cough Up Phlegm After Quitting Smoking?
It varies from person to person. Typically, it lasts for a few days or weeks once your cilia start removing the chemicals and tar in your lungs after you decide to quit. However, you might have a different timeline if your phlegm is due to a bacterial or viral infection.
When Do You Stop Coughing After Quitting Smoking?
Nicotine withdrawal symptoms are most intense within the first 72 hours of quitting. You’ll likely find that your cough, cravings, anxiety, headaches, fatigue, and dizziness are quite overwhelming during this time.
The cough, along with the other withdrawal symptoms, will gradually reduce in severity in a matter of weeks. When you’ve reached the one-month mark, most symptoms, including your cough, will have disappeared. If your cough lasts for longer than a month after quitting or worsens with time, make an appointment with your doctor. They may need to rule out other conditions that could be causing a persistent cough.
While they are certainly unpleasant and difficult to push through, any withdrawal symptoms after quitting smoking cannot harm you.
What You Can Do To Manage The Quitter’s Cough
There are a number of things you can do to manage your cough when you quit smoking. We recommend booking a free telehealth appointment with a specialist GP to discuss quitting smoking. They will be able to determine which strategies will work best for you, as well as assess and keep an eye on any symptoms you may develop.
Below are a few things that can help you manage a withdrawal cough.
- Over-the-counter medications – throat lozenges, cough drops, and gargles can help to soothe your chest and throat
- Exercise regularly – moving your body daily will help to loosen the mucus in your chest so that you can cough it up more easily.
- Stay hydrated – ensure you’re drinking plenty of water to keep the mucus thin. Avoid sugary, acidic, and caffeinated beverages, as these can cause irritation and dehydrate you.
- Get plenty of rest – adequate sleep will help your body recover from withdrawal. Coughing can be exhausting on the body, so make sure you’re giving yourself time to rest. You may also want to sleep with your head slightly elevated to prevent phlegm from gathering in the throat.
- Distract yourself – the physical symptoms of nicotine withdrawal, including coughing, can be frustrating. Try to distract yourself with relaxing activities you enjoy and remind yourself that these sensations will pass.
- Use a humidifier – an air humidifier will help to loosen the mucus and promote a productive cough.
- Consider Nicotine Replacement Therapies – NRTs, such as nicotine patches, lozenges, gum, and prescribed nicotine vaping products can help to reduce withdrawal symptoms by slowly weaning you off nicotine. If you have struggled to quit cold turkey, NRTs and prescribed nicotine vaping may be a good option. You can discuss these options with your GP to determine which approach is right for you.
If you experience severe wheezing, shortness of breath, blood in your phlegm, or if your cough lasts for more than a month, contact your doctor immediately.
The Bottom Line
When you quit smoking, withdrawal symptoms will likely arise as your body heals and adjusts to no longer receiving nicotine.
Coughing after quitting smoking can actually be a sign that your airways are working properly again to clear out the toxins and chemicals from your lungs. NRTs, over-the-counter medications, exercise, and adequate sleep can all help you manage your cough.
The quitter’s cough may last a few weeks. Contact your doctor if the cough worsens or persists beyond a month, or if you notice shortness of breath, wheezing, or blood in your phlegm.