Smoking does a considerable amount of damage to the human body. Tobacco use is linked to 19 kinds of cancer — including lung cancer — as well as many other types of lung disease, many of which are life-threatening and all of which impact a person’s quality of life. When you quit smoking, your lungs begin to heal themselves and your risk of developing fatal disease reduces considerably. So, what does smoking do to your lungs, and how do your lungs repair after quitting? Let’s take a look.
What Does Smoking Do To Your Lungs?
Smoking directly harms the lungs and stops them from functioning properly. Many smokers experience pain or discomfort while breathing, shortness of breath, and a reduced ability to exercise.
The Chemicals In Cigarettes
When you inhale tobacco, you actually inhale approximately 7,000 chemicals, including over 70 cancer-causing toxins. Some of these chemicals include:
- Nicotine is the addictive chemical in cigarettes. It prompts the heart rate to rise, increases blood pressure, and stimulates the release of dopamine, which is why you feel good when you smoke.
- Tar is the name for the solid particles in tobacco smoke. Tar is a sticky, brown substance that contains carcinogens, which are cancer-causing agents.
- Carbon monoxide is a poisonous, odourless, and colourless gas that binds to red blood cells when it enters the body. It is transported through the bloodstream and reduces the amount of oxygen circulating through the body. Carbon monoxide is very slow to leave the body and can take up to a day to be cleared from your body.
- Metals and radioactive chemicals are also found in cigarettes. These include arsenic, nickel, cadmium (found in batteries), and beryllium (used in nuclear reactors).
How Smoking Impacts The Lungs
Smoking cigarettes exposes the lungs to the whole host of dangerous chemicals mentioned above. This can impact the lungs in a number of ways.
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Irritation And Airflow
Before cigarette smoke reaches the lungs, it flows through the windpipe and past the voicebox, which can trigger swelling, irritation, a sore throat, and a cough. This can even cause your voice to change by altering its tone, quality, and pitch.
Smoking causes the airways to swell and narrow. This results in reduced airflow to the lungs. When tobacco is inhaled, the number of blood vessels and the amount of air space in the lungs decreases, which means less oxygen flows through the body.
Smoking And The Cilia
Cilia are the small, hairlike structures that line our airways. They rid our lungs of bacteria and toxins so that we can breathe easily. The chemicals in tobacco damage the cilia and limit their ability to effectively clear debris and pathogens (bacteria and viruses) from our lungs.
Cilia often regain some movement when you go several hours without a cigarette. This is why a smoker’s cough is usually worse in the morning. Overnight, the cilia are not exposed to cigarette smoke, so they begin to move again, working to clear out the toxins that have settled in the lungs the day before.
Smoking prompts mucus-producing cells in the lungs to grow and multiply, meaning it is thicker and there’s more of it. The build-up is made worse because the cilia cannot effectively expel it from the lungs, so the toxic substances accumulate and settle in the lungs for longer.
Damage To The Air Sacs
Alveoli are small sacs of air positioned deep within our lungs. Over time, smoking thins and breaks down the walls of the alveoli, turning them into larger, less efficient sacs of air. The alveoli are naturally bouncy, and this structure makes it easier for oxygen to flow in and carbon dioxide to flow out. When they are damaged, they lose this elasticity and cannot effectively promote airflow.
Lung Diseases Caused By Smoking
Smoking is responsible for a number of lung diseases, including:
- Lung cancer. The CDC reports that women and men who smoke are 25.7 and 25 times more likely to develop lung cancer than non-smokers, respectively.
- Chronic bronchitis. This disease develops when there has been long-term inflammation of the bronchi. Symptoms include constant coughing, mucus, chest discomfort, and wheezing. It can lead to disability, severe infections, difficulty breathing, and heart failure, and is a contributing factor for chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).
- Emphysema. This occurs when the alveoli are damaged. Emphysema results in shortness of breath and coughing, and is an incurable disease. It often leads to the development of COPD.
- Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. COPD occurs when airflow to the lungs is blocked. It causes breathing difficulty, wheezing, and a cough. It is a progressive disease that usually gets worse over time.
If You Stop Smoking, Will Your Lungs Heal?
Our lungs are very resilient; they can actually repair some of the short-term inflammatory damage caused by smoking. Your lungs will begin to heal themselves as soon as you quit smoking. Even if you’ve been a chronic, long-term smoker, your lung health and breathing will improve when you quit.
After Quitting Smoking, How Long Does It Take For The Lungs To Clean?
You’ll notice changes in your lungs very soon after quitting.
- 12 hours after quitting, the carbon monoxide levels in your body return to normal, and oxygen flow through the body increases.
- 1 month to 9 months after quitting, you’ll experience a reduction in coughing, wheezing, and breathing problems.
- 2 weeks to 3 months after quitting, your lung function will begin to improve and you will be able to breathe more easily.
- 10 years after quitting, your risk of lung cancer is half of what it was when you smoked.
How To Heal Your Lungs After Smoking
Your lungs are self-cleaning, so they will naturally begin to heal when you quit smoking. However, there are a few things you can do to accelerate the process and ensure your lungs have the best chance of recovery.
Avoid Toxins and Pollutants
Mould, dust, smoke, and chemicals can all further irritate your lungs and slow down the healing process. Keep an eye out for mould and dust within the home, and safely remove it if you do notice it.
Avoid spending time in areas where people are smoking, as secondhand smoke can worsen the damage to your lungs. It’s also a good idea to keep an eye on the weather, paying particular attention to pollution and smoke reports. Refrain from spending too much time outside on especially hazy days.
Drinking water keeps mucus thin, which will make it easier for you to cough it up and clear it from your lungs. Aim for 2 litres of water a day. Warm drinks are particularly effective in loosening mucus, so reach for a cup of tea where you can.
Ensuring you’re nourishing your body with healthy foods is vital on your quitting journey. Make sure you incorporate protein, vegetables, fruits, and whole grains into your meals. The nutrients in these foods will help to repair damaged cells and allow your body to create new, healthy tissue growth. Try to eat anti-inflammatory foods such as blueberries, kale, olives, and almonds.
Use A Humidifier
An air humidifier adds moisture to the air, which will help to loosen the mucus in your lungs and make it easier for you to cough productively (produce phlegm when you cough). Humidifiers are particularly helpful if you sleep in a very dry environment.
Steaming can also be used to loosen phlegm and reduce inflammation in the airways. Simply pour hot water into a bowl, lean over the bowl, and drape a towel over your head, ensuring it covers the bowl too. Inhale the steam in slow, deep breaths.
Exercise, particularly cardiovascular activities, helps to promote airflow and keep oxygen moving through your body. Activities such as running, swimming, cycling, and dancing will not only strengthen your lungs but offer an endorphin and dopamine-hit which your body will crave after quitting smoking.
Even though it can be uncomfortable, don’t be afraid to cough. Your body needs to rid itself of the toxins and mucus in the lungs, so coughing when you feel the urge will help you work through this process quicker.
Deep breathing can help to strengthen the diaphragm and slow your breathing rate. Quick breathing puts pressure on the lungs and forces excessive oxygen into the body, so by slowing down your breath, you are relieving your lungs of that pressure. Make sure you focus on exhaling completely to release all of the trapped air from your lungs.
Breathwork is also one of the most effective relaxation techniques. Quitting smoking can give rise to anxiety, so incorporating deep breathing into your day will not only promote lung recovery, but will also help you manage stress.
Quit Sooner And Reap The Rewards
Smoking can lead to a number of debilitating and incurable lung diseases. When you quit smoking, you protect your lungs from the 7,000 chemicals found in cigarettes, many of which are carcinogens.
As soon as you quit, your lungs will start to heal themselves. In some cases the damage is reversible. Even if you have irreversible deterioration, your lung health and breathing will rapidly improve when you quit, with the first changes showing up in as little as 12 hours after your last cigarette.
Take a closer look at the timeline of what happens to your body when you quit smoking.