If you need another incentive to quit, find out how the chemicals in cigarette smoke could be harming your lungs. We all know smoking is bad for our health, it can affect almost every organ and system inside the human body.1
But you might not know exactly how it damages one of its first ports of call – our lungs.
How does smoking affect your lungs?
Smoking harms almost every single organ in our body, including the lungs. The nicotine that’s in cigarettes actually changes the brain to accommodate large doses of nicotine.
When the brain no longer gets that nicotine hit, withdrawal symptoms, such as anxiety and cravings, are triggered.
Smoking can also reduce oxygen supply to our ears; restrict the chemical that’s needed to see at night; cause mouth sores and gum disease; dry out your skin and lead to it losing its elasticity sooner.
As for the lungs, smoking can cause widespread unrepairable damage, leading to serious health issues.
3 lung conditions because of smoking
Smoking can lead to the airways and tissues within the lungs becoming inflamed. When this happens, people’s chests can start to feel tight, making them short of breath and wheezy.
Ongoing inflammation creates scar tissue that physically changes smokers’ lungs, making it increasingly difficult for them to breathe.
People whose lungs have been inflamed for a long period of time may also have a chronic cough and mucus.2
Smoking destroys the tiny air sacs, also referred to as alveoli, in the lungs that enable oxygen exchange to take place.
Unfortunately, these alveoli don’t grow back, so when they’re destroyed, a part of the lungs has been permanently destroyed too.
When enough alveoli are destroyed, the disease, emphysema develops. Emphysema causes severe shortness of breath and, in some circumstances, can lead to death.3
Cilia and respiratory infections
Our airways are lined with tiny brush-like hairs called cilia. They’re responsible for keeping our lungs clean by preventing mucus and dirt from entering them.
But in the lungs of a smoker, the cilia are temporarily paralysed, or even killed, making people more at risk of infection.
Because of this, smokers tend to get more colds and respiratory infections than non-smokers.4
- Smoking harms almost every single organ in the human body, including the lungs
- It can lead to permanent lung scarring
- Smoking can also lead to diseases, such as emphysema, and cilia and respiratory infections
The benefits of quitting smoking in real time
The benefits of smoking come into effect instantly. Find out what happens after 20 minutes, to 15 years! Will you quit today?
The benefits of quitting smoking in real time
Smokers’ lungs vs healthy lungs
Smoking causes COPD
As we mentioned up above, the chemicals in cigarette smoke don’t just irritate the airways that carry air to the lungs of a smoker, they damage the clusters of tiny air sacs deep down inside the lungs, the alveoli.5
Over time, the thin walls of these air sacs fuse together, forming larger air spaces than normal.
This means smokers’ lungs are less efficient at moving oxygen into the bloodstream, which reduces how much oxygen is transported around the body to the organs and tissues.6
Eventually this causes emphysema, one of several Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Diseases (COPD).7
Common symptoms of COPD include:8,9
- Chesty cough with phlegm
- General breathlessness
- Chest infections.
- Lack of energy
- Chest tightness
- Shortness of breath, especially when exercising
- Unintended weight loss
- Swollen ankles, feet or legs
Smoking ‘paralyses’ the lungs
There are millions of tiny hairs inside your windpipe and the airways that lead to your lungs. These hairs are called cilia, and they have a very important job – to protect the lungs.
They do this by sweeping mucus, dirt and other particles away from the lungs and back out of the airways.10
But one of the major effects of smoking on lungs is to paralyse these hairs, which enables mucus to build up over time.
This is one of the reasons for smoker’s cough, and it can lead to chronic bronchitis, another COPD.11
Smoking may lead to asthma
A 2013 study, published in the European Respiratory Journal, reported that smoking’s impact on the lungs makes you more likely to develop asthma.12
You’re even more at risk if you’re a woman – a population study by the University of Ottawa in Ontario found that female smokers are nearly twice as likely to have asthma than non-smoking women.13
Scientists think that the male hormone, testosterone helps protect men’s lungs from the type of inflammation that causes asthma.14
Smoking increases your risk of lung cancer
There are more than 60 substances that can cause cancer in cigarette smoke, which collect inside the tar that builds up in your lungs when you smoke.
It’s close contact with these chemicals that increase your risk of developing lung cancer – smoking causes 85% of all lung cancers in the UK.15
So it’s best to stop smoking sooner rather than later to help look after your lungs.
- Smoking can lead to people developing Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Diseases (COPD)
- Common symptoms of COPD include a chesty cough with phlegm, chest infections and wheezing
- Smoking can also paralyse the lungs, lead to asthma and increase the risk of developing lung cancer
Can lungs recover from smoking?
Quitting smoking can deliver several health benefits, some of which can start to happen not long after you’ve stopped.
In terms of people’s lungs, people should start to experience an improvement in lung function around three months after they’ve stopped smoking.
In fact, within the space of just six weeks, some people with COPD will have nearly double the measure of lung function (called forced expiratory volume) in one second.13
And after several years without a cigarette, people’s rate of lung decline can resemble that of non-smoker—meaning their rate of decline, when considered alongside their age, is no different from someone who has never smoked before.
Believe it or not, our lungs have the ability to self-clean themselves however, the amount they heal depends on your overall health, how long you've smoked for and if there’s any existing lung damage.
Over the coming weeks and months, the health benefits of not smoking should start to show on more of a gradual basis for people with mild to moderate COPD. For those who have severe COPD, their symptoms should stabilise.
In the meantime, if you are keen to help your lungs recover as much as possible, try doing the following:
- Not smoking at all – ultimately, it’s the best way to protect your lungs from smoking-related damage.
- Exercise regularly – it will help strengthen your lungs and heart and enable your body to pump oxygen around your body more efficiently.
- Avoid pollution - try to limit your exposure to indoor and outdoor air pollutants that can harm your lungs, such as second-hand cigarette smoke and wildfire smoke.
- Keep your fluids up - Staying hydrated is helpful for your entire body, including your lungs.
How to quit smoking
Has this article inspired you to give up smoking? There are lots of health, and other, benefits linked to giving up cigarettes.
For instance, more energy, healthier skin, a stronger immune system and a longer life expectancy.
You can also save around £250 a month from no longer buying cigarettes.
Here’s some practical advice from the NHS on the best way to give up smoking for good:14
- Stay focused – don’t reflect on the times you may have failed to quit smoking. Concentrate on making this the time you make it happen.
- Make a plan – set a plan and stick to it. Think ahead to times when it might be difficult to not smoke and plan how you’re going to deal with it.
- Pinpoint your cravings – when are you most likely to reach out for a cigarette? Identify your smoking patterns and then look to change them to help break the habit.
- Get moving – research has found that being active for as little as five minutes can help beat cravings.
- Remember why you want to give up – making a list of why you want to quit, and regularly looking at it, can help you stay on track with your plan.
- Give up with somebody else – make a pact with a family member or friend to give up and support each other along your journey. Reaching out to stop smoking support services, may also help too.
For more on the many other pluses associated with cutting smoking out of your life, take a look at this article, ‘Here’s how you can quit smoking and start to feel the benefits.’
- After several years of not smoking, people’s rate of lung decline can be the same as a non-smoker
- This is because lungs are self-healing (depending on the level of damage caused)
- The best way to quit smoking is to have a clear plan on how you are going to achieve it
Smoking can take its toll on the body in so many ways, and it can particularly leave a mark on our lungs.
It can lead to people developing Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Diseases, such as emphysema, as well as other health conditions, such as asthma and, for some people, lung cancer.
Remarkably, the lungs are said to be able to self-heal themselves, but their ability to repair themselves does depend on the amount of damage that’s been caused.
Ideally, the best form of repair for your lungs is giving up smoking altogether, if you’re able to.
For more practical advice on giving up smoking for good, check out this article, ‘The key to quitting smoking.’
Last updated: 23 June 2021