Smoker’s Cough: What is Happening Inside Your Lungs

Smoker’s cough stems from the effects of long-term smoking and can lead to many respiratory complications including COPD, or smoker’s lung. It can also lead to a risk of recurring lung infections, collapsed lung, or lung cancer.

Young man smoking a cigarette and coughing

One of the most recognizable traits of a long-term smoker is the smoker’s cough. Among the numerous adverse health risks smokers regularly expose themselves to, chronic bronchitis and emphysema are some of the more obvious and noticeable symptoms resulting from the lung’s continuous exposure to cigarette smoke. The combination of the two results in Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease, or better known as COPD. This is also known as “Smoker’s Lung”.

We’re going to go into the what smoker’s cough is, why you get it, provide you with some more information on smoker’s cough, then finally tell you how to STOP smoker’s cough.

What is Smoker’s Cough and Why it Happens

The infamous smoker’s cough isn’t like what happens when you have a chest cold. It means that you’ll have a persistent cough all day long that just doesn’t ever go away. This isn’t the kind of cough where a cough drop or cough suppressing medicine can give you relief! Early on, particularly if you’re not a heavy smoker, the cough associated with smoking will be dry and won’t produce any goop when you cough. But in later stages of smoker’s cough or if you smoke more heavily, the cough will be “wet” and will bring up phlegm every time. The phlegm can be any color, from clear to yellow or green. It’s also worst when you wake up in the morning.

Your lungs have little hair-like structures called cilia. Normally these cilia help to move toxins through your lungs to protect them, but smoking paralyzes the cilia and makes them unable to do their job. This makes the toxins just settle into your lungs, which causes an inflamed reaction and your body has to work to try to get the toxins out of your respiratory system. Coughing is the way your lungs try to get rid of all the toxins from smoke.

Negative Consequences of Smoker’s Cough

A smoker’s cough not only sounds unpleasant to listen to, it is also uncomfortable to experience. In addition to a cough itself being painful, the frequent deep coughing can cause a lot of chest pain as well.

However, even if you have become accustomed to the frequent coughing, others around you can be disturbed by it. This can have a negative impact on your social life as well as on how you’re perceived at work. Because you’re used to having a frequent cough, it can also make it difficult for you to differentiate when you’re actually showing signs of a more serious smoking-related disease.

Chronic Bronchitis

Chronic Bronchitis – Generally, the first stage of smoker’s cough begins with chronic bronchitis. Unlike acute bronchitis, which sometimes accompanies a cold and clears up within a week or two, chronic bronchitis is defined as lasting most days of the month for at least three months out of the year for a minimum of two consecutive years. However, as smoking is a daily habit, chronic bronchitis resulting from habitual smoking can often be a daily occurrence. Mornings are frequently the time of day where it becomes the most prevalent due to the accumulation of mucus while sleeping occurs. The loss of lung function at this point due to chronic bronchitis is considered to be irreversible.

According to the American Lung Association, “After a long period of irritation”, symptoms include:

  •  Excess mucus is produced constantly
  • The lining of the airways becomes thickened
  • An irritating cough develops
  • Air flow may be hampered
  • The lungs become scarred

According to an article on Every Day Health, a medically reviewed featured report states that “More than 90 percent of the 7.6 million Americans with chronic bronchitis have been cigarette smokers.”

Cigarette smoke is filled with chemicals and irritants that damage the lining of a person’s airways, or bronchial tubes, and lead to a buildup of mucus. The membranes that line your bronchial tubes are made up of glands that produce mucus to protect the airways, and tiny, fingerlike projections called cilia move the mucus through the tubes. Just as your nose and eyes will water from the irritation produced by a hot pepper, your body will try to protect your lungs from the irritation of cigarette smoke by producing more mucus. – Dr. Simoff

Emphysema

Emphysema – According to McGraw Hill Higher Education, as the production of mucus increases the lining of the bronchioles thickens. This creates difficulty breathing. The bronchioles then lose their elasticity. They are then no longer have the ability to absorb the pressure within the alveoli, which are microscopic air sacs. This then leads to a rupturing of the delicate alveolar walls. This condition is the primary signature of smoking-induced emphysema. The burst alveoli creates a sustained worsening of the cough, chronic fatigue, persistent wheezing, and difficulty breathing. “Emphysema is fifteen times more common among individuals who smoke a pack of cigarettes a day than among nonsmokers.”

According to Medical News Today, the primary symptom of smoker’s emphysema is shortness of breath. This shortness of breath may initially present itself during strenuous activities. However, as the debility progresses, shortness of breath may be present even when inactive, or sleeping. In addition, complications from emphysema may range from;

  • Pneumothorax, also called collapsed lung. This can be fatal in patients with severe emphysema because the lungs have become so weak.
  • Cor pulmonale – a part of the heart expands and becomes weak. This happens when pressure in the arteries that connect the lungs and heart increases.
  • Giant bullae – empty spaces, called bullae develop in the lungs. Giant bullae are very large, sometimes half the size of the lung. Not only does the lung have a much smaller surface area, the bullae can become infected. Patients with giant bullae are more likely to develop pneumothorax.
  • Recurring infections – chest infections, pneumonia, influenza, cold and the common cold are like to occur more often in patients with emphysema.
  • Pulmonary hypertension – abnormally high blood pressure in the arteries of the lungs.

The resulting treatment may call for the prolonged or permanent use of; Bronchodilators, Steroid aerosol sprays, Antibiotics, Rehabilitation, Oxygen tank, and may further result in the need for surgery, or a lung transplant.

COPD

COPD – The American Lung Association classifies Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease as a combination of chronic bronchitis and emphysema. Symptoms include;

  • Chronic cough
  • Shortness of breath while doing everyday activities, also referred to as dyspnea
  • Frequent respiratory infections
  • Blueness of the lips or fingernail beds, which is also referred to as cyanosis
  • Fatigue
  • Producing a lot of mucus, also referred to as phlegm or sputum
  • Wheezing

In addition to the structural changes of the progression to emphysema, cellular changes may also be present – which lead to lung cancer. The cells in the outer border of the bronchial lining start to divide faster than ever before. In time, these quickly dividing cells displace ciliated cells. The nuclei starts to look like cancerous cells. They are oversized and anamorphic. They also hold an abnormal number of chromosomes. At this point, the damage may be altogether averted or repaired if smoking ceases immediately. However, if smoking cigarettes continues, these abnormal cells could in time burst through the basement membrane, dividing inside the lung tissue. This forms a tumor that holds the probability of spreading throughout the lung tissue.

Cigarette smoking is the cause of 80% of all of lung cancer cases. A five-year life expectancy is only common in about 13% of lung cancer patients.

How to Stop Smoker’s Cough

Having a smoker’s cough is actually a normal thing. It’s a sign that your body is trying to deal with what you’re doing to it and trying to heal itself. Our bodies always try to repair themselves, no matter what we do to them. You shouldn’t try to suppress a cough with cough medications because it has a very important purpose.

Although quitting smoking is the only way you can stop a smoker’s cough, but there are 6 quick ways you can help your body heal more effectively, relieve some of the irritation, and temporarily stop smoker’s cough. Some of the treatments you can do to feel a little better include the following:

  1. Drink enough water: Doctors and health experts always tell you to drink more water to help you manage all sorts of health conditions, from allergies to trying to lose weight. It turns out that drinking six to eight glasses of water a day is helpful in relieving smoker’s cough too because it thins out the mucus in your lungs and throat. Gargling with warm salt water can provide some comfort to an irritated throat.
  2. Just add honey: Adding a little honey to your tea or just consuming a teaspoon full of it plain can really soothe your throat – and it tastes good, too.
  3. Suck on throat lozenges: Traditional cough drops may reduce some of the irritation that leads to coughing, but any hard lozenge you need to suck on will have the same benefits. Vitamin C lozenges can provide the same relief to your throat but have the added bonus of vitamins that can boost your immune system: If you want one some Vitamin C lozenges you can check some out here or by clicking the picture on the right. (Bonus: these are cheap AND healthy…plus they taste so good!).
  4. Eucalyptus vapor in your room: Whether you steam eucalyptus or mint leaves over boiling water or put a humidifier in your room with a eucalyptus-based liquid like Vicks, these minty vapors can naturally help you breathe better for a while.
  5. Sleep with your head slightly elevated: Prop up your head on a couple pillows while you sleep to minimize the mucus drainage into your throat that leads to coughing. Some of us have used these and find they’re VERY helpful. Clears you out so you feel much better the next day too. The one to the right works particularly well.
  6. Eat healthily and exercise: These steps are an essential part of every healthy lifestyle. Just because you smoke doesn’t mean you have to give up on the rest of your health.

Why Am I Coughing after Quitting Smoking?

Some people assume that once they stop smoking, they will stop coughing, as coughing is often a byproduct of inhaling smoke regularly. But what about a cough that starts appearing after you stop smoking? That is a different kind of a cough altogether.

This cough is a result of your body healing, and it is natural for your body to react like this. You see, as the nicotine leaves your system and your body tries to regenerate, the tiny projections along the inside of your respiratory tract are recovering. These are called cilia, and they are small and thin and look something like little hairs.

Once you stop smoking cilia start regenerating. As they grow, they cause small disturbances along your respiratory tract. This, in turn, makes you a cough. So that coughing is a healthy sign that your body is recovering and trying to get back to normal.

That’s Not the only reason someone might start coughing as they quit smoking. Your body is also getting rid of toxins, and sometimes it does that through your respiratory tract. Your throat and lungs are going to feel the irritation of trying to expel the toxins from the cigarettes. When that happens, coughing is inevitable.

But don’t just assume that just because you are coughing, it has to do with quitting smoking. If a cough is persistent and particularly vigorous, then you may need to see a doctor. You definitely want to see someone if the coughing starts to involve expelling blood. It is possible that your lungs are damaged or that you have lung cancer. These are all byproducts of smoking, and coughing may be an early sign that something is wrong there.

So you definitely don’t want to ignore the coughing. In many cases, it is natural and is a result of your body healing. But stronger, more persistent coughs can be causes for alarm. Even without a serious cough, it is a good idea to have yourself checked out after you quit smoking.

You should go for a checkup after you have quit for a few weeks. During this checkup, your doctor can assess the damage to your lungs and respiratory tract. The doctor will be able to tell you if your body is healing like it should or if there is serious long-term damage caused by the smoking. The longer and more often you smoked, the more damage there is likely to be.

Keep in mind that not everyone will experience the same symptoms as they quit smoking. Everyone is bit different, so it is possible that you could experience little to no coughing at all. That’s fine too, and it doesn’t mean your body is healing at a slower rate or that something is wrong. It could just mean that the cilia re-growing aren’t affecting you as much as it does some other people.

Still, you do want to make sure you are healing okay and that the toxins are leaving your body. Have yourself checked out and make sure the doctor thoroughly examines your lungs. That’s where smoking does the most damage, and you want to be sure that any major problems are caught before they can become very serious.

 

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