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.

Man smokes cigarette and has problem with lungs
We’re going to go into 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.

Table of contents

  1. What is Smoking Cough?
  2. What Causes Smoker’s Cough?
  3. Negative Consequences of Smoker’s Cough
  4. How to Get Rid of Smokers Cough
  5. Does Smokers Cough Go Away After Quitting?

What is Smokers Cough?

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”.

Recent studies have linked a chemical found in vape juices and e-liquids, diacetyl, to something called ‘popcorn lung’, which is a chronic condition that also affects the lungs and leads to a persistent cough. But “smoker’s lung” and the “smoker’s cough” are unique to cigarettes, just like “popcorn lung” is unique too.

What Is the Main Cause of Smokers Cough?

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 the smoker’s cough or if you smoke more heavily, the cough will be “wet” and 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 settle into your lungs, which causes an inflamed reaction, and your body has to work 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.

What Can Smoker’s Cough Lead To?

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

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 and 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 showing signs of a more serious smoking-related disease.

Chronic Bronchitis

Chronic Bronchitis – Generally, the first stage of a 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 daily. Mornings are frequently the time of day when it becomes the most prevalent due to mucus accumulation while sleeping. 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 Everyday 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 to 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 – 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 create 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 a 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 is 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 the 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, but the bullae can also 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.


Tablet with the diagnosis COPD on the display
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
  • The blueness of the lips 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 start 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 (it is probably best not to vape at this time as well), 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.

Some of these symptoms of smokers’ cough can eerily resemble the same symptoms of lung cancer. As the chances of contracting lung cancer are heightened when smoking, it makes sense to get checked out by a doctor if a cough persists or is painful.

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 the 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 helps relieve a 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 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. Other essential oils can also be used to soothe a smoker’s cough. A diffuser can be used to spread the oil vapors throughout the air, or an essential oil inhaler can also work.
    5. Sleep with your head slightly elevated: Prop up your head on a couple of 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 cough altogether.

    This cough is a result of your body’s 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 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 of something wrong.

    So you definitely don’t want to ignore the coughing. In many cases, it is natural and is a result of your body’s 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 tell you if your body is healing as it should or if the smoking causes severe long-term damage. 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 a 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. If the cough started after quitting and lasts more than a month, then it is time to go get checked out by your doctor.

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Published: January 28, 2015 Updated: August 12, 2021



Leave a comment

18 comments on “Smoker’s Cough: What is Happening Inside Your Lungs

  • Anonymous

    June 17, 2018 at 7:38 pm

    I have had cramps for a few weeks before the coughing started to occure, I don’t know if the cramps have anything to do with smoking but I just thought it was. When I start coughing it’s like a chain, I cant stop until either clear or mucus comes up and for me its really bad in the mornings and I tend to get woken up at early hours of the morning coughing non stop. But what I dont understand is why when I have a ciggerete, the coughing reduces and tends to stop for a few hours? I have started to drink plently more water but its starting to hurt my chest and effect my breathing which is causing me not to be able to exercise as much or walk because of the heavily breathing.

  • Edward Sheaver

    June 11, 2018 at 9:13 am

    I was diagnosed with COPD 5 years ago and was taking Spiriva and Advair plus nose sprays to slow down progression. My symptoms have always been shortness of breath, and dizziness. I am a 54 year old male. the Spiriva wasn’t really working and I could not tolerate them for long due to severe side effects, so this year our family doctor started me on Natural Herbal Gardens COPD Herbal mixture, We ordered their COPD herbal treatment after reading alot of positive reviews, i am happy to report with the help of Natural Herbal Garden natural herbs I have been able to reverse my symptoms using herbs, my symptoms totally declined over a 9 weeks use of the Natural Herbal Gardens COPD natural herbal formula. My COPD is totally reversed! Their official web page is naturalherbalgardens . c o m After the herbal treatment I also finally was able to give up smoking after 20 years. I ‘m thankful to nature

  • alex

    June 10, 2018 at 10:20 pm

    thank you very informative great advice to help the annoying cough but nice to know my celia are reparing and im gradually recovering my body.

  • Teri

    May 21, 2018 at 6:42 pm

    I have quit for 4 years this July 5th. I didn’t get a cough for almost 18 months. I’ve had COPD and I have been on inhalers for maybe 5 years. The past year or so I’ve gotten worse, coughing and loosing my breath. I can’t breathe and do my everyday stuff. I don’t go for walks and I don’t even go to the Outlet Mall’s. To top it off I have developed arthritis and feel once and screwed up my shoulder, which I was told that it was okay. Shoulder makes my left side droup. I loved riding my bike. Gained so much weight. I’m my wit’s end.

  • Zack

    March 31, 2018 at 6:08 am

    So what if I’m a smoker and don’t have a smokers cough

    • Nick

      April 22, 2018 at 4:17 am

      Then stop while you can. I am 26 years old and used to think I was invincible. This is not the case anymore. It will come for you too if your not careful.

    • mike

      May 5, 2018 at 2:13 am

      If you dont have a smokers cough that could be good or bad, a cough is good because it means your body is cleaning out the oil in your lungs, the phlem sucks it up and you cought it out. Its a good system, i was hoping this article would explain that system more and how to help it do its thing better. In the end no smoke is good, but if you can help your body clean out the tar, why not?

    • Milan

      June 29, 2018 at 3:43 am

      Then wait until you develope one.

  • Boris Dragojevic

    March 26, 2018 at 12:21 pm

    Smoker’s cough actually isn’t “a normal thing”.
    It may be a sign of COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, including emphysema and chronic bronchitis). But even if COPD hasn’t developed yet (if smoker is still young) it’s still a sign of constant lung irritation and inflammation that decreases lung function and prepares ground for COPD later in life. And when lungs’ capacity starts to decline you cannot get it back, you can just slow it down.
    Tobacco smoke is worse than vaping but vaping irritates lungs too.

    I’m telling this from my personal experience. The information on your site might be misleading when it identifies smoker’s cough as “something normal”. It’s hard to get the righ information on the internet so it’s always best to consult a medical doctor, especially a lung specialist.

    If I had the right information when I was younger I’d quit smoking earlier.

  • Chris K

    March 16, 2018 at 6:03 pm

    I smoke marijuana not a lot maybe a half ounce each month, I notice that if the quality of the marijuana is bad($10g, anything under this amount should be avoided because it is not good quality and grown properly) I get a smoker a cough! I hope by quitting cannabis at least for a long while and upping the quality of my products I can avoid a smoker cough… I hope I really really don’t have to quit smoking maybe Even forever!!!
    By the way, i do not smoke cigarettes although I have in the past maybe could affect me!
    Any comments, advice or similar events while smoking cannabis would be greatly appreciated and needed I use this stuff for my anxiety!
    Much thanks, Chris K

    • Jose Razo

      August 29, 2018 at 1:16 am

      Reply to Chris k. I too smoke marijuana only. But miss to low grade. I recently switched to gaping high grade oil and my cough is going away after 8 days it’s almost non existent. It’s worth it to quit!

  • Anthony M

    March 10, 2018 at 9:23 pm

    very helpful article. (student nurse researching for assignment)

  • Diana Ramdial

    November 5, 2017 at 7:02 pm

    Hi thanks for the information its really helpful, my boyfriend is a long term smoker and now he is trying to ease up and stop because the cigarette fumes raise my asthma. recently i noticed he tried vaping to cut it out and this dry cough came about and he appears like he cant breath when coughing. I am concern that he may have lung cancer since he would smoke almost a whole pack in one day.

  • Ron Sheen

    November 5, 2017 at 3:29 am

    This is a very informative article.

  • Wayne Ferrin

    November 3, 2017 at 4:15 am

    I cough all the time.

  • Anush

    October 25, 2017 at 6:03 pm

    Thanks for sharing!

  • Richard

    October 21, 2017 at 10:41 pm

    Thank you for your site.

    Very informative, I have C>O>P>D, only wish that I had read and found your site much earlier- smoked for 64 yrs. Presently two months clean- -off cigarettes.


    October 20, 2017 at 9:22 pm

    Have really bad cough for about two weeks now really thick spit little brown specs in my spit and sneezing sometimes but very bad cough.