If you have the attitude that years of smoking mean the damage is already done and it's too late, think again. There are many reasons to quit, and it's possible to "clean" your lungs after smoking. According to the American Cancer Society (ACS), lung function and health can improve after quitting.
Read more: How Quitting Smoking Affects Your Metabolism
Lungs Recover Fast
According to the ACS, some improvements are immediate, and the list grows from there. Here's what the timeline looks like after a smoker quits:
- One to 12 hours: Carbon monoxide in the blood, heart rate and blood pressure decrease.
- Two to 12 weeks: Lung function and blood circulation improve.
- One to nine months: Coughing, shortness of breath and risk of infection decrease.
- One year: Heart attack and heart disease risk drop substantially.
- Five years: Risk of stroke and cervical cancer drop to non-smoker levels. Risk of several other cancers is cut in half.
- 10 years: Risk of lung cancer death decreases by half.
- 15 years: Risk of heart disease is the same as a non-smoker.
These outcomes vary based on how long and how much you smoked. But, in general, most people will see an improvement.
"Smokers that quit smoking can sometimes improve their lung function by up to 20 percent due to improvement in reversible factors such as chronic bronchitis and sputum production," says Andrew Martin, MD, chair of the Department of Pulmonary Medicine at the Deborah Heart and Lung Center in Browns Mills, New Jersey.
"Also, when a patient stops smoking, their lungs tend to stop getting worse relative to their age. In other words, whatever lung function you have when you stop smoking, you get to keep," Dr. Martin says.
Almost right away, your lungs begin to clear, and by a year, you could significantly lower your heart disease risk.
You might see claims and quick-fix pills for a lung "cleanse" or "detox," but take heed. The American Lung Association (ALA) says your best bet to cleanse your lungs is to let them do their job naturally after you quit, and stay away from secondhand smoke and other pollutants. It also recommends that you:
- Eat a diet of antioxidant-rich foods (think: fruits and veggies).
- Exercise regularly.
- Keep an eye on the air quality index (AQI) and avoid the outdoors when it's high.
- Vacuum often and keep rooms clear of dust and pollutants.
- Use natural cleaning products.
- Avoid aerosol sprays.
Ahem! Some Coughing Is Good
Once you stop smoking, the cilia, or thin hairs, in your lungs start working again, notes the Mayo Clinic. As they recover and are able to once again remove mucus and other substances from the lungs, you may cough as part of the process — and do it more frequently and aggressively than normal. This can be a sign that the body is healing. Also, these coughing fits are often temporary, notes the Mayo Clinic, so don't let them deter you from sticking with your efforts to remain smoke-free.
"After someone stops smoking, they sometimes cough more phlegm up in the first month or two, but in the long run, generally over the first year, we tend to see decreases in cough and sputum production and may see decreases in shortness of breath with exercise," Dr. Martin says.
One of the greatest health risks of smoking is the risk of death related to lung cancer and other smoking-related illnesses. According to Johns Hopkins Medicine, many of these risks of death decrease substantially after you quit. In fact, quitting before age 40 reduces your risk of death from smoking by 90 percent. And even if you don't quit until age 54, you still reduce that risk by two-thirds.
Hopkins recommends annual lung screening for 15 years after you quit if you were a heavy smoker who started at a young age or who smoked for a long time.
"Risk for lung cancer depends both on the amount smoked over the patient's lifetime and family history. Either way, it starts to diminish gradually over time," Dr. Martin says. "When a patient has not smoked for over 15 years, their risk for lung cancer is only slightly higher than that of a lifelong non-smoker."
Is This an Emergency?
- American Cancer Society: “Health Benefits of Quitting Smoking Over Time”
- Andrew Martin, MD, chair, Department of Pulmonary Medicine, Deborah Heart and Lung Center, Browns Mills, New Jersey
- American Lung Association: “Can You Detox Your Lungs?”
- Mayo Clinic: “Quit Smoking”
- Johns Hopkins Medicine: “Former Smokers: What’s Your Risk for Lung Cancer?”