Coughing After Quitting Smoking - Should I Worry?

Older woman coughing into her hand
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A reader asks:

It's weird. When I smoked, I didn't have a smoker's cough. But now that I have quit smoking, I'm coughing. Why is that happening and should I be worried?

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Although coughing is not a common symptom of withdrawal from smoking cigarettes, some ex-smokers do develop a cough early on in smoking cessation for a short period of time.

Cigarette smoke paralyzes and damages thousands of tiny hair-like projections in our lungs called cilia.

When we stop smoking, cilia start to function again, which can prompt us to cough. Let's take a closer look.

The Function of Cilia in Our Lungs

Cilia are a protective barrier between the outside world and the delicate tissue of the lungs. The bronchial tubes in healthy lungs are lined with a thin coating of mucus and cilia.

Moving back and forth in unison, cilia clean house by "sweeping" inhaled pollutants that have been trapped in the mucus layer back out of the lungs. Once the mucus reaches the throat, it's either coughed/spit out or swallowed.

This handshake operation between cilia and the mucus layer in lungs protects us from a host of respiratory infections and diseases.

How Smoking Affects Cilia

Cigarette smoke is made up of thousands of chemicals that have damaging effects on the lungs. In addition, it leaves a sticky yellow coating called tar on everything it touches, including a smoker's teeth, fingers, clothing and furniture, and lungs.

In the lungs, the buildup of tar shuts down the motion of cilia and causes inflammation in the airways, prompting excess mucus production. With the lung's natural defense system neutralized, toxic particles in cigarette smoke and other inhaled dust, dirt and germs stay in the lungs, putting smokers at risk for chest infections and respiratory diseases like chronic bronchitis and lung cancer.

Smoking Cessation-Related Coughing

When we stop smoking, cilia gradually start functioning again and the lungs begin the work of moving trapped toxins up and out. It is thought that this might cause a cough that could last up to a couple of months until cilia have fully recovered.

That said, if you are concerned about your cough or any other symptom you experience when you quit smoking, don't hesitate to check in with your doctor to have it evaluated.

Warning Signs of Something More Serious

  • Shortness of Breath - struggling to catch your breath after little or no exertion, or feeling that it is difficult to breathe in and out.
  • Wheezing - noisy breathing may be a sign of inflammation in your airway.
  • Blood in Sputum - coughing up flecks or streaks of blood in phlegm.

If you experience any of these symptoms, schedule an appointment with your doctor as soon as possible.

Nicotine withdrawal can produce a number of discomforts.  While intense, they are all temporary and are signs of healing from the damage that tobacco has inflicted on us.

Do some reading about what you can expect when you quit smoking, and connect with other ex-smokers. They will help you manage the ups and downs that come with recovery from nicotine addiction.

Source:

American Lung Association. How Lungs Work. http://www.lung.org/lung-health-and-diseases/how-lungs-work/. Accessed May 2016.

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