When you quit smoking, the damage to your lungs does not get any worse. However, it takes your body time to recover from the effects of smoking. It can take anywhere from one to nine months for your cough, fatigue, and shortness of breath to improve. A cough is the body's way of protecting and cleaning itself by expelling foreign particles. The stimulation of nerves in the airways by an irritant produces a cough. Normally, you have tiny hairs in your airways called cilia that sweep out foreign inhaled particles, often without you even realizing it. However, when you smoke, you damage and decrease the sweeping action of these cilia, and they cannot protect the lungs any longer.
The chemicals from the cigarette smoke, as well as a host of bacteria and viruses that can cause lung infections, can freely enter your lungs. The cough you experience when you smoke is your body's response to these irritants. In addition, mucus is overly secreted from the mucus glands in your airways to help clear your lungs of the chemicals and foreign particles. The mucus itself can cause coughing. The cilia will usually start to function again after a few days of no smoking. When they do start working again though, they start cleaning out the lungs and sweeping out particles that had been trapped in the airways for a while. This is why we start coughing more. Remember, the longer you smoke, the more there is for the lungs to clean out.
Susan Bailey, BS, RRT, and supervisor of Pulmonary Services at East Jefferson General Hospital can be contacted at 504-780-5701 with questions about this topic or other questions about pulmonary health.