Your lungs start to heal immediately after you quit smoking, which is why quitting as soon as possible is best for your health. The time it takes for the lungs to fully heal, however, varies from person to person.
Although you may not be able to reverse all the structural damage that smoking does to your lungs, you will see a considerable improvement in lung function after you stop smoking. This is especially true for people with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. After several years of no smoking, their rate of lung decline is comparable to that of a nonsmoker.
What happens when you quit smoking?
When you stop smoking, some of the short-term inflammatory changes in the lungs can be restored. Swelling on the surface of the lungs and airways decreases, and the lung cells create less mucus. New cilia can form and remove mucus discharge. As a result of reduced swelling, more air can move through the airways.
Former smokers often report experiencing less shortness of breath when exercising in the days to weeks following quitting. Although it is unclear why this occurs, it could be due to the removal of carbon monoxide from the blood. Carbon monoxide in cigarette smoke can inhibit oxygen transfer by binding to hemoglobin in red blood cells in place of oxygen. This could explain why some smokers feel out of breath.
Within a year of quitting smoking, your lung function will likely return to nearly normal, depending on the extent of damage to your lungs.
What does smoking do to the lungs?
Smoking irritates lung tissue, causing mucus production in the lungs to increase and further inflaming the lungs. Cilia (tiny hairs) that are responsible for clearing mucus are paralyzed and destroyed by smoking. As a result, mucus builds up in the lungs, causing symptoms such as shortness of breath and coughing.
If you have smoked for a long time, your lung tissue may have been inflamed so frequently that scarring develops. While minor scarring may not cause many problems, heavy scarring can result in thick, rigid lung tissue that makes the lungs work much harder. This can cause exhaustion, frequent shortness of breath, and a reduced ability to do cardiovascular exercises.
Moreover, smoking damages lung alveoli, which are small sacs found within the lungs where the exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide occurs. There are about 500 million alveoli in your body. Once destroyed, they do not regenerate. This means that if you have smoked to the point where too many alveoli are destroyed, you may still be at risk of developing pulmonary emphysema even if you quit.
Pulmonary emphysema is an incurable, serious condition characterized by coughing, excess sputum production, exhaustion, anxiety, sleep issues, substantial weight loss, and heart complications.
What are potential long-term effects of smoking?
Although lung tissue cells can regenerate, your lungs may never be the same, and you may struggle with breathing problems for the rest of your life.
When it comes to cancer, 10 years of not smoking can lower your risk by 50%. Those who stop smoking after a cancer diagnosis is more likely to respond to therapy and may even lower their risk of lung cancer death by up to 40%.
If you smoke heavily, you may need to undergo lung cancer screening every year for at least 10-15 years due to a relatively higher risk than people who have never smoked.
Is it possible to cleanse your lungs after quitting smoking?
Although there is no quick remedy that will “detox” your lungs after you stop smoking, there are things you can do to protect your lungs and accelerate healing:
- Getting exercise: Exercise strengthens your lungs and heart, making it easier for your body to transport oxygen to areas that need it.
- Avoiding pollution: Try to limit your exposure to contaminants that can affect your lungs, such as secondhand smoke, radon, and wildfire smoke.
- Maintaining hydration: Drinking water is good for your entire body, including your lungs, and can help your body recover from smoking more quickly.
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