It may seem like ‘duh,’ but it is true that people who smoke cigarettes are much more likely to cough compared with people who don’t. Coughing is a reflex that expels irritants from lungs. It functions along with cilia, microscopic hair-like structures, and mucous, a liquid that lines the airways, to protect the lungs from particles and chemicals. Cigarette smoke contains thousands of particles which both irritate lungs and damage the mechanisms which are designed to protect the lungs. Coughing increases in response to the smoke particles being inhaled.
Studies find that for most people, cough improves within a few hours of the last cigarette, and continues to improve for up to a year after stopping. Some people, however, report that their cough increases after stopping. There may be a couple of reasons for this.
When you stop smoking, the cilia become active again. As the cilia recover and the mucous is cleared, coughing might increase for a week or two.
Another reason may be that a person is more likely to stop smoking when they feel ill or are experiencing respiratory symptoms. These symptoms might be caused by an underlying condition such as a common cold. An increase in cough after quitting may be due to that underlying condition but be attributed to having stopped smoking.
In any case, stopping smoking is the best thing you can do to lessen cough and improve your lungs’ protective mechanisms. You can speed the process of healing by staying well-hydrated, resting when needed, and being active when appropriate. If coughing is persistent after stopping smoking, please consult your health care provider.
Michael V. Burke, Ed.D