Lung Recovery After Smoking: Can Lungs Repair Themselves?

72% of lung cancer cases in the UK are caused by tobacco smoking. Although this may sound alarming, the good news is that it’s never too late to stop smoking. Quitting smoking can immediately reduce your risk of cancer, triggering the lungs to repair themselves.

In honour of National No Smoking Day on the 8th of March 2023, we’re taking an in-depth look at how tobacco products harm our lungs, the benefits of quitting smoking and how your lungs can repair themselves after your last cigarette.

What is in a cigarette?

Cigarettes are dried tobacco leaves wrapped in paper. Cigarettes release over 5,000 chemicals when they burn — and over 70 of those are known to cause cancer.

Here are just a few of the substances in cigarettes that can affect your health:

  • Tar is a sticky brown substance that narrows the tubes in the lungs that absorb oxygen. Tar increases your risk of emphysema and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).
  • Carbon monoxide is a poisonous gas that prevents your blood from carrying oxygen to the body. Increased carbon monoxide levels in the blood mean your heart has to work harder and your organs don’t receive as much oxygen as they should.
  • Nicotine is an addictive substance in cigarette smoke. Although less harmful than tar or carbon monoxide, it is the main reason most people get hooked on tobacco and then struggle to give it up.
  • Carcinogenic chemicals are toxins that cause cancer. There are 70 known carcinogens in cigarette smoke, including formaldehyde, acrolein, lead, arsenic and benzene.

What does smoking do to your lungs?

The chemicals found in tobacco smoke can damage and irritate the small airways and tender tissues of your lungs. Inflammation can lead to wheezing, coughing, a feeling of tightness in the chest and eventual scarring.

Smoking also destroys the lungs’ tiny air sacs called alveoli. Once the alveoli have become damaged, they cannot repair themselves. When enough alveoli have been destroyed, you develop emphysema, a chronic disease characterised by shortness of breath.

Smoking damages the tiny hairs called cilia that sweep out mucus and dirt from your lungs. Damaged cilia mean smokers are at higher risk for infection from colds and respiratory illnesses.

What are the health problems caused by smoking?

Many people know that smoking can cause lung cancer, but smoking also harms nearly every organ and organ system in your body. On average, people who smoke die about ten years sooner than non-smokers.

Smoking increases the risk for many different diseases, including:

  • Lung cancer – The third most common cancer in the UK, 72% of lung cancer cases in the UK are caused by smoking.
  • Bowel cancer – The fourth most common cancer in the UK, 7% of bowel cancer caused are caused by smoking.
  • Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) – When the airways of the lungs are damaged, it causes the lungs to struggle to send oxygen to the rest of the body. COPD includes emphysema and chronic bronchitis.
  • Cardiovascular diseases – Smoking can damage your heart and blood vessels and increase the risk for coronary heart disease (CHD), heart attack, stroke, high blood pressure and high cholesterol.
  • Reproductive issues – Women who smoke are more likely to have trouble getting pregnant, whilst male smokers have a higher risk for erectile dysfunction and decreased fertility.
  • Pregnancy risks and complications – Smoking whilst pregnant can be very dangerous for the baby and mother. Risks of smoking during pregnancy can include ectopic pregnancy, premature birth and lower birth weight, placental abruption, miscarriages and a higher risk of cleft palate.
  • Increased risk of type 2 diabetes – Smoking causes decreased insulin resistance, which can lead to type 2 diabetes.

In addition to the conditions listed above, smoking can damage your health in many other ways. From affecting your oral health to premature ageing and risks to your eye health, smoking can significantly impact your overall quality of life.

Can your lungs repair themselves?

The good news is that when you quit smoking, you immediately halt further damage to your lungs. Over time, you will notice many benefits of quitting, including increased lung capacity.

When you quit smoking, dormant cells in the lungs will start to replace the damaged lung cells lining your airways. This leads to gradual healing and regeneration of your lungs, as well as a decreased risk of lung cancer.

The rate at which your lungs heal depends on how long you were a smoker. Long-time smokers will take longer for their lungs to improve. Some damage from smoking is permanent. Unfortunately, your alveoli cannot restore themselves, but stopping smoking will halt the progression of COPD and improve your ability to breathe.

How long does it take for your lungs to recover from smoking?

Stopping smoking has an immediate positive impact on your lung health. Within minutes of quitting, you will start to experience an improvement in your overall health.

Over time, your lungs and overall health can recover even further:

  • After just 20 minutes, your heart rate and blood pressure begin to drop
  • After a few days, the carbon monoxide levels in your blood will return to normal
  • After two weeks to three months, your circulation will improve, and your lung function will increase
  • After one to 12 months, your cilia return to their normal function of cleaning your lungs, removing mucus and reducing your risk of infection

What are the benefits of quitting smoking?

There are many short- and long-term health benefits of quitting smoking:

  • After one to two years, your risk of heart attack drops
  • After five to ten years, your risk of stroke drops
  • After 15 years, your risk of heart disease is close to that of a non-smoker

Quitting smoking also lowers your risk of other cancers, reduces your risk of developing diabetes and improves your cardiovascular system.

How can you keep your lungs healthy?

You can keep your lungs healthy by leading an active, healthy lifestyle. This means getting regular exercise, eating a healthy diet, maintaining a good weight and staying up to date with regular health checkups and vaccinations for flu and COVID-19.

There are also steps you can take to ensure your environment and air quality are healthy, such as avoiding second-hand smoke, testing your home’s air quality and wearing the right mask if you work around asbestos.

But the single best thing you can do to keep your lungs healthy is to quit smoking. Take the first step towards a smoke-free life on the 8th of March on National No Smoking Day.

Order a lung cancer test kit today

The chances of survival from lung cancer are extremely good if detected early. Unfortunately, most people do not experience any symptoms in the early stages of lung cancer. If you are or were a heavy smoker, an at-home lung cancer screening test can ensure you get an earlier diagnosis and seek treatment before symptoms arise. For more information, please read our article on the 7 signs of lung cancer.

We offer easy-to-use, at-home lung cancer screening tests for individuals aged 50+. LungCheck is a sample collection kit that screens for antibodies that can be linked to an increased risk of developing lung cancer.

You’ll receive your results in 14 days. If your results are abnormal, we’ll call you and help you with an onward referral.

At Check4Cancer, we want to empower you to take control of your lung health. Order a LungCheck test today.