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Smoker’s Lung: What You Need To Know

smokers lungs, smoker's lungs, unhealthy lungs

In the United States alone, more than 480,000 people lose their lives to tobacco-related deaths every year.[1] Worldwide, that number increases to 7 million.[2] If you are a lifelong smoker, the chances of dying from an illness caused by smoking are significantly increased.[1]

While many of us have heard the term “smoker’s lung,” have seen pictures of it and even feel like we understand what it means, smoking remains the leading cause of preventable death worldwide.[1] What can we do about it? Understanding the health effects of smoking on your lungs and other organs in your body is a good place to start.

Smoker’s Lung Defined

The term “smoker’s lung” refers to the structural and functional abnormalities in the lungs caused by smoking. In reality, it is just another way to refer to the damage done to the lungs by chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) when caused by smoking. So, what does smoking do to your lungs? In short, it causes structural abnormalities within the lungs themselves and the airways, which is what people are typically referring to when they reference smoker’s lung

What is it about smoking that causes so much damage to the lungs? As it turns out, it is both the process of smoking and inhaling smoke into your lungs, as well as the chemicals found in cigarettes, that cause smoker’s lung. There are thousands of chemicals found in tobacco smoke, in fact, and at least 70 of those chemicals are known carcinogens, or chemicals that cause cancer.[3] The chemicals found in cigarette smoke – nicotine, hydrogen cyanide, formaldehyde, lead, arsenic, ammonia, uranium and other radioactive elements, benzene, tar, carbon monoxide – are responsible for causing smoker’s lung.[3] However, it is not only these chemicals that are problematic. It is also the burning of the tobacco leaves themselves while smoking, and the radioactive materials left in tobacco leaves from the fertilizer and soil in which they are grown, that contribute to lung cancer. Tobacco smoke can also cause heart disease, various cancers and other health problems.[3] 

Harmful Effects of Smoking on the Lungs

So, what kind of damage does smoking do to your lungs? Cigarette smoking causes a large number of lung diseases, with lung cancer, emphysema and chronic bronchitis being the primary causes of smoker’s lung. Let’s take a closer look at how tobacco smoke damages the lungs, and the results of that damage.

Smoking and Emphysema

In emphysema, smoking destroys the walls of the alveoli (air sacs), the tiny, grape-like clusters responsible for gas exchange deep within the lungs. Consequently, the individual alveoli become larger, irregular in size and decrease in number. These large, irregular air spaces are less efficient than normal alveoli, impairing the diffusion of oxygen and carbon dioxide to and from the lungs. The more severe the damage to the lungs caused by emphysema, the poorer the gas exchange.[4] Moreover, the destruction of the walls of the alveoli also decreases elastic recoil in the lungs, which limits adequate airflow. Additionally, with the breakdown of structure within the alveoli, caused by the destruction of the walls of the alveoli, the airways are narrowed, which further limits adequate airflow.[5]

Smoking also causes damage to tiny blood vessels called capillaries in the lungs, thus disrupting normal blood supply. The carcinogenic (cancer-causing) ingredients in cigarette smoke are inhaled deep into the lungs every time someone smokes. Over time, this particulate matter builds up, causing the lungs to go from being a healthy light pink to a morbid grey-black in color. In autopsies, smoker’s lung is visible to the naked eye.[4] Interestingly, emphysema associated with cigarette smoking is often most severe in the upper lobes of the lungs where the abnormal alveoli are the most prominent.[4][5]

Smoking and Chronic Bronchitis

In chronic bronchitis, smoking causes irritation and inflammation in the airways, the tubes that carry air and oxygen to and from your lungs. When the airways become inflamed and irritated, thick mucus forms in them, plugging them up and making it more difficult to breathe. Over time, this thick mucus pools in the airways, becoming a breeding ground for infection and potentially causing complications like pneumonia. Additionally, as this cycle of inflammation continues, scarring begins to form in the airways as well, causing even more narrowing of the airways.[5] Thus the endless cycle of smoking, infection, more smoking and more infection causes the hallmark symptoms of chronic bronchitis: recurring infections, long-term cough, increased mucus production, scarring in the airways and labored breathing.[6]

quit smoking

Smoking and Lung Cancer

Lung cancer is, by far, the leading cause of cancer deaths among both men and women worldwide, claiming the lives of 1.4 million people every year. Because cigarette smoke contains at least 70 carcinogens and more than 7,000 chemicals, it is the leading cause of lung cancer, responsible for 80-90% of all lung cancer deaths.[3][7][8] As with most cancers, the earlier it is detected, the higher the 5 year survival rate. Patients with small, localized tumors have the highest survival rates, but even localized non-small cell lung cancer survival rates are just 61%.[9] If lung cancer is larger than an inch in diameter or has spread to other parts of the body, fewer than 50% of affected individuals will survive another 5 years.[4] Unfortunately, this is due, in great part, to the fact that lung cancer tends to spread to other organs in the body, making it harder to fight and leading to negative outcomes. [4]

How to Know If Your Lungs Are Damaged

If you are a smoker, the truth is that your lungs are damaged. However, the extent of that damage can vary significantly depending on the amount of time you have been smoking, how frequently you smoke, the kind of tobacco you smoke and your genetics. The best way to discover just how damaged your lungs are is to see your doctor for tests. However, there are a few warning signs that your lungs have sustained damage from smoking.[10] 

  • A nagging cough lasting for 8 weeks or longer
  • Shortness of breath or labored breathing after little or no exertion
  • Excessive mucus production lasting for a month or longer
  • Wheezing or noisy breathing
  • Coughing up blood
  • Chest pain, particularly while breathing or coughing

If you are experiencing any of these signs or symptoms, see your doctor right away as they are signs that something is wrong with your respiratory system. Remember that early detection is essential when it comes to lung disease.

How to Quit Smoking

According to the American Lung Association (ALA), most smokers today know the harmful effects of smoking, and they also know that the harmful effects extend to the people around them via secondhand smoke. That said, many smokers have a strong desire to quit, but realize it’s going to be hard. The ALA urges people to figure out their reasons for wanting to quit and then to take the necessary steps toward quitting for good. There are plenty of ways to quit smoking (without replacing cigarettes with another form of tobacco!), so explore the methods suggested by the ALA and see what seems most realistic for you. Here are some additional smoking cessation tips they recommend to all smokers who want to quit:[11]

  • Know your reason for quitting: Figuring out the most important reasons you want to quit is an important first-step when it comes to quitting successfully. To fully commit to this step, grab a pen and paper and jot down your reasons. Post it on your refrigerator so you can see it every day.
  • Talk to your doctor: Your doctor has expert knowledge about medications that can help you quit smoking, as well as methods that have worked for their patients. Once you decide to kick the habit, make an appointment with your doctor to discuss your options.
  • Understand your expectations: Is it reasonable to expect that quitting smoking may be associated with some uncomfortable withdrawal symptoms? How long will it take you to quit? Quitting smoking is a journey, and not one that’s based on a single event. Know your expectations and write them down, then discuss them with your doctor, too, so you know what to expect through the quitting process.
  • Don’t do it alone: The ALA has lots of options available to smokers who have a desire to quit. Visit their website to find out what those options are. You don’t have to do this alone. You can also ask a friend or loved one to support you through the process. If you know someone else who is trying to quit, you can go through the quitting process together.

To find out more about smoker’s lung, smoking cessation and medications to help you quit smoking, talk to your primary care provider. Additionally, knowing your lung age may help you quit smoking.

What Can I Expect After Quitting Smoking?

You can expect to experience some withdrawal symptoms after quitting smoking. However, remember that for most people, these symptoms will slowly dissipate over time. Nevertheless, it is good to know what to expect so that you are prepared for any of these withdrawal symptoms and know what to do. Here are some of the withdrawal symptoms you could experience, in a range from mild to significant.[12] 

  • Chest tightness: Some people experience tightness in the chest with nicotine withdrawal. However, it can also be a sign of a more serious problem, like smoker’s lung. If you experience chest tightness after you quit smoking, talk to your doctor.
  • Concentration problems: Because nicotine is a stimulant, it may take a couple weeks for your concentration to return to normal without nicotine.
  • Constipation: Again, because nicotine is a stimulant, quitting may cause some constipation. Drink plenty of extra water and eat fresh fruits and vegetables to combat it.
  • Coughing/dry throat: Your body will be trying to get rid of the extra mucus produced when you smoke. In a couple weeks, this should resolve, but drinking extra water or sucking on a lozenge can help.
  • Cravings: You will crave cigarettes when you are quitting. Find a way to distract yourself from these cravings by taking a walk or doing something productive with your hands. Support can help, too.
  • Depression: Depression is not uncommon after quitting. Try incorporating other activities, like exercise, that produce healthy endorphins in your body to combat this. If it is ongoing or too hard to manage, talk to your doctor. 
  • Hunger: You might feel like you are more hungry after you quit smoking. Resist the urge to replace smoking with snacking, and know that this will go away with time.
  • Irritability/anxiety: You should feel less anxious and irritable as the cravings go away, so know that this is temporary.
  • Sleeplessness: Nicotine is a stimulant and can disrupt your sleep. Your body has to readjust after you quit. Try incorporating a new, relaxing activity before bed like reading or taking a bath.
  • Tiredness: Because nicotine is a stimulant, your body will need to adjust and you may feel a little more tired at first. This will improve with time.

Can Your Lungs Recover From Smoking?

Quitting smoking will immediately stop the damage being done to your lungs beginning just an astonishing 20 minutes after quitting.[12] Quitting is always beneficial and you will see ongoing improvement in your health after you quit. However, smokers have long wondered if the lungs could recover from smoking. It has been shown that lung function begins to improve just 2 to 3 months after quitting smoking, and the risk of many cancers and lung disease plummet in the months after quitting.[12] That is excellent news on its own; however, there is new evidence that the lungs can actually begin to heal themselves. According to one study, the cells in the lungs that escape the damage done by smoking can, in fact, begin to heal the lungs.[14][15] This study showed that even then the majority of the cells in the lungs had mutated because of tobacco use, a small portion of cells did not mutate. After quitting smoking, the study showed that these healthy cells continued to grow and replaced the mutated, damaged cells, even in people who had smoked for 40 years.[15] 

This is encouraging news for anyone who wants to quit smoking. The motivation to quit can be diminished when people believe the damage is already done. This study shows that the lungs can continue to recover after quitting, giving people renewed hope for better lung function and health after quitting. 

Avoiding Smoker’s Lung

It is clear that tobacco smoke has lasting impacts on the health of your lungs, and the health of your entire body. Smoking can also negatively impact the people around you as secondhand smoke has significant health impacts, too. The best thing you can do to avoid smoker’s lung is to stop smoking right away. Not only will you prevent further damage to your respiratory system and your heart, but your body will begin to recover immediately. The new evidence that your lungs can recover from the damage done by smoking is immensely encouraging. The best time to quit is now. Talk to your doctor today to get help with smoking cessation.

Sources:

[1] “Tobacco-Related Mortality.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 28 Apr. 2020, www.cdc.gov/tobacco/data_statistics/fact_sheets/health_effects/tobacco_related_mortality/.

[2] “Smoking & Tobacco Use: Fast Facts.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 21 May 2020, www.cdc.gov/tobacco/data_statistics/fact_sheets/fast_facts/index.htm. 

[3] “Harmful Chemicals in Tobacco Products.” American Cancer Society, American Cancer Society, Inc., 28 Oct. 2020, www.cancer.org/cancer/cancer-causes/tobacco-and-cancer/carcinogens-found-in-tobacco-products.html. 

[4] Fishbein, Michael C. “Smoker’s Lung Pictures: Smokers’ Lungs vs. Healthy Lungs.” MedicineNet, MedicineNet, 30 July 2020, www.medicinenet.com/smokers_lung_pathology_photo_essay/article.htm. 

[5] Mosenifar, Zab. “What Is the Pathophysiology of Emphysema in Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD)?” Medscape, WebMD LLC, 11 Sept. 2020, www.medscape.com/answers/297664-7340/what-is-the-pathophysiology-of-emphysema-in-chronic-obstructive-pulmonary-disease-copd. 

[6] Smeltzer, Suzanne C, and Brenda D Bare. Brunner and Suddarth’s Textbook of Medical-Surgical Nursing. 8th ed., Lippincott, 1996. 

[7] “Chemicals in Cigarettes: From Plant to Product to Puff.” U.S. Food and Drug Administration, FDA, 3 June 2020, www.fda.gov/tobacco-products/products-ingredients-components/chemicals-cigarettes-plant-product-puff. 

[8] “What Are the Risk Factors for Lung Cancer?” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 22 Sept. 2020, www.cdc.gov/cancer/lung/basic_info/risk_factors.htm. 

[9] “Lung Cancer Survival Rates: 5-Year Survival Rates for Lung Cancer.” American Cancer Society, American Cancer Society, 9 Jan. 2020, www.cancer.org/cancer/lung-cancer/detection-diagnosis-staging/survival-rates.html. 

[10] “Warning Signs of Lung Disease.” American Lung Association, American Lung Association, 29 July 2020, www.lung.org/lung-health-diseases/warning-signs-of-lung-disease. 

[11] “I Want To Quit Smoking.” American Lung Association, American Lung Association, 28 May 2020, www.lung.org/quit-smoking/i-want-to-quit. 

[12] Folan, Patricia, et al. “Withdrawal and Relapse From Tobacco Use.” ATS Patient Education Series, American Thoracic Society, 2013, www.thoracic.org/patients/patient-resources/resources/withdrawal-and-relapse.pdf. 

[13] “Benefits of Quitting Smoking.” American Lung Association, American Lung Association, 13 July 2020, www.lung.org/quit-smoking/i-want-to-quit/benefits-of-quitting. 

[14] “What Are the Risk Factors for Lung Cancer?” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 22 Sept. 2020, www.cdc.gov/cancer/lung/basic_info/risk_factors.htm. 

[15] Gallagher, James. “Lungs ‘Magically’ Heal Damage from Smoking.” BBC News, BBC, 29 Jan. 2020, www.bbc.com/news/health-51279355.

4 thoughts on “Smoker’s Lung: What You Need To Know”

  1. Avatar Elma Hagemeier says:

    I started smoking when I was about 14 years old. They didn't tell you it was harmful to you then. About 4 years ago, I was told I have severe COPD and I quit immediately with out any help. You can if you really want to quit.

  2. Avatar Susan says:

    I started smoking at age 16. I am 72yrs old and have severe emphysema and of course I now use oxygen therapy 24/7. I tried only 3 times to stop smoking over the years. I was allergic to the patch, I think it was the tape on it…I just gave up, and started again.This happened twice. The third time I went cold turkey and I used the advice of one day at a time. I haven't smoked in about 20yrs. But damage done. It was the hardest monkey to get off my back. Don't give up. One day at a time…if you slip up, keep trying one day at atime

    1. Inogen Inogen says:

      Thank you Susan for sharing your story! You've given us wonderful advice.

  3. Avatar Howard Katz says:

    I smoked for 34 years. I went to a smoking clinic at a local hospital. They brought out a cart with two pairs of lungs….. one pink and one ash gray. I threw away my cigarettes on my way home…….40 years ago, after much
    nagging from my family….. but those actual lungs did the trick.

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