Why Some People Develop a Cough After They Quit Smoking

Smoking damages the lungs in a variety of ways. One of the ways smoking harms the lungs is the damage it does to the tiny hair-like cilia that help keep your lungs free of pollutants. When you quit smoking, however, the cilia begin functioning once again, which can sometimes lead to increased coughing.

Although coughing is not a common symptom of withdrawal from smoking cigarettes, some ex-smokers do develop a cough early on in smoking cessation for a short period of time. This can be distressing for some people and may make giving up cigarettes more difficult. But understanding why this symptom happens can help you find ways to cope with it.

This article discusses how smoking affects the cilia of the lungs and why you might experience increased coughing after you quit smoking. It also covers some of the things you can do to help ease your cough.

Coughing post-quitting-smoking
Verywell / JR Bee  

Why Quitting Smoking Causes Coughing

The reason why some people start coughing after they have quit smoking usually has to do with the cilia in the lungs. Cigarette smoke paralyzes and damages the cilia; when you stop smoking, the cilia start to function again.

What Are Cilia?

Cilia are tiny, hair-like projections on the surfaces of cells in your airways. They are mobile and work to move mucus up and out of your lungs. 

Cilia are a protective barrier between the outside world and the delicate tissue of the lungs. The bronchial tubes in healthy lungs are lined with a thin coating of mucus and cilia. Moving back and forth in unison, cilia clean house by sweeping inhaled pollutants that have been trapped in the mucus layer back out of the body.

Once the mucus reaches the throat, it's either coughed out or swallowed. This work done between cilia and the mucus layer in the lungs protects us from a host of respiratory infections and diseases.

Recap

Cilia are tiny projections in the lungs that clean out pollutants. Smoking paralyzes these cilia, which means that they cannot do their job and clear toxins out of your lungs.

How Smoking Affects Cilia

Cigarette smoke is made up of thousands of chemicals that have damaging effects on the lungs. It also leaves a sticky yellow coating called tar on everything it touches, including the person's teeth, fingers, clothing, and furniture—and the inside of their lungs.

In the lungs, the buildup of tar shuts down the motion of cilia and causes inflammation in the airways, prompting excess mucus production. With the lung's natural defense system neutralized, toxic particles in cigarette smoke and other inhaled dust, dirt, and germs stay in the lungs, putting the person at risk for chest infections and respiratory diseases like chronic bronchitis and lung cancer.

Smoking Cessation-Related Coughing

When you stop smoking, cilia gradually start functioning again and the lungs begin the work of moving trapped toxins up and out. This might cause a cough that could last for the first couple of months of smoking cessation until cilia have fully recovered.

In other words, while you were smoking, your cilia were moving less so they were not able to move mucus out of your lungs. Once you quit, those cilia become active again. The resulting cough is caused by those cilia actively working to clear mucus out of your lungs.

While it might be irritating, it is a good sign. It means your lungs are healing and functioning more normally. The cough might last for a few weeks but should gradually begin to improve.

If you are concerned about your cough, how long it is lasting, or any other symptom you experience when you quit smoking, don't hesitate to check in with a doctor to have it evaluated.

What You Can Do for Your Cough

While you don't want to necessarily reduce the productive quality of your cough because it is helping to rid the lungs of tobacco pollutants, there are a few things you can do to soothe your throat and help the process along:

  • Stay hydrated by drinking water, juice, and tea. Teas with licorice root are an especially good choice, as licorice root is a natural expectorant that also soothes the throat.
  • Use a humidifier in your home, especially if you live in a dry environment. It will help to loosen mucus and encourage a productive cough.
  • Ease your tender throat with a tablespoon of honey one to three times a day. It coats and soothes irritated throats.

Generally, the goal is not to suppress a productive cough. But if the cough is causing you severe discomfort or is interfering with your ability to sleep, talk to a doctor about what you can to do find relief.

When to Call the Doctor

If you experience any of the following symptoms, schedule an appointment with a doctor as soon as possible, as there may be something more serious than cilia recovery going on:

  • Shortness of breath: Struggling to catch your breath after little or no exertion, or feeling that it is difficult to breathe in and out.
  • Wheezing: Noisy breathing may be a sign of inflammation in your airway.
  • Blood in sputum: Coughing up flecks or streaks of blood in phlegm can be a sign of infection.

Recap

If you are experiencing shortness of breath, wheezing, or are coughing up blood, you should call a doctor and these might be signs of something more serious such as inflammation or infection.

A Word From Verywell

Nicotine withdrawal can produce a number of discomforts, including increased coughing, that may be intense. But it is important to recognize that these symptoms are temporary. They are signs that your body is healing from the damage that tobacco has inflicted.

Reading about what you can expect as you recover from nicotine addiction and connecting with other ex-smokers for support will help you go the distance with smoking cessation. It's worth the work it takes, and the benefits are undeniable.

9 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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Additional Reading

By Terry Martin
Terry Martin quit smoking after 26 years and is now an advocate for those seeking freedom from nicotine addiction.