Coughing After Quitting Smoking

Should You Worry About a New Cough?

Young woman coughing
Science Photo Library / Getty Images

A reader asks:

It's weird. When I smoked, I didn't have a smoker's cough. But now that I have quit smoking, I'm coughing. Why is that happening and should I be worried?


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. The reason for this usually has to do with the cilia in our lungs. 

Cigarette smoke paralyzes and damages thousands of tiny hair-like projections in our lungs called cilia. When we stop smoking, cilia start to function again, which can prompt us to cough. Let's take a closer look.

The Function of Cilia in Our 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 lining the lungs back out of the body. Once the mucus reaches the throat, it's either coughed/spit out or swallowed.

This handshake operation between cilia and the mucus layer in lungs protects us from a host of respiratory infections and diseases.

How Smoking Affects Cilia

Cigarette smoke is made up of thousands of chemicals that have damaging effects on the lungs. In addition, it leaves a sticky yellow coating called tar on everything it touches, including a smoker's teeth, fingers and clothing and furniture. Tar also coats the inside of the 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 smokers at risk for chest infections and respiratory diseases like chronic bronchitis and lung cancer.

Smoking Cessation-Related Coughing

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

That said, if you are concerned about your cough or any other symptom you experience when you quit smoking, don't hesitate to check in with your doctor to have it evaluated.

What You Can Do For Your Cough

While you don't want to necessarily reduce the productive quality of the 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.

1.  Stay hydrated.  Drink water, juice and tea.  Licorice root is a natural expectorant and also soothes the throat.

2.  Use a humidifier in your home, especially if the environment is dry.  It will help to loosen mucous and allow for a productive cough.

3.  Ease tender throats with a tablespoon of honey one to three times a day. It coats and soothes raw throats nicely.

Warning Signs of Something More Serious

  • 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.

If you experience any of these symptoms, schedule an appointment with your doctor as soon as possible.

A Word from Verywell

Nicotine withdrawal can produce a number of discomforts.  While intense, they are all temporary and are signs of healing from the damage that tobacco has inflicted on us.

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