Smoker's Lungs vs. Normal Healthy Lungs

Many people have heard the term "smoker's lungs" or have seen side-by-side pictures of the black lungs of someone who smoked and the pink lungs of someone who didn't. Cigarette smoking can change the appearance of the lungs as well as decrease lung function.

What Are Smoker’s Lungs?

"Smoker's lungs" is a term used to describe the lungs of someone who smokes. Over time, cigarettes can make lungs blackish or brownish in color, diminish lung capacity, and make lungs more susceptible to infectious bacteria.

Pictorial warnings, or images of lungs damaged by smoking, can be effective in preventing people from buying cigarettes. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has made efforts to list the health risks of tobacco use and place graphic images—such as damaged lungs—onto cigarette packaging in an effort to curb smoking.

How Smoking Changes the Lungs

Both the appearance and the physiology, or function, of the lungs are affected by smoking.

Lung Appearance

The healthy lungs of someone who doesn't smoke appear pink or red in color, whereas the lungs of someone who smokes can turn black or gray over time, depending on how heavily they smoke. The cause of the discoloration is the black-pigmented tar (particulate matter that is created when you burn tobacco) that is inhaled when you puff a cigarette.

The lungs of someone who smokes may also appear larger in size due to inflammation. Poisonous particles and gases in cigarette smoke can cause this inflammatory response in the lungs.

The diaphragm, or the muscle below the lungs, may also be smaller in people who smoke than in people who don't.

Smoking causes the diaphragm to become smaller due to muscle atrophy, or the thinning of muscles. Muscle atrophy of the diaphragm is one of the reasons people have trouble breathing the longer they smoke.

Healthy Lungs
  • Pink or red in color

  • Smaller in size

  • Normal-sized diaphragm

  • Air sacs are normally elastic

Smoker's Lungs
  • Black or gray in color (depending on use)

  • Larger in size due to inflammation

  • Smaller diaphragm due to muscle atrophy

  • Air sacs become deflated and lose elasticity

Toxins in the Lungs

The cilia are tiny hair-like appendages that prevent dirt and mucus from going into the lungs. Toxins in cigarette smoke such as formaldehyde paralyze the cilia and ultimately destroy them, so they cannot perform their function.

Without cilia, the toxins in cigarette smoke (over 70 of them carcinogens) and other infectious organisms are able to access the lungs, where they can contribute to cancer and other smoking-related illnesses.

Clogged Airways

The destruction of cilia also leads to a buildup of mucus in the airways, which causes the chronic cough known as "smoker's cough."

Inflammation also affects the airways and may lead to respiratory illnesses. For instance, chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder (COPD) is a result of chronic inflammation of the large airway called the bronchi. Smoking can also cause emphysema, a type of COPD.

The airway contains air sacs called alveoli that are normally elastic, meaning they stretch when you breathe in and out. Smoking causes the sacs to lose their elasticity and deflate, making it harder for your body to breathe in oxygen and breathe out carbon dioxide. The elasticity of the air sacs reduces your lung capacity, or the amount of air you're able to inhale.

Smoking can decrease your oxygen intake, which puts added strain on your heart. Lack of oxygen to the heart increases your risk for cardiovascular disease and heart attacks.

Can Pictures of Smoker's Lungs Help People Quit?

In 2020, the FDA mandated that cigarette manufacturers must print one of 11 health warnings directly on their packages of cigarettes before they can sell them in stores in the United States.

These warnings are a combination of text and a graphic image in order to prominently display to consumers the damaging health effects of tobacco. One such health warning reads, "Tobacco smoke causes fatal lung disease in nonsmokers," accompanied by an image of gray-colored lungs. (People who don't smoke can contract lung disease from secondhand smoke.)

The FDA states that Americans still have misconceptions about the dangers of smoking.

Displaying lungs that are damaged by smoking on a cigarette package may be a way of discouraging some consumers from buying cigarettes—but its effectiveness may depend on how dependent a person is on nicotine.

In one study, participants who had a lower dependence on nicotine were more discouraged by graphic images and less likely to buy cigarette packs with these images on them. The images had less of an effect on participants with a higher dependence on nicotine, who were more likely to purchase their cigarette packs despite the images on them.

But the graphic images may serve multiple purposes. Another study found that the children of people who smoked were more likely to have conversations about the dangers of smoking with other family members or peers after seeing a cigarette package with a graphic image on it. The images may deter these adolescents and their friends from smoking in the future.

Quitting Smoking

Quitting smoking both minimizes the damage to your lungs and allows your body to start its healing process.

According to the American Cancer Society, a person's lung function beings to increase just two to three weeks after quitting. Between a month and a year after quitting, you will experience less coughing and less shortness of breath. Cilia start to function normally again, cleaning the lungs.

Quitting also means you're lowering your risk for many types of cancer, including lung cancer.

There are many ways to quit; to get started, talk to a healthcare provider about which options may be right for you.

Some people use nicotine replacement therapy (NRT) to wean off of cigarettes. NRT administers a small amount of nicotine without the other toxins in cigarettes. It comes in topical patches, lozenges, spray, chewing gum, and other forms.

There are also smoking cessation medications such as Chantix (varenicline). Chantix may also help lessen the symptoms of nicotine withdrawal. As with any medication, there are potential side effects ranging from mild to severe. Talk to a healthcare provider to determine whether a quit smoking medication could be an option for you.

A Word From Verywell

It can be overwhelming to look at the vast number of ways that smoking affects both the structure and function of the lungs. But remember, your body can begin to heal itself once you quit smoking. If you or a loved one is struggling with nicotine addiction, talk to a healthcare provider about resources to help you quit.

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12 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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