How Much Do Lungs Really Heal After Someone Quits Smoking?
Quitting smoking is always a good idea, but it doesn’t mean the lungs will automatically heal back to their pre-smoking state. What happens to a smoker’s lungs after they quit?
When a person smokes, they’re irritating and inflaming lung tissue, aggravating protective mucus production in the lungs — further inflaming them. Smoking paralyzes and kills cilia (tiny hairs), whose main function is to clear out mucus. This means mucus accumulates within the lungs, leading to symptoms like shortness of breath and coughing. After a person quits smoking, their lung function returns to almost normal within a year — the cilia become fully functional again and can clear the mucus pooling in the lungs. Quitters also observe an improved ability to perform cardiovascular abilities like running and jumping.
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However, if a person was a smoker for a long time, they’ve irritated their lung tissue so frequently that it forms scarring. If there’s fairly little scarring on the quitter’s lungs, they’re likely to lead a life free of any complications. However, heavy scarring — caused by a long history of chainsmoking — can lead to thick, stiff lung tissue. Visualize how the lungs function — they’re constantly inflating and deflating to take air in and out. Stiff, thick lungs will need to work much harder to accomplish what comes so naturally to most humans. This will lead to fatigue, feeling short of breath often, and an inability to do cardiovascular exercise.
Smoking also destroys lung alveoli, which are the tiny sacs present within the lungs that help exchange oxygen and carbon dioxide with the circulatory system. There are about 500 million alveoli in our body, but they do not regenerate after they’ve been destroyed. Plus, a long history of smoking is capable of destroying more than a million alveoli. Regardless of whether a person quits, if enough alveoli have been destroyed, this will lead to pulmonary emphysema, which is an incurable, fatal disease with symptoms like coughing, excessive sputum production, fatigue, anxiety, sleep problems, heavy weight loss, and heart complications.
As for cancer, ten years of avoiding cigarettes can cut an individual’s lung cancer risk into half, when compared with smokers’ lung cancer risk rates. Smokers who quit post a cancer diagnosis are also more likely to respond to treatments, according to Johns Hopkins Medicine. This even reduces the likelihood of mortality by up to 40%. However, a quitter’s risk for developing lung cancer will remain higher than a non-smoker’s. Heavy smokers who quit will require lung cancer screenings annually for at least 10-15 years due to the lingering risk, according to Harvard Health.
While lung tissue cells do regenerate, there’s no way a smoker can return to having the lungs of a non-smoker. At best, they will carry a few scars from their time smoking, and at worst, they’re stuck with certain breathing difficulties for the rest of their lives. While quitting smoking has multiple benefits for the entire human body and must be pursued, attaining healthy lungs post-quitting is only possible if an individual quits soon after they start smoking.