Coughing serves an important purpose. Whether it is due to a virus and allergies or simply choking on your own spit (whoops!), it can help clear your throat and lungs of gunk or other irritants so you can breathe better.
A nagging cough is also one of the tell-tale signs you are a smoker. Inhaling too much tobacco or cannabis (yes, even marijuana!) can irritate the airways and lungs and cause what’s known as a smoker’s cough. Even after you kick the habit, the cough may linger.
If you’re facing this condition, read on to understand more about what causes a smoker’s cough, how serious it is and tips to help get rid of it.
What is a smoker’s cough?
Every smoker, either immediately or if they do it long enough, develops a smoker’s cough. If you’ve heard it, you can easily distinguish it from other run-of-the-mill coughs due to its phlegmy, hacky sound and no other associated symptoms.
“A smoking-induced cough can start off dry and hacky in the early stages and then become more phlegmy and productive as the cough progresses,” said Raed Alalawi, MD, a pulmonologist with Banner Health in Phoenix, AZ. “This cough can develop while smoking or after quitting smoking.”
Other symptoms of a smoker’s cough include:
- Mucus that is white, yellow-green or bloody
- Sore throat
- Shortness of breath
- Wheezing or crackling noises when you breathe
- Chest pain
A smoker’s cough can vary from person to person, but generally, it’s worse in the morning and gradually gets better as the day goes on.
What causes a smoker’s cough?
It seems like a no-brainer, but the root cause of a smoker’s cough is … well, smoke. Our lungs and smoke don’t get along – not tobacco smoke, not weed smoke or even vaping smoke.
Every time you smoke, vape or take a hit, you inhale varying quantities of toxins and smoke. The chemicals you inhale can cause inflammation and damage to the cilia in your lungs – the tiny hair-like cells in your lungs that catch and clear mucus and debris from your airways.
“The cilia become paralyzed when you smoke, so toxins are allowed to settle in your lungs,” Dr. Alalawi said. “This accumulation can lead to a buildup of mucus. Your body doesn’t like mucus, so it starts coughing in an attempt to shake it loose and expel it.”
What are the dangers of a smoker’s cough?
A smoker’s cough is different from a regular cough. While a cough caused by a cold starts in the throat or upper airways, a smoker’s cough starts in the lungs and lower respiratory tract. This means toxins can get deeper into your lungs and do more damage.
Smokers tend to be more likely to get colds and respiratory infections, like bronchitis, COVID-19 and the flu, and their symptoms tend to be more severe and last longer than nonsmokers.
“Smoking can also lead to chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and cancer,” Dr. Alalawi said. “You can manage the symptoms of COPD, but it can’t be cured and gets worse over time.”
I stopped smoking, so why am I still coughing?
Some smokers won’t cough anymore after they quit, and some will cough for some time after. What gives?
"Your body, in particular your lungs, needs time to recover when you stop smoking,” Dr. Alalawi said. “As the cilia in your lungs recover and clear more mucus from your lungs, you may find you’re not coughing as often.”
It can take several weeks or months, depending on the person and how long you smoked.
How do I get rid of a smoker’s cough?
“Quit smoking,” Dr. Alalawi said. “This is the only and most efficient way to get rid of a smoker’s cough. The benefits are almost immediate.”
It’s not possible to get rid of your cough without giving up smoking. Quitting smoking can be very difficult, so it’s important to reach out to your provider or other resources for support.
Smoking cessation can improve coughing but if you need more reasons, it can also help reduce your risk for many health conditions, including heart disease and certain cancers.
Once you begin recovery, there are some things you can do to help move things along. Here are some at-home hacks (the kind of hacking you need) to help relieve symptoms.
1. Drink plenty of water
“Drinking enough water will help thin out mucus, making it easier to cough up,” Dr. Alalawi said.
Drinking water can help you breathe easier and prevent dehydration. Try and avoid dairy products and stimulants like coffee as these can create the sensation that there is mucus, and lead to more coughing. Instead, sip on some herbal tea and add some honey for a little sweetness. Honey is a natural antibacterial that can help soothe coughs and dry throats.
2. Get moving
Exercise can help clear your airways and improve symptoms.
“Exercise loosens mucus and makes it easier to cough up,” Dr. Alalawi said.
If you’re a heavy smoker and are finding it hard to take the first step, talk to your provider or work with a personal trainer to find ways to gradually ease into a routine.
3. Use steam
Take a steamy shower or use a humidifier at night. The steam will keep the air around you moist, which can soothe your irritated throat and chest and help with mucus production.
4. Sleep with your head elevated
Toss an extra pillow under your head to keep it elevated above your lungs when you sleep. This will help with mucus drainage gathering in your throat. It can also help stop mucus from working its way up as you sleep so you can get a good night’s rest.
5. Gargle warm salt water
This go-to home remedy has been used for centuries and for good reason. Salt can help reduce swelling and inflammation and warm water is just soothing to the throat. Doing this a couple of times a day can hopefully offer you some relief from a nagging cough.
A smoker’s cough is a cough that develops while smoking or after quitting smoking. It can cause a phlegmy cough, shortness of breath, wheezing and a host of other symptoms.
The best way to prevent and improve a smoker’s cough is to quit smoking. If you’re in recovery, remember to drink plenty of water, get regular exercise and use the other tips above to help ease a nasty cough.
If you have a nagging cough that won’t go away, or if you have concerns about it, schedule a visit with your provider. Your doctor will likely run tests to figure out a cause. Those may include lung cancer screening. As a smoker, you are at a greater risk for developing COPD, lung cancer and other health issues.
Need help treating smoker’s cough?
Schedule an appointment with a primary care provider near you.
Schedule an appointment with a pulmonologist.