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Everything you need to know about smoker’s cough

People who smoke often develop a cough. This cough is caused by the body clearing out the chemicals that enter the airways and lungs through tobacco use.

If the cough is persistent, lasting for more than 3 weeks, it is known as smoker s cough. While the cough may begin as a dry cough, it can eventually produce phlegm. Other symptoms include a sore throat and chest pain.

Several home remedies may help manage the symptoms of smoker s cough.

Fast facts on smoker s cough:

  • Not all smokers have smoker s cough.
  • Smoking causes a smoker s cough.
  • It can lead to a variety of other conditions, such as bronchitis.
  • The most effective treatment for smoker s cough is to quit smoking.

How many smokers have smoker s cough?

coughing smoker
Smoker s cough is common among smokers.

Smoker s cough is a common complaint among people who smoke.

A study on young military personnel found that over 40 percent of participants who smoked daily and 27 percent who smoked occasionally experienced chronic cough and phlegm production.

As the study participants were aged 18-21, and smoker s cough is more prevalent among long-term smokers, it is likely that the true percentage of smokers affected by smoker s cough is higher than this.

Not all smokers develop smoker s cough, but it is more likely among those persistent long-term users of tobacco.

Symptoms

lady holding chest
Shortness of breath and chest pain may be symptoms that occur alongside a smoker s cough.

In the early stages of smoker s cough, the cough tend to be dry. In later stages, the cough produces phlegm that may be:

  • colorless
  • blood-tinged
  • yellow-green
  • white

Other symptoms that occur along with the cough include:

  • a crackling sound when breathing
  • chest pain
  • shortness of breath
  • sore throat
  • wheezing

Smoker s cough tends to be worse first thing in the morning and gradually improves as the day goes on. Symptoms of smoker s cough get progressively worse over time, unless the person quits smoking.

Smoker s cough vs. other types of cough

Smoker s cough may be distinguished from other types of cough by symptoms such as phlegm production, crackling sounds in the chest, and wheezing.

However, it is difficult to differentiate the cough associated with lung conditions, such as cancer or COPD, from a smoker s cough. This fact highlights the importance of regular medical check-ups, particularly for smokers.

Causes

According to the American Cancer Society, of the thousands of chemicals in tobacco, at least 70 of them are known to cause cancer.

Upon entering the body, many of these chemicals interfere with the function of the cilia, the tiny hair-like structures that help filter toxins from the airways. Research indicates that formaldehyde and other chemicals slow the movement of the cilia and even reduce their length, allowing more toxins to enter the lungs.

This process caused by smoking leads to inflammation. As a result, the body attempts to remove the substances through coughing. Smoker s cough may be worse upon waking because the cilia were unaffected by tobacco smoke during sleep and so were more able to catch and expel the chemicals.

Treatments and home remedies

There are some things a person can do to relieve smoker s cough, as well as some treatments to ease the symptoms.

Quitting smoking

Undoubtedly, the most effective treatment for smoker s cough is to quit smoking. However, initially the cough may persist or increase after quitting usually for up to 3 months but in some cases for much longer as the body clears out the build-up of toxins from the airways.

Other treatments and remedies

breaking cigarette in half
Quitting smoking is the best treatment for smoker s cough.

The following tips may help soothe the irritation and other symptoms associated with smoker s cough:

  • stay hydrated
  • gargle
  • honey with warm water or tea
  • suck lozenges
  • practice deep breathing exercises
  • use steam
  • try a humidifier
  • exercise
  • eat healthily
  • elevate the head at night

Coughing helps to remove toxins from the lungs so suppressing the cough is not usually helpful. Always consult a doctor before taking cough suppressants for smoker s cough.

Complications

There are many complications associated with smoking and smoker s cough, with many issues arising from damage to the cilia. The likelihood of developing one or more complications depends on how frequently someone smokes, the severity of their cough, and their overall health status.

Complications include:

  • increased risk of bacterial and viral respiratory infections
  • damage to the throat
  • changes to the voice, such as hoarseness
  • long-term cough and irritation

Damage to the cilia may lead to a build-up of chemicals in the lungs and airways, which can play a role in the development of:

Bronchitis

Bronchitis is an inflammation of the lining of the bronchial tubes the tubes connecting the lungs to the nose and mouth. Symptoms include breathing difficulties due to a reduced capacity to carry air, and phlegm in the airways.

If bronchitis persists for 3 months or more, or is recurrent for at least 2 years, it s known as chronic bronchitis. In 2015, 9.3 million people in the United States were diagnosed with chronic bronchitis. Smoking is the most common cause of this condition.

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease COPD

COPD is a progressive disease characterized by difficulty breathing. The term COPD includes both emphysema and chronic bronchitis. Symptoms include cough, phlegm, wheezing, and tightness in the chest.

According to the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, COPD which is primarily caused by smoking is the third leading cause of death in the U.S.

Emphysema

A form of COPD caused by damage to the alveoli the air sacs in the lungs. As a result, the body struggles to get the oxygen it requires. Symptoms include breathing difficulties and chronic cough.

Incontinence

In women, smoker s cough may trigger stress urinary incontinence. Some research suggests that women who smoke heavily are much more likely to experience a sudden and strong need to urinate than non-smoking women.

Lung cancer

Lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer death in America, and smoking cigarettes is the number one cause of lung cancer. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention CDC, up to 90 percent of lung cancers in the United States are linked to smoking with even occasional smoking increasing cancer risk.

Pneumonia

Tobacco use increases susceptibility to bacterial lung infections such as pneumonia. Symptoms of pneumonia include cough, fever, and difficulty breathing.

Some people, particularly those with underlying health problems, require hospitalization for pneumonia. Emphysema and certain other conditions can be exacerbated by this infection.

Social and emotional impact

Aside from physical effects, having a chronic smoker s cough can impact emotional and social functioning.

For example, constant coughing can interfere with sleep and disturb others. It may interfere with socializing, and may be disruptive to family, friends, and colleagues.

Outlook

Smoker s cough will most likely persist as long as the person smokes. While certain home remedies are available to reduce the symptoms of smoker s cough, they won t resolve the condition.

Even after quitting, the cough may persist for several months.

When to see a doctor

It s important to see a doctor if:

  • A cough persists for more than 2-3 weeks. Chronic coughs are one of the most common symptoms of lung cancer.
  • Symptoms interfere with everyday life. Symptoms can include
    • trouble sleeping
    • persistent pain in the throat or chest
    • extreme weight loss
    • headaches
    • yellow-green phlegm

Seek immediate medical treatment for:

  • bladder incontinence
  • coughing up blood
  • fainting after coughing
  • pain in the ribs

It s also advisable to speak with a doctor for information on quitting smoking and when considering the use of cough suppressants for smoker s cough.