It’s no surprise that smokers cough more than non-smokers. And the longer you smoke, the more likely you are to develop a persisted, raspy cough. We take a closer look at the symptoms and causes of smoker’s cough, as well as the warning signs of more sinister conditions.
Why Do Smokers Cough?
Tiny hair-like cells called cilia line the airways and catch any toxins we inhale. Next, these cells push the harmful substances away from the lungs towards the mouth.
But the cilia don’t function correctly and have to work harder to filter toxins if you smoke because the chemicals in cigarettes slow them down. So, they can’t remove harmful substances, which then settle in the lungs, causing inflammation. Consequently, it triggers coughing as the body tries to clear the lungs.
The cilia repair themselves when you don’t smoke, for example, at night while sleeping. During the night, the cilia work overtime to remove accumulated toxins. That’s why smokers cough more in the morning.
While coughing is more prevalent in smokers, not everyone who smokes will develop a cough. According to a Finnish study, smoker’s cough is widespread in long-term smokers. How often one smokes may also contribute. Among the research group, 40% of daily smokers and 27% of occasional smokers had a chronic productive cough.
Smokers Cough Often and Also Have Other Symptoms
Smoker’s cough symptoms are case-by-case, and how it affects an individual may vary. But in general, the main symptoms are a nagging cough that tends to be worse in the morning and improves during the day.
Symptoms progress the longer one smokes. During the early stages, the cough is mostly dry, but it may produce sputum later on. Additionally, the phlegm may be colorless, speckled with blood, yellow-green, or brown.
While these aren’t the only symptoms, they are the most common. Other symptoms include:
- Wheezing or a crackling sound when breathing
- Shortness of breath
- Chest pain
- Sore throat
Unsurprisingly, as long as the individual keeps smoking, the cough will continue to worsen. On the other hand, coughing usually subsides within three months of quitting.
Complications and Social Impact
Many complications stem from damage to the cilia and the subsequent build-up of chemicals in the lungs. How often one smokes, the severity of the cough, and an individual’s overall health determine the likelihood of developing complications, such as:
- Higher risk of respiratory infections
- Vocal changes or hoarseness
- Damage to the throat
- Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)
- Lung cancer
Cough specific complications include muscle strain, and in some cases, broken ribs, as well as stress incontinence.
Besides the physical effects, a smoker’s cough has many social and emotional implications. And it reaches far beyond disrupting meetings or embarrassment.
For instance, if coughing impacts sleep, it may affect work productivity and could result in retrenchment.
Smokers also tend to struggle with physical activities, and coughing fits from vigorous exercise is common.
Moreover, it doesn’t only affect the smoker. Family members experience emotional stress out of concern or may suffer from low sleep quality, for example.
While a nagging cough is concerning, it’s not necessarily deadly. But when you have other symptoms, you should speak to your doctor sooner rather than later. These less severe symptoms include:
- Unexplained weight loss
- Persistent pain in your throat, chest, or back
- Shortness of breath
- Sleep disruptions
It’s also crucial to see your doctor if a chronic smoking-related cough changes in any way.
Some symptoms need urgent medical care. For instance, coughing up blood is a medical emergency because it could cause aspiration. You should seek help right away. Additionally, bloody sputum may indicate lung cancer.
Similarly, pain in the ribs and fainting after coughing could mean something more severe, and you should consult a doctor as soon as possible.
Smoker’s Cough vs. Other Coughs
It’s not easy to distinguish a smoker’s cough from other lung conditions such as COPD or cancer. For this reason, tracking your cough and regular medical check-ups are crucial, especially if you or someone in the household smokes.
Many smokers are concerned that their cough might be coronavirus because of similar symptoms. But it’s more likely to be a smoker’s cough in long-term smokers. Besides, a viral or bacterial infection usually goes hand-in-hand with a fever.
Still, if you’re worried about a cough, it’s best to get it checked out.
Smoker’s cough is a common complaint, and symptoms won’t go away as long as smoking continues. The good news is after a smoker quits, the cilia function often returns to normal. A smoker’s cough not only affects long-term health, but it also impacts emotional wellbeing. Lastly, smokers are more likely to ignore the warning signs of severe lung conditions. In many instances, these have a better outlook if diagnosed early. So, speak to your doctor if you have a cough that lingers, even if you think it’s due to smoking.
Have you quit smoking or tried to give up cigarettes? Share your experience in the comment section!