Will my lungs recover from smoking?
September 30, 2005 7:40 PM   Subscribe

Do one's lungs recover from past smoking? How long does it take?

I used to smoke, on and off, for almost a decade. At times I would be up to a pack a day for maybe a week at a time, but typically I smoked about a pack a week, lights or ultra lights. I have quit (again) within the last few months, and really don't plan on starting again this time. (I have always been able to quit "cold turkey", and always started again as a social thing, same reason as the first time.) I have recently moved to the mountains, and in addition to the higher altitude/thinner air, I am becoming much more involved in outdoor activites - biking especially, also walking/hiking, and skiing and kayaking coming soon. I find myself short of breath rather quickly when exerting myself - some of this is the fact that I am a little out of shape, some of it is continuing acclimation to the altitude, but I think much of it is the damage I have done to my lungs by smoking. I remember a film from probably grade school that explained that once one stops smoking, one's lungs will begin to recover somewhat, though not to full capacity again. Is this true? Will I eventually recover my lost lung capacity? What sort of time frame am I looking at? Pointers to studies and data, as well as personal experiences, are welcome. (And no, this does not need to be a thread condemming and/or defending smoking, thank you.)
posted by attercoppe to Health & Fitness (8 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
My own lungs have always recovered fairly quickly after quitting... and I have a lot of experience quitting (and unquitting).
posted by I Love Tacos at 7:45 PM on September 30, 2005

i quit on sept 16, 1989, and i live at 7000' and i ride my bike everyday; i think i am doing fine. i have, in recent years raced competitively, skied well over 500,000 vertical feet per year, and hiked untold miles of trail with my wife and our dog. aside from a few lingering dreams of smoking, i find that my smoking days are well behind me. acclimation to living and exercising at altitude took some time, perhaps as long as my first year here (14 years ago) to really get on top of my fitness; but again: i think i am doing fine.i believe there is hope for you.
posted by RockyChrysler at 7:46 PM on September 30, 2005

I'm an RN who taught wellness classes in my last job, including one on this very subject.

The American Lung Association says that the damage done to your lungs is almost completely reversible in 15 years, although the benefits you're seeking occur faster.

One should experience better lung function in as little as three months and near-complete recovery of lung function in less than a year. The longer you stay a non-smoker, the better you'll breathe, especially at altitude. Since you stopped smoking a few months ago, your lung function is probably also adapting to the altitude. Be patient and in a few months you'll be doing much better.
posted by lambchop1 at 8:27 PM on September 30, 2005

With time everyone's lung function declines, smoker or not. Smoking increases the rate of decline, and cessation of smoking by a moderate ex-smoker such as yourself should in the long term, bring your rate of decline in lung function back on course with a never-smoker's. From an article in Thorax:

"Quitting smoking when impairment of FEV1 is moderate leads to a mean annual decline in FEV1 similar to that of healthy never smokers and a reduction in cough, phlegm and wheeze in most individuals within the first year". (FEV1 is one measure of lung function).

I'm looking at a diagram at the moment from an old, but still-useful British Medical Journal article (sorry, I can't find the image online) which essentially demonstrates the same thing. That article gives some idea of timeframe. Someone who was a moderate smoker since 25 could expect airflow limitation equivalent to disability by ~70 years of age. If they had quit at 45, the same degree of airflow limitation would arise at ~85 years of age.

By quitting smoking, the lack of constant irritation of your airways will help to relieve some of your symptoms which will be most noticeable in the short term. Long term, you can't go backwards and regain your lost lung function, but the decline will be slower, and for any given age you'll be much better off than had you continued to smoke. Exercising will help you make the most of what you have, but as lambchop1 said, this will take some adapting.

In case you want to look up the articles I referred to:
1. Pride N. Smoking cessation: effects on symptoms, spirometry, and future trends on COPD. Thorax 2001;56(Suppl 2):ii7-ii10 (September).
2. Fletcher C, Peto R. The natural history of chronic airflow obstruction. BMJ 1977;i:1645-8.
posted by teem at 9:08 PM on September 30, 2005

Would those findings hold for someone who was exposed to second-hand smoke?
posted by acoutu at 9:23 PM on September 30, 2005

RockyChrysler; good news, thank you. Was your level and duration of smoking comparable to mine?

Although I marked both lambchop1's and teem's answers, it is interesting that the ALA and the BMJ apparently do not agree on whether the damage is reversible:

"damage done to your lungs is almost completely reversible in 15 years" (lambchop1)


"At 2 weeks to 3 months...lung function increases" (linked article at lungusa.org)


"Long term, you can't go backwards and regain your lost lung function, but the decline will be slower" (teem)

Then again, perhaps teem has misspoken. If quitting "bring[s] your rate of decline in lung function back on course with a never-smoker's," one would have to transition to a slower rate of decline than a never-smoker, to allow for the NS's decline to 'catch up.' This doesn't seem probable. Perhaps you mean: one can't completely regain all one's previous function, as well as; one can't get quite back to the level one would be at had one never smoked.
posted by attercoppe at 9:36 PM on September 30, 2005

To clarify, the decline in lung function of an ex-smoker versus a never-smoker is not the same, that is the curves of time versus FEV1/FVC (FEV1/FVC is a ratio of two lung function values, the ratio being a useful indicator of obstructive lung disease -- such as that caused by smoking) do not lie on top of one another. As you said, this would only be possible if a ex-smoker's decline was somehow super human and better than a never-smoker's.

I did a quick mock-up of the BMJ diagram since it makes things clearer. The point where the blue line starts declining less steeply is where the ex-smoker quit. It still declines, but at the same rate as the never-smoker. Unfortunately the ex-smoker will still have worse lung function than the never-smoker for any given age.

As for lungusa.org's assertion that lung function increases at 2wk-3mo, I would be interested to see their sources, and what they attribute the increase to. My best guess would be a small increase in lung function due to a lack of the shorter-term effects of smoking. Such effects including mucus hypersecretion can impair lung function. Other than that, the ALA page does not say that lung damage is almost completely reversible.

It's not hopeless though, quitting smoking is easily one of the best things you can for your general health and your new-found active lifestyle. I wouldn't be surprised if a lot of it is simply your change in activity -- when I started jogging I was shocked at how easily I would get tired, but after a few weeks it worked itself out. All the best.
posted by teem at 11:25 PM on September 30, 2005

RockyChrysler; good news, thank you. Was your level and duration of smoking comparable to mine?

i smoked for 5 years, averaging about a pack a day throughout that period. quitting was hard but i have never regretted it... except in my dreams, of course...
posted by RockyChrysler at 9:22 AM on October 1, 2005

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