How to rebuild your lungs
August 22, 2006 3:19 PM   Subscribe

Any way to speed up lung recovery once you've quit smoking?

I recently quit smoking cigarettes, but my pack a day habit has really torched my lungs. I am already excersizing (riding my bike about 12 miles a day), but I am curious if there is any other proactive measures I can take to speed up my recovery. I'm tired of coughing all the time.
posted by ISeemToBeAVerb to Health & Fitness (18 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
Run, baby. Run.
posted by The Jesse Helms at 3:31 PM on August 22, 2006

posted by sic at 3:56 PM on August 22, 2006 [1 favorite]

Here is an oft-cut-and-pasted, totally unsourced timeline on what you might expect with regard to your lungs.

You don't say how long you smoked, but that probably plays a role.

I smoked a pack a day for 11 years, then spent about 3 years quitting, starting again, quitting again and starting again before finally heaving them 2.5 years ago.

I'm pretty active, but I still feel the limiting effects those years had on my lungs. Really, the only thing you can do is excercise. Heavily. I ride a bike, do a lot of hiking and backpacking, play tennis and ride various cardio machines at the gym.

The coughing will go away pretty soon, though. Any lingering effect will be more like athsma - the feeling that you just don't have the same lung capacity of your nonsmoking friends. When my wife and I excercise together, I frequently note that I'm gasping for breath way before she is.

Too bad the lung brush was just a SNL skit!
posted by M.C. Lo-Carb! at 3:59 PM on August 22, 2006

You could try taking up a woodwind instrument, like the flute, if you want to exercise your lungs, without having to run outside.
posted by nomisxid at 4:26 PM on August 22, 2006

The inside of your respiratory system is coated with cilia -- hairlike structures which move in a constant wave motion to sweep mucus and debris out. Smoking paralyzes and kills the cilia, which is why you develop a smoker's cough. It will take a few months after quitting for the cilia to regrow and do their job again.

There's not much you can do besides moderate excercise, eating well and sleeping well in order to raise your overall metabolism. Just be patient and don't push it too hard.
posted by randomstriker at 5:24 PM on August 22, 2006

Drink at least a liter of water a day - it will help your cough be more "productive" (meaning it helps you expel mucous more easily). Breathing exercises in a steamy shower can help too.

posted by dog food sugar at 5:36 PM on August 22, 2006

I second the steam route. I use it for chest colds & sinus congestion from allergies, so when I quit smoking, I used steam for that as well. It helped a lot with the nasty morning cough. I recommend using a facial steamer, or boiling a pot of water, placing it on a flat surface, putting your face over it, and draping a towel over your head to create a tent between you and the pot. The steam is really effective in getting out old nastiness in your lungs.

Congratulations on quitting, and may you have no relapses from here on in.
posted by Meep! Eek! at 6:29 PM on August 22, 2006

That timeline is very interesting. I've always wondered about a 'safe' level of smoking... does one cigarette a week, for instance, have any effect? What about one every 2 days? etc. IE, is there some threshold that a healthy body can repair as it goes, without 'building up' damage, or does really anything hurt it for the long term?
posted by devilsbrigade at 7:22 PM on August 22, 2006

That said (asked, really), double the speed of your bike rides, or build in sprints. Biking can either be like walking or sprinting, depending on how you do it. If you want a more aerobic & less muscular ride (I don't know the state of your legs), drop a gear or two below what you'd normally ride at, so your RPMs are way up. This is a much less efficient way to ride, but your quads will not need as much strength to get the same aerobic benefit.
posted by devilsbrigade at 7:25 PM on August 22, 2006

If you have asthma, quitting may quickly improve your lung function. But if you have early stages of COPD (acute bronchitis and/or emphysema), the outlook is not so bright. Once your lungs or bronchial passages have developed scarring, alveoli breakdown, and inelasticity leading to lowered breathing volume and gas exchange, your lungs typically won't recover. You are left with permanently diminished breathing capacity, but quitting may slow the further progression of the disease process, and, over several years, may reduce your chances of contracting other complications, such as heart disease. That alone is worth a great deal, as severe COPD is a chronic, life threatening condition, with no curative treatment, that involves significant management effort and expense, but it is much worse having COPD that is also further complicated by secondary conditions such as heart disease.

In severe COPD cases, for younger people (typically late '40's to early '50s, without other significant disease issues, or obesity) lung volume reduction surgery and lung transplantation may be considered, but such procedures introduce further major management issues, and significant healthcare expense. If you are truly "coughing all the time," you should be checked immediately for lung cancer and COPD, as delaying treatment for either condition significantly degrades the success of treatment. You will at least establish a lung function baseline against which future changes in your respiratory health can be measured.
posted by paulsc at 7:25 PM on August 22, 2006

I'd nth the vigorous exercise—really work at lung capacity for short bursts. Anything that helps break up the gunk and get it flowing outwards helps. Still, the smoker's cough will be worse for the first several months than it ever was when smoking no matter what you do. This is a good thing and it passes. I speak from experience.

And, yeah, not to be patronizing, but good on ya!
posted by Fezboy! at 9:03 PM on August 22, 2006

Double the speed of your bike rides, or build in sprints.

Whoa, take it easy there. I don't agree with this advice unless the primary goal is to be competitive in races.

If you are excercising for health, exertion beyond a moderate level will yield diminishing returns. In fact, it's a bad idea to push hard in cardio activities unless you have established a base. Especially if you you are dealing with cardiovascular issues (like having just quit smoking!) Your heart is a muscle -- you have to strengthen it gradually without straining it.

Buy a Heart Rate Monitor from your local sports store, and use it when you're excercising. Focus on keeping your heart rate between 65% and 75% of your maximum. A common rule of thumb for the maximum heart rate is 220 minus your age.

The best thing for you is consistent and regular moderate excercise. An hour at a time three times a week. Don't slack off for two weeks and suddenly try to make up for it by riding hard for 50 miles. That'll do more harm than good.

You know the story of the tortoise and the hare, right?
posted by randomstriker at 9:08 PM on August 22, 2006

I'd nth the vigorous exercise

And for the nth time, NO! What is it with these people who harm themselves for decades and then expect to be able to heal themselves instantly with a big bang of exertion?

Be realistic. Be restrained. Be patient. Be perserverent. Be disciplined. If you are all these things, then you can be hopeful.
posted by randomstriker at 9:11 PM on August 22, 2006

Is there some threshold that a healthy body can repair as it goes

Yes, though measurement of the exact thresholds can be elusive, the process is called hormesis.
posted by randomstriker at 9:14 PM on August 22, 2006

OK IANAD! BUT: You've quit and you're exercising. I think you're doing the right thing. I did the same thing as you, and it will take a very long time before your lungs are the same as a lifelong non-smoker (depending on how long you smoked but I'm imagining it was for a substantial period of time) but I believe that by exercising you're doing another very important thing, namely ensuring that you don't go back to smoking. I've found that quitting AND exercising is a much more effective method than quitting alone. I just transferred my zeal for cigarettes to my zeal to be healthy and in good shape. Personally if you've quit totally and are exercising and eating right you should give yourself a pat on the back. You've done well! As for the lungs give them time. You spent a long time damaging them, they'll need a similar (if not longer) amount of time to get back to normal.
posted by ob at 8:59 AM on August 23, 2006

You can exercise your intercostal muscles through resistance training. The intercostal muscles are used in breathing, as well as the diaphragm and other muscles. I know of two devices that can be used to do this, although I have no direct experience of them:

1. Power Breathe

2. RespiVest

Unfortunately the RespiVest is not yet commercially available, but I feel sure I've seen similar products although I cannot think where. The makers of the RespiVest seem to doubt the efficacy of the PowerBreathe.

Of course neither of these devices actually "heal" your lungs, they will simply improve the performance of the muscles that you use to breathe. I've no idea how effective these methods are, particularly after smoking so much.
posted by ajp at 2:10 PM on August 23, 2006

There are all kinds of exercises used to increase lung capacity caused by emphysema. Googling emphysema should find lots. One of the common ones is setting up a candle 1-1/2 to 2 feet away, blowing just enough to keep the flame bent, and working up the length of time you can keep doing it.
posted by KRS at 2:18 PM on August 23, 2006

Try drinking a cup or two of mullein tea (also useful as a tincture). Mullein tends to bring crap up out of the lungs (even particles that have been there for years) and expands lung capacity--it is good for asthma, too.

If you do make the tea from leaves, strain it through a coffee filter to remove the little hairs from the brew.
posted by Riverine at 2:36 PM on August 23, 2006 [1 favorite]

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