What Is Smoker’s Lung?

We all now know that smoking has a huge impact on the lungs, as well as other parts of the body. Indeed, you only have to catch a glimpse at the back of a packet of cigarettes to see what the lungs of a smoker may look like.

Tobacco smoke contains more than 4,000 different chemicals, at least 60 of which are known to cause cancer. One of the worst culprits is sticky, black tar, which collects in the lungs and stops the lining of tiny hairs (cilia) from sweeping away germs.

Tar and the other baddies in smoke can lead to problems called smoker’s lung, now more commonly referred to as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). Two main illnesses make up the health issues associated with COPD: chronic bronchitis and emphysema.

Chronic bronchitis

Chronic bronchitis is part of COPD, in which the lungs and respiratory passages become inflamed, swollen and irritated. The body starts producing more mucus to try to counteract the problem but this only leads to chronic coughing and breathlessness.

People with chronic bronchitis cough a lot, get short of breath easily, get thick, heavy mucus settling on their chest, and become more susceptible to dangerous infections such as pneumonia.


Emphysema is another aspect of COPD. In this disease, the walls between the tiny air sacs in the lungs (the alveoli) are damaged and break down.

The air sacs start to form larger sacs and this actually means there is less surface area inside the lungs for exchanging oxygen and carbon dioxide. Because of this, you take in less oxygen with each breath and over time, the problem leads to severe breathlessness.


Sufferers can ease their symptoms by avoiding further smoke or air pollution, staying away from sudden temperature changes and cold, moist weather—easier said than done! It’s also important that people with COPD eat healthily, drink plenty of fluids, and continue to exercise regularly, despite the extra difficulty.

Some treatments are available, but they will only act to ease the symptoms, not to drive them away completely. Doctors will often give COPD sufferers inhalers loaded with bronchodilators—drugs which help to open up the airways in the lungs. Steroids can also help, as can drugs which break down the thick mucus that gathers in the lungs.

People with late-stage COPD may be given oxygen therapy. This means they’ll be connecting to an oxygen tank wherever they go and a mask or tubes through the nose deliver oxygen deep into the lungs to help them breathe more easily.

Although allergies and air pollution can make COPD symptoms worse, the only truly effective treatment for smoker’s lung is to stop smoking. The good news is that the damage can often be reversible: the symptoms of COPD will ease off after 10 to 15 years of quitting tobacco completely, the risk of developing lung cancer becomes equivalent to that of someone who has never smoked at all.