One of the questions that an ex-smoker-still-friend has asked is, how long does it take for your body to heal itself from the damage smoking has done to it? What stages or processes does your body go through in recovering from smoking? He particularly wanted to know, how long would he be coughing up goo?
These are the ashy and blackened lungs of someone who was a smoker for an unknown number of years.
(Photo from Premier Exhibitions, at National Geographic's site on the "Bodies" cadaver exhibition that was on display at Florida's Museum of Science and Industry in February 2006)
First, some of the risks you incur when you take on the smoking habit:
- Increased risk of dying from lung cancer: 22 times higher than non-smokers if you're male, 12 times higher if you're female
- Increased risk of dying from coronary heart disease: 2 times that of non-smokers
- Increased risk of dying of stroke: 2 times that of non-smokers
- Increased risk of developing these other potentially fatal cancers besides lung cancer:
- oral cavity
- Increased risk of developing the following conditions, which are leading causes of death:
- chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)
- peripheral artery occlusive disease
- abdominal aortic aneurysm (blood clots in your gut that can rupture without warning)
The lung of someone who died of emphysema
(Photo from University of South Wales' Museum of Human Disease)
- Increased risk of other conditions which, though not necessarily fatal, can be pretty nasty:
- ulcer of the stomach
- ulcer of the duodenum
- Risks you give your children, if you smoke around them:
- increased number of respiratory infections such as pneumonia or bronchitis
- more likely to develop acute ear infections and persistent middle ear disease, which is treated by inserting tubes in the child's ears
- increased risk of developing asthma
Smoker's lung on the left vs. non-smoker's lung on the right
(Image sourced from City-Data.com's forum on motivating someone to quit smoking)
Now here's how your body heals itself and slowly moves away from those bad and nasty diseases. The following time markers represent the amount of time elapsed since smoking your last cigarette.
- 20 minutes - your heart rate drops
- 12 hours - carbon monoxide levels in blood drop to normal
- 1 to 2 days - nicotine withdrawal symptoms peak and then drop rapidly over the following weeks
- 2 days - senses of smell and taste noticeably improve
- 2 weeks to 3 months - circulation and immune system function improve. Risk for heart attack begins to drop and lung function begins to improve
- 1 to 9 months - coughing and shortness of breath decrease
- 1 year - the additional risk of heart attack that smoking gave you is cut in half (you're still at the same risk of heart attack for non-smokers, plus half the risk a smoker has)
- 3 to 5 years - risks of cervical and bladder cancer are reduced
- 5 years - persistent cough, sputum production, or wheezing reduced in most former smokers drops to near that of non-smokers
- 5 to 15 years - risk of stroke drops down to that of a non-smoker's. Risk of cancers of the mouth, throat, and esophagus is halved.
- 10 years - risk of lung cancer drops to half that of a smoker's (wow, so 10 years after quitting, your risk of getting lung cancer is still higher than a non-smoker's). Also, the risk of getting cancers of the mouth, throat, esophagus, bladder, kidney and pancreas decrease further.
- 15 years - risk of coronary heart disease declines to that of a non-smoker's.
- Eventually, the health and function of your lungs will return to that of those who never smoked. The time that takes will vary depending on how many cigarettes you used to smoke per day, how many years you smoked, your gender (it takes longer for your lungs to recover if you're male), and the presence or absence of other environmental hazards.
A nice, pink, healthy set of lungs
(Photo from NeverSmokeAgain.com)
Some other data:
- Women who quit smoking before getting pregnant reduce the risk that their baby will be born with a low birthweight to the same risk as women who never smoked.
- Pregnant women who quit smoking even in the first trimester reduce their risk to the same levels as if they had not smoked during pregnancy at all.
- People who quit smoking before age 50 have half the risk of dying in the next 15 years compared to people who continue to smoke.
- Even if you already have one smoking-related ailment such as heart disease or one form of cancer, quitting smoking can reduce your risk of contracting another smoking-related ailment, or it can reduce the virulence of the disease you already have.
Finally, most former smokers tried to quit and returned to smoking several times before they were able to quit successfully over the long term. This means that if you've quit and returned to smoking, you've gone through one of your quitting cycles and you're that much closer to making the next time you quit, the one that sticks for good.
Never stop quitting smoking.
CDC, Within 20 Minutes of Quitting poster
CDC, Benefits of Quitting poster
State of New York Department of Health, The Truth About Cigarettes: Break Loose!
Antonia C. Novello et al., US Department of Health and Human Services, Centers for Disease Control, The Health Benefits of Smoking Cessation: a report of the Surgeon General, 1990 (this pdf file is huge, weighing in at 627 pages).