Smoker's Cough: Treatments, Duration, and Outlook

Medically Reviewed By Luke Davis, MD
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Smoker’s cough is a persistent cough that occurs after smoking. Smoking — whether cigarettes, e-cigarettes, cigars, or pipes — releases chemicals into your body and the air. These chemicals irritate your respiratory tract and cause you to cough. Smoker’s cough is typically a wet cough that produces mucus. You may also experience wheezing, a sore throat, and a coarse or rattling sound when you breathe. Treatment may involve medications or breathing exercises in addition to quitting smoking. Smoker’s cough may go away when you stop smoking.

Read on to learn more about smoker’s cough, how long it lasts, and how to treat it.

What are the causes of smoker’s cough?

An older man smoking
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The irritating effects of smoke on your lungs cause smoker’s cough. Smoking releases thousands of chemicals, at least 70 of which can cause cancer. These chemicals irritate your lungs.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) notes that smoking damages the cilia in your airways. These tiny hairs keep foreign materials out of your lungs. When the cilia cannot function properly, you may experience increased coughing.

What are the symptoms of smoker’s cough?

According to researchers, people who smoke heavily tend to experience smoker’s cough in the morning. The cough is usually “productive” or wet instead of dry. Most people cough up sputum, mucus from the lung.

People with smoker’s cough may also experience:

  • chest pain
  • wheezing
  • shortness of breath
  • a coarse, rattling sound in the throat when breathing
  • sore throat

What are the treatments for smoker’s cough?

Some people find that their cough temporarily worsens after they quit smoking. This occurs due to cilia regrowing and regaining their ability to clear your lungs of harmful substances. After the cilia are functioning properly, your cough will improve.

You may be able to lessen your symptoms with some at-home remedies, including cough drops or lozenges.

Smoking can cause chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). Therefore, your doctor may prescribe medications to manage your COPD that may also help relieve smoker’s cough. Common treatments for COPD include:

  • Bronchodilators: These medications relax your airways, making it easier for you to breathe.
  • Steroid inhalers: These inhalers contain corticosteroids, which reduce inflammation.
  • Mucolytics: Mucolytics are medications that thin the phlegm in your lungs, making it easier to cough up.

Your doctor may also recommend pulmonary rehabilitation, a breathing exercise program that can help strengthen your lungs.

What is the outlook for people with smoker’s cough?

The outlook for people with smoker’s cough generally depends on how often they smoke. People who smoke heavily are more likely to experience persistent smoker’s cough, even after they quit smoking. People who only smoke occasionally may find that their cough goes away after a few days of not smoking.

For people who smoke heavily or regularly, smoker’s cough can lead to serious complications.

What are some potential complications of smoker’s cough?

Complications of smoker’s cough can arise from tobacco smoke’s harmful chemicals or the physical act of coughing. These complications can include:

  • throat damage
  • voice changes
  • increased risk of infection, such as pneumonia
  • COPD
  • lung cancer
  • bronchitis

Can you prevent smoker’s cough?

The best way to prevent smoker’s cough is to quit smoking. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention lays out several resources for people who want to quit smoking, including guidance for counseling and medications.

Along with relieving smoker’s cough, smoking cessation has many health benefits. Quitting smoking lowers your risk of heart disease, certain cancers, and respiratory complications.

Learn more about smoking cessation and how it can benefit your health.

Other frequently asked questions

Here are a few other commonly asked questions about smoker’s cough. Dr. Luke Davis has reviewed the answers.

Is it smoker’s cough or lung cancer?

Because smoking can lead to lung cancer, the symptoms of smoker’s cough and lung cancer can be very similar. Talk with your doctor if you have a persistent and productive cough, shortness of breath, or frequent respiratory infections.

Does smoker’s cough go away?

For people who only smoke occasionally, smoker’s cough may be mild and may go away on its own within a few days. However, smoker’s cough can be persistent and severe in people who smoke heavily.

When should I see a doctor about smoker’s cough?

If you have a cough that lasts for more than a few weeks, produces lots of phlegm or other fluids like blood, or occurs with pronounced wheezing, talk with your doctor. They can help you treat the symptoms and direct you to resources for quitting smoking.

Why is smoker’s cough worse when you wake up?

Experts do not know exactly why smoker’s cough is worse when you first wake up. However, it may be due to decreased cough sensitivity during sleep and a horizontal body position.

Summary

Smoker’s cough is a wet, persistent cough that develops in people who smoke. It occurs when harmful chemicals in tobacco smoke build up in your body and damage your lungs, causing you to cough. People with a smoker’s cough may also experience a sore throat, wheezing, and a crackling sound when breathing.

People who smoke heavily are more likely to experience long-term smoker’s cough.

Quitting smoking is the best way to treat and prevent smoker’s cough. However, some short-term remedies, such as lozenges or salt water gargles, may help relieve your symptoms. Doctors may also prescribe certain medications to deal with the cough and other health conditions related to smoking.

Talk with your doctor if you experience a persistent, wet cough. They can help you manage the symptoms and any underlying conditions and direct you to resources for smoking cessation.

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Medical Reviewer: Luke Davis, MD
Last Review Date: 2022 Jul 25
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