Quitting won’t reverse damage from emphysema or stop it from progressing, but it can slow it down and greatly reduce your symptoms.

If you quit smoking after finding out you have emphysema, you might wonder if your condition will continue to worsen now that you’ve stopped.

Emphysema is a chronic and progressive disease. There isn’t a cure, and quitting won’t stop it from progressing. Still, quitting can drastically reduce your symptoms, improve your outlook, and reduce your chance of emphysema complications, cancer, and other conditions.

Smoking-related problems, like emphysema, may still progress after you put down your last cigarette. That’s because, while you can slow emphysema-related lung damage, you can’t reverse it.

Emphysema is one of a group of conditions called chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). It causes airway inflammation and damages the tiny air sacs in your lungs called alveoli. These sacs hold oxygen and are usually separate from one another.

Over time, emphysema causes the air sacs in your lungs to rupture, reducing the oxygen they can absorb and causing inflammation in the airways. The blockage and inflammation can also make it difficult to breathe.

Emphysema usually progresses over several years. And it can take a long time for symptoms like wheezing, coughing with mucus, and shortness of breath to show up.

Quitting smoking can slow the progression and prevent further damage to your lungs from tobacco smoke. Quitting can also reduce symptom flare-ups and improve your life expectancy and quality of life. And while you can’t cure emphysema, there are many treatments to help you feel better and live longer.

Why is my breathing worse after quitting smoking?

After you quit, you may notice that you cough more, not less, for a while. Although it may seem strange, it’s a sign your body is healing.

Smoking can paralyze small, hairlike structures in your lungs called cilia. Their job is to clean your airways by sweeping out debris, bacteria, and other invaders. When they regrow and begin to work again, they become more active in cleaning your airways.

Because they’re active again, you are more likely to fight off colds and infections. But you’re more likely to cough, at least at first.

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Researchers generally agree that the best way to stop the progression of COPD, including emphysema, is to quit smoking. While quitting won’t cure emphysema, it can greatly improve your quality of life.

That’s because quitting prevents further damage that makes emphysema worse. Your body will be better able to fight emphysema. And you’ll avoid worsening symptoms like coughing, wheezing, and shortness of breath.

A 2023 study of 1,740 males over age 40 years with COPD found that those who quit within 2 years of their diagnosis had a lower chance of all causes of death, including heart problems. Those who quit had a 17% reduction in chance of death from all causes and a 44% lower chance of death from heart problems.

Quitting offers other benefits, including:

  • improved lung function
  • decreased emphysema symptoms
  • fewer exacerbations
  • reduced chance of heart attack and heart disease
  • reduced cholesterol levels
  • reduced chance of cancer
  • improved immunity and healing
  • reduced chance of sexual difficulties
  • reduced chance of bone fractures

Emphysema progresses in stages, from 1 through 4. People in the early stages of COPD may not experience any effect on their life expectancy, according to 2020 research.

But smoking with emphysema increases your chance of progressing to more severe stages. Stage 4 generally has a 9-year reduction in life expectancy.

You’re also likely to have worse symptoms and a reduced quality of life. Smoking can also cause other health issues like heart disease and cancer.

Once emphysema or COPD damages your lungs, you can’t reverse the damage. However, doctors can offer several treatments to help you manage your symptoms and slow progression.

Treatments may include:

  • lifestyle changes, including dietary ones
  • vitamins and supplements if you have deficiencies
  • counseling, education, and group support
  • medications like antibiotics and steroids
  • vaccines to prevent infections
  • bronchodilators to relax muscles around your airways
  • oxygen therapy
  • surgery or lung transplant in more severe cases

Support for quitting smoking

The Department of Health and Human Services has a website dedicated to helping people quit smoking. The site offers articles on how to stop, manage cravings, prevent weight gain, and find support. It also includes specialized advice and support for veterans, people over age 60 years, women, teens, and Spanish-speaking people.

You can visit the site at Smokefree.gov. The site also offers a live chat option with quit counselors, links to quitting apps, and a customizable quit plan.

For additional help, read 15 tips for quitting smoking submitted by Healthline readers.

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Here are some answers to questions you may have about emphysema and smoking.

Can you stop emphysema from progressing?

Emphysema is chronic (long lasting) and progressive. Quitting won’t cure it or stop it from progressing.

However, doctors have many treatments available to manage your symptoms and slow the progression. Quitting smoking is one of the best things you can do to slow it down.

How quickly does emphysema progress?

Emphysema can take years to develop. Once it does, it can also take years to progress from mild to very severe. Lifestyle factors like smoking play a role in how quickly this happens.

How long after quitting smoking does emphysema improve?

According to the American Lung Association, your lung function will begin to improve within 2 weeks to 3 months after quitting smoking. Coughing and shortness of breath decrease within 1–9 months.

Emphysema is a chronic, progressive lung disease. If you smoke, quitting is the best thing you can do to protect your health.

Your emphysema will still progress after you quit, but it will progress more slowly. You will also ease your symptoms and lower your chance of heart attack and other complications. You can work with a doctor on other treatments to help you manage your condition and improve your outlook.