If you’ve recently quit smoking, you’ve taken an important first step toward taking control of your health.

If you’re considering quitting, you may be wondering what the benefits are. Whatever group you fall into, there’s a common concern: Can you clean your lungs after you quit smoking?

While there’s no quick fix to get your lungs back to the way they were before you started smoking, there are things you can do to help your lungs repair themselves after you smoke your last cigarette.

Let’s take a look at some of the ways you can help your lungs “self-clean.”

Once you’ve quit smoking, you may have the urge to “clean” your lungs to get rid of the toxins that have built up.

Fortunately, your lungs are self-cleaning. They begin that process after you smoke your last cigarette.

Your lungs are a remarkable organ system that, in some instances, have the ability to repair themselves over time.

After quitting smoking, your lungs begin to slowly heal and regenerate. The speed at which they heal all depends on how long you smoked and how much damage is present.

Smoking causes two different kinds of permanent damage to your lungs:

  • Emphysema. In emphysema, the small air sacs in the lungs, called alveoli, are destroyed, which decreases the lungs’ surface area. The lungs then aren’t able to exchange oxygen that your body needs.
  • Chronic bronchitis. With chronic bronchitis, the smaller airways leading to alveoli become inflamed, which prevents oxygen from reaching the alveoli.

Together, these conditions are known as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).

While there’s no way to reverse scarring or lung damage that years of smoking can cause, there are things you can do to prevent further damage and improve your lung health.

Coughing

According to Dr. Keith Mortman, chief of thoracic surgery at the George Washington Medical Faculty Associates in Washington, D.C., a smoker is likely to have a lot of mucus built up in their lungs. This buildup may persist after quitting.

Coughing works by helping your body get rid of that extra mucus, unblocking those smaller airways and opening them up to get oxygen.

Exercise

Mortman also emphasizes the importance of physical activity. Staying active can be one of the best things you can do to maintain and improve your lung function.

Simply going for a walk outside can help those air sacs in your lungs stay open. If those sacs stay open, they’re able to exchange oxygen and get it where your body needs it.

Avoid pollutants

This may seem like a no-brainer, but avoiding secondhand smoke, dust, mold, and chemicals will encourage healthy lung function.

Animal studies have found that exposure to filtered air decreases mucus production in the lungs. Mucus can block those smaller airways and make it harder to get oxygen.

Before spending time outside, check your local weather station for air quality reports. If it’s a “bad air day,” try to avoid spending lots of time outside.

Drink warm fluids

According to the American Lung Association, staying hydrated is important for lung health. By drinking 64 ounces of water per day (eight 8-ounce cups), you’re keeping any mucus in your lungs thin, which makes it easier to get rid of when you cough.

Drinking warm beverages, like tea, broth, or even just hot water, may cause thinning of mucus, making it easier to clear from your airways.

Drink green tea

Research has shown that green tea has anti-inflammatory properties that may prevent some types of lung disease.

In a 2018 study, participants who consumed green tea two or more times per day were less likely to develop COPD.

Try some steam

Steam therapy involves inhaling water vapor to thin out mucus and reduce inflammation in the airways.

A 2018 study showed that in a small group of COPD patients, the use of a steam mask significantly improved their breathing.

It’s important to note that although this group of patients had immediate relief of symptoms, they didn’t see any change in their overall lung health after stopping the steam.

Eat anti-inflammatory foods

A smoker’s lung are likely to be inflamed, which can make it difficult to breathe.

While there’s no scientific evidence to show that eating a diet high in anti-inflammatory foods will prevent lung inflammation, research has shown that it may reduce inflammation in the body.

In other words, eating anti-inflammatory foods can’t hurt. Anti-inflammatory foods include:

  • blueberries
  • cherries
  • spinach
  • kale
  • olives
  • almonds
Finding help to quit smoking

Making the decision to quit smoking is an important first step toward taking control of your health. Remember, you’re not alone! Reach out to these resources for support:

First, let’s talk about how the lungs work. When you inhale, air travels into your airway (trachea), which then splits into two airways, called bronchi, that each lead to one of your lungs.

Those bronchi then split into smaller airways called bronchioles, which are the smallest airways in your lungs. At the end of each of those bronchioles are small air sacs called alveoli.

When you smoke, you inhale about 600 different compounds. These compounds can be broken down into several thousand chemicals, many of which are known to cause cancer.

Cigarette smoke can affect every system in your body. Here are some examples:

  • Heart. Blood vessels become narrower, making it harder for blood to circulate oxygen to the rest of your body. This makes your heart work harder.
  • Brain. Nicotine withdrawal can make you feel tired and unable to concentrate.
  • Respiratory system. Lungs can become inflamed and congested, making it hard to breathe.
  • Reproductive system. Over time, smoking can cause infertility and decreased sexual drive.

People who smoke run a higher risk for developing many chronic diseases, including:

These and other smoking-related diseases can have a pretty big impact on your life expectancy and quality of life.

Here’s a breakdown of what happens after you have your last cigarette.

What happens when you quit smoking

Time after last cigaretteBenefits
20 minutesYour heart rate and blood pressure return to more normal levels.
12 hoursYour carbon monoxide levels return to normal.
48 hoursYour sense of taste and smell start to improve.
2 weeksYour lung function starts to improve. You may find that you aren’t as short of breath as you used to be.
1 monthAny coughing or shortness of breath you’ve experienced will start to decrease.
1 yearYou’ll start to notice a dramatic improvement in your breathing and exercise tolerance.
3 yearsYour risk for heart attack drops to that of a nonsmoker.
5 yearsYour risk for developing lung cancer is cut in half, compared to when you were a smoker.

Deciding to quit smoking is one of the most important (and best!) decisions you’ll ever make. Once you’ve finished your last cigarette, your lungs begin working to clean themselves.

Quitting smoking is very difficult, but you got this.

While there’s no one surefire way to clean out your lungs after you quit smoking, there are things you can do to promote lung health.