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Smoking and Tobacco

After Quitting

09/09/2010

Question:

I stopped smoking 4 years ago, I do feel better, my question is this: I heard once you stop smoking your lungs will heal themselves is this true? If so how long does it take to go back to normal?

Answer:

First, congratulations on overcoming the toughest addiction in the world. There is probably no other single step you could have taken to better extend your years of healthy living.

As to healing, this of course depends on how much damage has already been done. Smoking causes scores of different illnesses from blindness and hearing loss to impotence and depression, but the three most damaging aspects of smoking are those that affect the cardiovascular system (heart and blood vessels), lung function and lung cancer. About half of people who continue to smoke beyond age 40 will die prematurely from one of these problems, losing between 7-10 years of life. That also means half do not. They may have other smoking related health problems but don't die from it. Therefore, in terms of prediction, all we can really talk about is the increased risk of illness or death.

We know that after stopping smoking, the heart and blood vessels seem to heal the fastest. The huge extra risk that smokers take with their hearts drops in half within a year or two of stopping smoking and it continues to fall over the next 5 years until it gets near but not quite normal.

Lung function is trickier to predict. Lungs clearly heal with stopping but once the lungs are injured and scarred to a certain point, they can only recover so much. If you feel more shortness of breath than you think you ought to, your doctor can order some simple tests of lung function to find out how you are doing or if you have chronic bronchitis or emphysema (COPD). Smoking causes 15 different types of cancer, and causes about a third of all cancer deaths. Lung cancer is the biggest killer of smokers and smokers are almost 10 times more likely to die of lung cancer than folks who have never smoked. After quitting smoking, that risk level falls over the next decade or so to about 5 times that of never smokers; however, it never gets back to normal. The bottom line: you are much, much better off having quit. However, never starting and remind your young friends and family of this, is a whole lot better.

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Response by:

Rob  Crane, MD Rob Crane, MD
Clinical Associate Professor of Family Medicine
College of Medicine
The Ohio State University