It’s no secret that your lungs become damaged by smoking. Even worse, the longer you smoke for the more damage occurs. And yet, how much do we really know about the healing process when we quit? Knowing what happens to our lungs when we quit smoking not only helps us to better understand what’s happening within our body, but it also provides us with goals to aim for and be motivated by, to keep going.
Quitting smoking can be life-changing, and life-saving.
So, what exactly happens to your lungs after you quit smoking?
Although your journey to healthier lungs will largely depend on your unique situation, studies have suggested that there’s a general timeline we can follow to observe the healing process.¹
After only 20 minutes of not smoking, your body and your lungs already begin the healing process. Even at this early stage, your blood pressure, the temperature of your hands and feet, and your pulse-rate all return to normal.
If you can make it to 8 hours, the nicotine in your system will reduce by over 93%. Wait another 4 hours, and you’ll find that your oxygen levels increase, returning to normal again. In addition, your carbon monoxide levels will decrease. Carbon monoxide is a poisonous gas that occurs as a result of tobacco smoke.
At around 24 hours of quitting, you might find that your anxiety levels start to rise to a new high. Although uncomfortable, this is actually a good sign. It means that your body is successfully flushing out the nicotine and toxins left behind from smoking.
If you were a heavier smoker before quitting, then you might experience more anxiety than other lighter smokers. Don’t worry, this anxiety will soon pass as your body rids itself of the nicotine entirely. Until then, this would be a good time for anyone to distract their minds. You can do this through exercise, taking up a new hobby, trading your smoking habit to a healthier one, and avoiding triggers as far as possible.
After about 3 days, your body should have gotten rid of all the nicotine left from smoking. This is where anxiety levels reach their worst. If you don’t want to beat the intense initial nicotine withdrawals alone, a good option might be to get support and use nicotine replacement therapy (NRT), until you feel less anxious.
On the positive side, damaged nerve-endings start to grow back. Therefore, you should start to notice that your taste and smell improves around this point, making it a great time to start rediscovering your love affair with food. As your lungs start to relax, you might also find it easier to breathe at this point, struggling less to keep up with non-smokers.
Between 5 to 10 days, most smokers will find that they experience fewer day-to-day cravings. This is great news, but you should still keep yourself away from triggers, and continue with whatever form of support you have chosen so that you don’t fall back into a relapse. Remember, most cravings only last for about 2-3 minutes, and become less over time. So, have something prepared for when they hit so that you can more easily overcome them.
This is when circulation in your gums and teeth start to resemble that of a non-smoker. You’ll also find that most anxiety and depression symptoms caused by quitting start to subside. During this period, your smoker’s cough should improve and you’ll be able to move around more effortlessly. The mental side of addiction should no longer be holding you captive, and you’ll be well on your way to living smoke-free for good.
The first few weeks of quitting can change your life. However, after 3 months, your lungs will start to make real, life-saving progress. For example, as early as just one year into quitting you’ll be 50% less likely of experiencing heart disease. And after 10 years, your risk of getting certain cancers drops by 50%, too.
When the timeline doesn’t apply
The longer you go without smoking, the less likely you’ll be to experience heart and lung disease, and the more chance they will have at healing. However, if the effects of long-term smoking have turned into a disease or illness, like chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) or emphysema, then you might be left with permanent damage. So, it’s a good idea to quit as early on as possible.²