Can your body heal after smoking?
Posted on 18 December 2016
Need a reason to quit smoking? A Mediclinic pulmonologist explains how long it takes to recover.
Before we start, though, let’s get one thing clear: smoking is very bad for your health. ‘It’s a chronic insult*,’ says Dr Morné Vorster, a pulmonologist at Mediclinic Panorama. ‘When you smoke you’re inhaling noxious particles – toxins and poison – and your body is trying to control that. That damage continues after you quit smoking, but to a lesser degree,’ he explains. (*Insult is the medical term for physical injury.)
But yes, your body can repair itself after you quit smoking in time, Dr Vorster confirms. ‘The inflammation caused by smoking carries on for longer than one would imagine, but when you take the insult away, your body will get better over time,’ he says. ‘Of course it depends on how long you’ve been smoking, and how heavily. If you’re in your 20s and quit after three pack years*, in two years’ time you could be back to normal. But a 60-year-old who quits after 40 pack years of smoking will take a lot longer to recover!’ (*Smoking a pack of cigarettes a day for a year is called a ‘pack year’.)
Research published by the American Heart Association has found that some people who quit smoking start to feel the benefits straightaway. Just 20 minutes after that last smoke your blood pressure and heart rate will recover from the cigarette-induced spike, and within a year your excess risk of coronary heart disease will drop by 50%.
That’s the good news. The bad news is, it’ll be rough going immediately after you quit. ‘Smoking suppresses some of the immune functions of your lungs, so when you quit your lungs will become overactive,’ Dr Vorster warns. ‘What happens is, some people actually cough more and have more secretions in their lungs after they quit. So initially you may feel worse than when you were smoking, because your body is trying to compensate for the repair, and that’s uncomfortable. But after that initial discomfort I don’t know anyone who’s quit smoking who hasn’t felt better!’
Within a few months you’ll start breathing more clearly and your shortness of breath will diminish. But, says Dr Vorster, the benefits of quitting go far beyond ending the breathlessness. ‘You’d think that because you’re inhaling smoke, your lungs would be the main problem,’ he says. ‘But smoking actually causes inflammation across your whole body. When you stop smoking, it takes that inflammation away, so you’ll feel a lot better generally.’
Apart from the inflammation, smoking also harms your coronary arteries, the blood supply to your heart, your bones, your mental wellness, your muscles… the list goes on and on. ‘It depends on how much damage you’ve done and how much you’ve smoked, but there are clear benefits to quitting smoking – and you’ll feel some of those straightaway,’ Dr Vorster says. ‘The reason for that is because you’re removing the insult, or cause of harm.’