Navigation

Smoker’s cough: all you need to know

a profile photo of Dr Sarah White
Associate Clinical Director, Bupa Health Clinics
15 September 2021

If you smoke, having a cough that doesn’t go away is commonly known as a ‘smoker’s cough’. But what causes a smoker’s cough, how can you get rid of it and is there ever any reason to worry? Here I’ll answer some of the most common questions around smoker’s cough.

What is a smoker’s cough?

A smoker’s cough is a chronic cough (one you’ve had for a long time), which you often get if you smoke. A smoker’s cough tends to be ‘phlegmy’ rather than dry. You might cough up mucus. People with a smoker’s cough often have a wheeze too.

When to seek help for a cough

Although it’s a common problem if you smoke, not all coughs can be put down to “just” being a smoker’s cough. So, you should always pay attention to a cough that’s new or different for you – there may be other reasons for it. A cough is one of the key symptoms of COVID-19. If you have a new, persistent cough, you should follow government guidance and get a COVID test.

If you’ve had a cough for three weeks or more (that isn’t due to COVID-19), or a change in an existing cough, contact your GP. You should also see your GP urgently if you’re coughing up blood. In some cases, a cough can be a sign of lung cancer – particularly if you smoke or used to smoke. Your GP will be able to assess whether your cough could be due to more serious causes.

What causes a smoker’s cough?

The chemicals you inhale when you smoke can cause inflammation and changes in your airways. Smoking damages the small hairs (cilia) that line your airways and usually help to keep them clear. Your airways also produce more mucus than normal. Coughing is your body’s natural way to overcome these changes.

How serious is a smoker’s cough?

A smoker’s cough may be a temporary reaction to smoking, which clears up quite quickly when you don’t smoke. But it can also be the first sign of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). This is a common lung condition, often associated with smoking. COPD can lead to symptoms such as breathlessness, which get worse over time. It can’t be cured, but you can manage the symptoms.

What’s the best way to deal with a smoker’s cough?

The best thing you can do if you have a smoker’s cough is to give up smoking. Coughing often improves within a month of giving up (although it can get worse initially, as all the mucus in your lungs is cleared out). It can eventually disappear completely. If you don’t quit, cutting down on how much you smoke may also help.

Some people try different home remedies for managing a smoker’s cough. These include honey, the herbal medicine perlagonium and over-the-counter cough medicines. You could try these to see if they ease your symptoms. But if you continue to smoke, they won’t get rid of your cough.

If you have symptoms of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), your doctor may prescribe medications to help relieve your symptoms. These usually include inhalers – sometimes containing more than one medicine – to open up your airways. You may also sometimes have mucolytics to break down phlegm.

Support with stopping smoking

Stopping smoking can reduce your risk of many health conditions, including heart disease and certain cancers, as well as COPD. You can access local stop smoking services through the NHS. They can give you free advice and support to help you stop smoking.

Find your local stop smoking service.

a profile photo of Dr Sarah White
Dr Sarah White
Associate Clinical Director, Bupa Health Clinics

    • Hamari A, Toljamo T, Nieminen P et al. High frequency of chronic cough and sputum production with lowered exercise capacity in young smokers. Annals of Medicine 2010; 42(7): 512-520. doi:10.3109/07853890.2010.505933
    • The health consequences of smoking: a report of the Surgeon General. Office of the Surgeon General (US); Office on Smoking and Health (US). Atlanta (GA): Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (US); 2004
    • Etter JF. Short-term change in self-reported COPD symptoms after smoking cessation in an internet sample. European Respiratory Journal 2010; 35 (6): 1249-1255. doi:10.1183/09031936.00090509
    • Coronavirus: how to stay safe and help prevent the spread. Cabinet Office. www.gov.uk, last updated 13 September 2021
    • Suspected cancer: recognition and referral. National Institute for Health and Care Excellence. www.nice.org.uk, June 2015
    • Signs and symptoms of lung cancer. Macmillan Cancer Support. www.macmillan.org.uk, accessed 8 September 2021
    • Pauwels RA, Buist AS, Calverley PM, et al. GOLD Scientific Committee. Global strategy for the diagnosis, management, and prevention of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. NHLBI/WHO Global Initiative for Chronic Obstructive Lung Disease (GOLD) Workshop summary. Am J Respir Crit Care Med 2001;163 (5): 1256-76. doi:10.1164/ajrccm.163.5.2101039
    • Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). BMJ Best Practice. bestpractice.bmj.com, last reviewed 8 August 2021
    • Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. NICE Clinical Knowledge Summaries. cks.nice.org.uk, last revised July 2021
    • Tobacco health benefits of smoking cessation. World Health Organization. www.who.int, 25 February 2020
    • Cough (acute): antimicrobial prescribing. National Institute for Health and Care Excellence. www.nice.org.uk, February 2019
    • Smoking cessation. NICE Clinical Knowledge Summaries. cks.nice.org.uk, last revised November 2020

Did you find our advice helpful?

We’d love to hear what you think. Our short survey takes just a few minutes to complete and helps us to keep improving our healthy lifestyle articles.

ajax-loader