Smoker’s cough: all you need to know

a profile photo of Dr Sarah White
Associate Clinical Director, Bupa Health Clinics
15 September 2021
Next review due September 2024

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.

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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

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