Smoking and Asthma

Medically Reviewed by Nayana Ambardekar, MD on August 14, 2022
6 min read

Smoke from cigars, cigarettes, and pipes harms your body in many ways. It’s especially harmful to the lungs of a person with asthma. Tobacco smoke is a powerful trigger of asthma symptoms.

When a person inhales tobacco smoke, irritating substances settle in the moist lining of the airways. These substances can cause an attack in a person who has asthma.

In addition, tobacco smoke damages tiny hair-like structures in the airways called cilia. Normally, cilia sweep dust and mucus out of the airways. Tobacco smoke damages cilia so they are unable to work, allowing dust and mucus to accumulate in the airways.

Smoke also causes the lungs to make more mucus than normal. As a result, even more mucus can build up in the airways, triggering an attack.

Secondhand smoke is the combination of smoke from a burning cigar or cigarette and smoke exhaled by a smoker.

Inhaling secondhand smoke, also called "passive smoke" or "environmental tobacco smoke," may be even more harmful than actually smoking. That's because the smoke that burns off the end of a cigar or cigarette contains more harmful substances (tar, carbon monoxide, nicotine, and others) than the smoke inhaled by the smoker.

Secondhand smoke is especially harmful to people who already have asthma. When a person with asthma is exposed to secondhand smoke, they are more likely to experience the wheezing, coughing, and shortness of breath associated with asthma.

Secondhand smoke harms children with asthma even more than adults.

When a child is exposed to tobacco smoke, their lungs become irritated and produce more mucus than normal. Since children's airways are smaller, the side effects of secondhand smoke affect them faster and can also affect lung function in later life.

Children of parents who smoke are also more likely to develop lung and sinus infections. These infections can make asthma symptoms worse and more difficult to control.

Smoking harms an unborn child in many ways. Nicotine, the addictive substance in tobacco products, is carried through the mother's bloodstream directly into the baby.

Children of women who smoked during pregnancy are more likely to have lung problems and are 10 times more likely to develop asthma. Smoking during pregnancy has also been linked with low-birth weight newborns, premature births, and sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS).

Ways to reduce exposure to tobacco smoke include:

  • If you smoke, quit. Quitting isn't always easy, but there are many programs and methods to help. Ask your health care provider to help you find the one that is best for you. If your spouse or other family members smoke, help them understand the dangers of smoking and encourage them to quit.
  • Do not allow smoking in your home or your car.
  • Do not let anyone smoke around you or your child.
  • Avoid restaurants and public places that permit smoking.

There's no single way to quit smoking that works for everyone with asthma. A smoking cessation program may be helpful. Ask your doctor about programs in your community.

Before you quit all at once ("cold turkey"), setting a plan will help:

  • Pick a date to stop smoking, and then prepare for it.
  • Tell family and friends you plan to quit.
  • Record when and why you smoke. You will come to know what triggers you to smoke.
  • Record what you do when you smoke.
  • List your reasons for quitting. Read over the list before and after you quit.
  • Find activities to replace smoking. Be ready to do something else when you want to smoke.
  • Ask your doctor about using nicotine replacement products such as gum, lozenges, patches, inhalers, or nasal sprays. These are first-line medications that some people find very helpful. Nicotine-free prescription medications, like Chantix and Zyban, can also help you quit smoking.

Quitting time

On the day you pick to quit, start that morning without a cigarette. Then follow these helpful tips:

  • Don't focus on what you’re missing. Think about what you’re gaining.
  • Tell yourself that you’re a great person for quitting. Remind yourself of this when you want a smoke.
  • When you get the urge to smoke, take a deep breath. Hold it for 10 seconds and then release it slowly.
  • Keep your hands busy. Doodle, play a sport, knit, or work on a computer.
  • Change activities that were connected to smoking. Take a walk or read a book instead of taking a cigarette break.
  • Don't carry a lighter, matches, or cigarettes.
  • Go to places that don't allow smoking, such as museums and libraries.
  • Eat low-calorie, healthful foods when the urge to smoke strikes. Carrot and celery sticks, fresh fruits, and fat-free snacks are good choices. Avoid sugary or spicy foods that may lead to cigarette craving.
  • Drink a lot of fluids. Avoid alcoholic drinks. They can make you want to smoke. Select water, herbal teas, caffeine-free soft drinks, and juices.
  • Exercise. It will help you to relax.
  • Hang out with nonsmokers.
  • Seek support for quitting. Tell others about your milestones with pride.

How quickly will I see benefits from quitting smoking?

After 20 minutes of not smoking:

  • Your blood pressure and pulse rate begin to decrease.
  • Circulation and the temperature of your hands and feet begin to increase.

After 12 hours of not smoking:

  • The carbon monoxide level in your blood returns to normal.

After 2 weeks to 3 months of not smoking:

  • Your body circulates blood better
  • Your lungs function better

After 1 to 9 months of not smoking:

  • Coughing and shortness of breath lessen

After 1 year of not smoking:

  • Your risk of heart disease decreases to half that of a smoker's risk.

After 5 years of not smoking:

  • Your risk of getting mouth, throat, or esophagus cancer drops to half that of a smoker.

After 10 years of not smoking:

  • Your risk of dying from lung cancer drops to almost half that of a smoker.
  • Your risk of other cancers, such as cancer of the larynx and pancreas decreases.

After 15 years of not smoking:

  • Your risk of heart disease decreases to that of a nonsmoker.

How will I feel when I quit smoking?

When you first quit, you may go through withdrawal and:

  • Crave cigarettes
  • Feel very hungry
  • Cough often
  • Get headaches
  • Have trouble concentrating
  • Have constipation
  • Feel very tired
  • Feel nervous or sad
  • Have a sore throat
  • Have difficulty sleeping

Although withdrawal symptoms will be the strongest when you first quit, they will quickly improve and should go away completely within a few weeks.

I’ve tried to quit before and failed. What if I can't do it?

To quit smoking, you must be ready emotionally and mentally. It may take several tries before you are successful. Some people are more ready to quit than others. Look at these five stages of change that people go through to quit smoking.

  • Stage one: Pre-contemplation. You don't want to quit smoking, but you may try to quit because you feel pressured to quit.
  • Stage two: Contemplation. You want to quit within the next 6 months. You haven't taken steps to quit, but you want to quit.
  • Stage three: Preparation. You take small steps to quit such as cutting back on smoking or switching to a lighter brand.
  • Stage four: Action. You commit to quitting. You make changes in your actions and environment to help cope with urges to smoke and remain smoke-free for 6 months.
  • Stage five: Maintenance. You have not smoked for about 6 months and work to prevent relapse.

Remember: Smoking again (relapse) is common. In fact, 75% of those who quit will smoke again. Most smokers try to quit three times before being successful. Don't give up!