Respiratory Health and Smoking

What is good respiratory health?

The respiratory system1 consists of interconnected organs and tissues that help you breathe. The muscles that work in harmony with your lungs circulate the oxygen in your body and remove carbon dioxide and other waste gases. Your airways, blood vessels and all muscles involved in breathing are also a part of this system.

Keeping your lungs and respiratory system healthy is vital1. When your respiratory health is compromised, it impacts the quality of your everyday life and can lead to premature death2.

You can do several things2 to maintain a good level of respiratory health. Among the top ones are breathing- and cardiovascular exercises. Exercising your muscles improves circulation, which significantly improves lung health. 

By quitting smoking3,4 and chewing tobacco, you can also reduce the risk of several diseases, such as lung cancer.

You can also protect yourself from air pollution by wearing appropriate face masks and using environmentally friendly chemical products in your household3.

Eating a healthy and balanced diet3,4 helps your muscles and organs to stay healthy and maintain your respiratory system. Staying hydrated4 is also essential, as water thins the naturally accumulating mucus in your lungs and helps you breathe more easily.

Symptoms of respiratory health issues

Symptoms5,6 of lung disease usually come on slowly and can be mistaken for lack of fitness. It is essential to know the early signs so any problems can be treated before developing into more life-threatening stages.

Main symptoms5,6:

  • Unexplained breathlessness needs to be checked by a doctor. Shortness of breath means your lungs are not getting enough oxygen.
  • You need to see a doctor if you have a persistent cough that lasts weeks and leaves you exhausted. This type of cough is one of the main symptoms of lung cancer and other lung diseases.
  • Wheezing is a whistling sound that you make while exhaling. It occurs due to the narrowing of airways or inflammation. Persistent wheezing can be a sign of viral or bacterial lung infection. Still, it is also one of the main symptoms of lung disease, asthma and lung cancer.
  • Chest infection is usually caused by bacteria or viruses, in rare cases by fungi. It is an infection in the lungs where the narrowed airways and increased production of mucus make it very hard to breathe.
  • Chest pain should not be taken lightly as it can signify heart issues and lung disease. Be especially wary if the chest pain gets worse when coughing.
  • Coughing up blood from the lungs should be of immediate concern, and you should consult your doctor.

Effects of smoking on respiratory health

Smoking plays a considerable role in developing fatal diseases in many parts of the respiratory system7. These include the mouth, larynx, lungs and kidney.

Smoking also increases the risk of cardiovascular conditions affecting the heart or blood vessels, Crohn’s disease, and gastric ulcers7.

Passive smoking negatively affects the respiratory system7. Several studies show that it increases the risk of persistent cough, bronchitis and pneumonia in children and infants. It also increases the severity and frequency of their asthma attacks.

Smoking tobacco causes damage throughout the whole respiratory system7. It adversely affects the airways and the immune system. Most of the damage is caused by congestion, loss of cilia (responsible for debris removal) and inflammation. The airways lose flexibility and the surface area capable of gas exchange during breathing. Vascular changes negatively affect the small arteries and capillaries responsible for blood circulation.


Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease - or COPD - is a group of lung conditions that cause airflow blockage and difficulty when breathing8.

COPD8 is common, especially in middle-aged adults that are smokers. It usually starts with breathing problems that get worse over time. However, diagnosis and getting treatment can help keep it from developing further.

The main symptoms of COPD8:

  • Breathlessness
  • Persistent cough with a phlegm
  • Wheezing
  • Frequent chest infections

Getting treatment is crucial because if these symptoms go untreated, they gradually worsen and lead to fatal stages.


Emphysema9 is one of the main types of COPD. It develops by destroying the tiny air sacs in the lungs, creating one big air pocket. This blockade reduces healthy lung tissue and blocks oxygen flow through the bloodstream. If untreated, it causes further damage, causing the lungs to overfill, making breathing harder.

Emphysema is a largely preventable lung condition mainly caused by smoking9.

Chronic bronchitis

Another primary type of COPD is chronic bronchitis10. It is caused by the long-term inflammation of the breathing tubes due to smoking. Most experts agree that only a tiny fraction of this illness is caused by air pollution and other environmental factors.

The long-term inflammation eventually leads to severe breathing problems. Current treatments aim at helping patients to live with the symptoms more comfortably. The most important part of this process is quitting smoking10.

Lung cancer

Lung cancer starts in the lungs and slowly spreads from there. It primarily affects older people; in the UK, 40% of people diagnosed with the condition are above 75 years old11. Although not all lung cancer is caused by cigarette smoking, 72% of the people diagnosed are smokers. This statistic shows that regularly inhaling the toxic components of cigarettes largely contributes to the development of lung cancer11.

Lung cancer has a shallow survival rate. Symptoms start showing when the disease has already spread through the lungs and other parts of the body11—the earlier the diagnosis, the higher the chance of survival.

Tips on quitting smoking

Quitting smoking is one of the best things you can do to improve your respiratory health and decrease the chance of developing lung cancer and COPD12. Stopping also improves your mental health and mood and helps alleviate anxiety and stress12.

The NHS website is a fantastic resource for help and tips on how to quit. You can find a supportive community and plenty of advice through their website. To get started quitting you can take any of these steps12 to help you through your journey:

  • List your reasons
  • Tell other people to help you stay accountable
  • You can use aids to stop
  • Write down your triggers and have a plan to avoid them
  • Exercise when you feel the urge to light one up
  • Keep busy as a distraction from cravings


Smoking cigarettes is highly harmful to your respiratory system. Many long-time smokers end up suffering from lung disease, even cancer. Quitting smoking is one of the best things you can do for your health and recovery from lung disease symptoms. As hard as leaving this habit behind, the NHS offers several easily accessible ways to help you.


  1. Cleveland Clinic. Respiratory System: Functions, Facts, Organs & Anatomy [Internet]. Cleveland Clinic. Cleveland Clinic; 2020. Available from:
  2. Healthy Lungs [Internet]. Respiratory Health Association. Available from:
  3. 8 Habits to Develop For a Healthy Respiratory System [Internet]. The Hospital at Maayo. 2021. Available from:
  4. 6 Simple Ways You Can Take Care Of Your Lungs & Live A Healthier Life - Genesis Medical Associates, Inc. [Internet]. Available from:
  5. John Hopkins Medicine. Signs of Respiratory Distress [Internet]. John Hopkins Medicine. 2019. Available from:
  6. Signs & symptoms [Internet]. Lung Foundation Australia. Available from:
  7. Milner D. The physiological effects of smoking on the respiratory system | Nursing Times [Internet]. ursing Times. 2004. Available from:
  8. NHS. Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) [Internet]. 2017. Available from:
  9. American Lung Association. Emphysema | American Lung Association [Internet]. Available from:
  10. John Hopkins Medicine. Chronic Bronchitis [Internet]. 2022. Available from:
  11. NHS. Overview - Lung cancer [Internet]. NHS. 2019. Available from:
  12. National Health Service. Quit Smoking - Better Health [Internet]. 2020. Available from: presents all health information in line with our terms and conditions. It is essential to understand that the medical information available on our platform is not intended to substitute the relationship between a patient and their physician or doctor, as well as any medical guidance they offer. Always consult with a healthcare professional before making any decisions based on the information found on our website.
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