Smoking & Shortness of Breath

Cigarettes contain more than 4,000 different chemicals, 50 of which are carcinogenic, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, or CDC. These chemicals cause both short-term and long-term damage to the body, especially the lungs. Some smokers experience shortness of breath due to lung damage. Long-term smoking puts smokers at risk for developing chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, or COPD, asthma and lung cancer--all of which produce breathing difficulties.

Is This an Emergency?

If you are experiencing serious medical symptoms, seek emergency treatment immediately.

Lung Function

According to the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, just seconds after starting a cigarette, cilia, which help clean out the lungs like little brooms, slow down, and remain slower for hours afterward. In addition, more mucus is produced after smoking, and the mucus is thicker making it more difficult to clear out of the lungs.


The National Institutes of Health reports that COPD is prevalent, and the leading cause of the disease is smoking. The two major forms of COPD are chronic bronchitis, and emphysema. Many people with the disease have a combination of these problems. The NIH notes the following as symptoms of COPD: cough with mucus, shortness of breath, fatigue, wheezing and frequent infections.


In one study of smokers with asthma reported by the "American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine," Dr. Neil C.Thomson and associates at the University of Glasgow looked at asthmatics who continued to smoke, compared to a group of smokers who had quit for six weeks. Dr. Thomson reported that those who quit had considerable improvement in breathing and overall lung function after just one week of not smoking. Dr. Thomson writes, “There is a reversible component to the harmful effects of smoking on the airways in asthma.”


Cigarettes put smokers at a higher risk of developing many forms of cancer. The CDC warns that the biggest risk is lung cancer. Smokers are between 10 and 20 times more likely to get lung cancer or die from lung cancer, than are non-smokers. Cancers of the pancreas, mouth and throat, plus cancers of the kidney, bladder and cervix are also more likely to occur for smokers. "Time" magazine reports that approximately 80 percent of people who have lung cancer were smokers.

After Quitting

There are many benefits to quitting. Within 72 hours of not smoking, there will be, for example, a rapid decrease in breathing-related symptoms. Within one month, you can expect less wheezing, coughing, shortness of breath and mucus in the lungs, according to the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center. Over the long term, risks of dying from diseases such as cancer and COPD are greatly reduced.