Emphysema is an incurable, progressive lung condition that is a type of COPD. Quitting smoking can help prevent further lung deterioration in any stage of COPD and may also help slow progression.

People with emphysema have permanently enlarged lung air spaces, which causes difficulty breathing and coughing with or without mucus.

Smoking contributes to emphysema by mobilizing specific immune cells in the lungs. The abnormal presence of these cells damages the lungs. While emphysema is incurable and worsens over time, quitting smoking can slow its progression.

COPD is the third leading cause of death in the United States, with 80–90% of people with the condition being cigarette smokers.

This article discusses whether emphysema progresses after quitting smoking. It will also explain whether emphysema symptoms ease after quitting smoking and what happens if a person with the condition continues to smoke.

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Due to the chronic and incurable nature of emphysema, it will still progress over time despite smoking cessation. However, medications can help with breathing issues and improve a person’s quality of life.

It is not possible to reverse damage to the lungs. However, quitting smoking can help protect the body against the disease and slow down its deterioration.

Emphysema is a common, preventable, severe lung condition. It is a form of COPD in which people may have persistent breathing problems due to restricted airflow through the lungs.

Symptoms of emphysema include:

How does cigarette smoke contribute to emphysema?

Breathing problems related to emphysema occur because of abnormalities or damage in the airways and alveoli (air sacs) of the lungs. These abnormalities result from long-term or significant exposure to irritating particles or gases. Exposure to toxic cigarette smoke is the most common cause of emphysema, as it destroys lung tissue.

As the disease progresses, breathing problems and coughing typically worsen. Significant weight loss may also occur later in the disease because of an increased effort required to breathe.

Difficulty breathing, or dyspnea, may occur during physical activity, especially when working the arms at or above shoulder level. This is known as dyspnea on exertion. Over time, simple daily activities and resting tend to become more difficult due to dyspnea.

The leading cause of emphysema is smoking cigarettes, with up to 15% of smokers developing COPD. Symptoms of emphysema are not only related to exposure to cigarette smoke. They can also depend on:

  • smoking intensity, including the number of cigarettes or packs per day
  • number of years of exposure
  • baseline lung function

After long-term exposure to cigarette smoke, the immune system mobilizes cells called macrophages, neutrophils, and T lymphocytes into the lung tissue. These cells play a role in emphysema by damaging the lung tissue. The immune cells are also responsible for producing and secreting excessive phlegm.

Lung damage is permanent. However, quitting smoking can still help slow down the progress of emphysema.

After stopping smoking, people with emphysema will typically:

  • breathe more easily
  • experience fewer events of worsening symptoms
  • require fewer periods of hospitalization
  • have improved lung function
  • have an increased quality of life
  • have an increased life expectancy

However, since emphysema is a chronic and progressive disease, the symptoms may never disappear. Damage from smoking that causes emphysema is permanent.

Continued smoking can worsen symptoms, quality of life, and outlook. Quitting smoking is an effective treatment strategy for emphysema.

There is currently no cure for emphysema. Quitting smoking is an effective way to slow down the progression of the condition.

Despite the positive effects quitting smoking can have, some people with emphysema choose to continue smoking. For example, according to research, 50% of people in Denmark with COPD under the age of 50 years old are active smokers.

If a person does not quit smoking, the cigarette smoke will continue to damage the lungs. People may find that the progression of their emphysema speeds up. Symptoms may worsen more quickly over time, including coughing and difficulty breathing. Eventually, daily activities may become too tiring to carry out.

Continued smoking can result in emphysema complications. These may include:

While stopping smoking can slow the progression of emphysema, it is a chronic and progressive disease. However, people can live with emphysema long term. Stopping smoking can help improve their quality of life and ease symptoms.

Since smoking causes many serious threats to health, quitting has the potential to significantly improve a person’s quality of life.

Learn about what happens to the body after quitting smoking here.


After about a month of quitting smoking, the number of nicotine receptors in the brain adjusts to break the cycle of addiction.

Learn about nicotine dependence here.

Reversing lung damage

Some lung damage is reversible. This means that quitting before permanent damage occurs can help to stop lung disease. For example, within 2 weeks of quitting, people may feel better walking up the stairs. The sooner a person quits smoking, the better their chance of lung damage reversing.

Quitting smoking can also help prevent emphysema. If a person already has emphysema, quitting can reduce symptoms and improve quality of life and life expectancy.

Skin health

Due to the damage smoking can have on the skin, quitting smoking can help clear blemishes and protect the skin from rapid aging and wrinkling.

Read about 16 ways smoking can affect the skin here.

Cardiovascular health

Quitting smoking has important effects on blood vessels, heart, and blood health that significantly improve life expectancy. When people quit smoking, they reduce their risk of:

Quitting smoking also helps the immune system fight infections.

Successfully quitting smoking can drastically improve health. People can choose from many different effective smoking cessation strategies. The most effective method may differ from person to person, since quitting requires a personalized approach.

Learn about how smoking affects the heart here.

Several treatments exist to help people quit smoking. With so many options, people can approach quitting in a way that suits them. Smoking cessation programs may involve:


These provide a coach who can offer motivation, encouragement, and tips, along with a tailored plan to help each individual. If someone needs medications to help with smoking cessation, a coach can help them obtain these.

quitSTART app

This is a free smartphone app that offers individualized tips and help. It can prepare a person to become smoke-free and teach them how to manage cravings.


The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved several options. Nicotine replacement therapy (NRT) provides some of the nicotine a person gets from a cigarette. NRT is available in different forms, such as:

  • patches
  • lozenges
  • gum

There are two other medication options: bupropion (Zyban) and varenicline (Chantix). Bupropion is a type of antidepressant that reduces cravings, and varenicline reduces the enjoyment people may get from nicotine.

No matter which treatment option a person uses to stop smoking, some tips are universal. Setting a realistic quit date is the first step to a smoke-free life. Getting ready to stop smoking also requires knowing the reasons for quitting. This can help when willpower makes quitting hard.

Another important factor is learning to handle triggers and cravings before they occur. By preparing for triggers such as parties, stress, and life events, people can get ahead of cravings.

Emphysema continues to progress even after people stop smoking. However, quitting smoking helps reduce symptoms and improve quality of life and life expectancy.