If you’ve had years of breathing in cigarette smoke, pollution, viruses, and other toxins, the idea of cleaning out your lungs and getting a fresh start can sound very appealing. But if you’re tempted to buy vitamins, teas, or essential oils that say they will “detox” your lungs, save your money, says Joshua Englert, MD, a pulmonologist at the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center.
“There are countless products for sale on the internet that claim to remove toxins from the lungs, but there is no scientific research to support the use of any of them,” he says.
Thankfully, the lungs are remarkably good at cleaning and repairing themselves in some situations — and there are steps you can take to keep your lungs as healthy as possible.
How the Lungs Handle Damage
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), exposure to air pollution results in 4.2 million deaths worldwide each year. Cigarette smoking is the cause of death for one in every five people in the United States.
“If you have an acute illness, such as a pneumonia, or acute bronchitis, in most cases, the lungs will fully recover,” says Norman Edelman, MD, a professor of medicine at the State University of New York at Stony Brook.
But after chronic injury, like the damage done from decades of smoking, the lungs can only do so much to repair themselves, he says.
Smoking causes two kinds of long-term damage to the lungs: emphysema and chronic bronchitis. Together, these are known as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). In emphysema, the tiny air sacs that exchange oxygen are destroyed. In chronic bronchitis, there is inflammation of the airways that lead to the air sacs. “Once the air sacs are destroyed, they can’t be replaced,” Edelman says. “Though some of the swelling and inflammation from bronchitis can go away, the structural damage will remain.”
Still, the earlier you quit smoking, the greater chance you have of repairing some damage.
One large study found that 20 years after quitting smoking, the risk for COPD drops to the same level as if you’d never smoked.
A decade after quitting, your risk of dying of lung cancer is roughly half of the risk of someone who smokes.
30 years after quitting, the risk of lung cancer drops to nonsmoking levels.
“The sooner you quit smoking, the more likely the lungs are able to heal,” Englert says. “But if you smoke for too long, the damage can become permanent.”
Protect Your Lungs
While you can’t entirely undo years of damage from cigarette smoking, the best thing you can do to “detox” is to protect your lungs from any further damage, Edelman says. Here are some proven ways to keep your lungs a clear as possible:
Avoid secondhand smoke
While quitting smoking is the most important thing you can do for your lungs, it’s crucial to not breathe in other people’s smoke as well, Edelman says. The combination of the smoke coming from the end of a cigarette, plus the smoke that comes out of the smoker’s mouth, contains hundreds of toxic chemicals; breathing them in can cause everything from lung cancer to stroke, the CDC says.
Stay away from vaping
While doctors are still learning about the long-term risks of e-cigarettes, research has started to uncover some short-term ones. A recent study found that vaping makes your lungs less able to clear out mucus, which can lead to infections. “The only thing you should inhale into your lungs is pure, clean air and prescribed medications,” Edelman says. “Nothing else is going to be safe.”
Don’t rely on steam therapy
Although one very small study found that inhaling warm steam may make people with COPD feel less anxious, it found no effect on how well your lungs worked — and it was too small of a study to even be sure about the findings on anxiety. “Steam may be helpful for improving the clearance of mucus from your upper airways, including the nose and throat, during a respiratory infection, but it doesn’t make the lungs work better,” Englert says.
Protect your lungs from further harm by getting flu and pneumonia vaccines, frequently washing your hands, and avoiding contact with anyone who has a sniffly nose or other illness.
Steer clear of pollution, indoors and out. The American Lung Association recommends you have your home tested for radon, a toxic gas that can cause lung cancer. (You can find info on testing at the EPA’s website.) Also, make it a habit to vacuum your home regularly using a HEPA filter, and choose cleaning products that are free of volatile organic compounds (VOCs), fragrances, and irritants. If you have a chronic respiratory disease, it can help to track your local air quality and avoid spending time outdoors on days with poor air quality, Englert says. You can go to AirNow.Gov or download a free air quality index app, which will alert you when pollution in your area from a fire, industry, or other sources is dangerously high.
Eat (and drink) a diet rich in antioxidants
Eating lots of blueberries or kale salads won’t undo years of damage from smoking. But research shows that eating more fruits and vegetables, especially leafy greens, berries, and other items rich in antioxidants, may help protect your lungs from some damage due to smoking and air pollution. A large Korean study found that drinking green tea, which has both antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects, may cut your chances of having COPD, but the results aren’t conclusive. While drinking tea can’t hurt, Englert notes that there is no strong evidence it will work.
Keep your lungs strong with exercise
There is some evidence that cardiovascular exercise — anything that makes your heart beat faster — can help your lungs work better, Edelman says. “It also makes the heart and muscles more efficient, so when you do physical activity, there is less demand on the lungs, so you feel better and breathe more easily,” he says.
Lung health is vital for a person’s overall health. The lungs are self-cleaning organs that will begin to heal themselves once their exposure to pollutants stops, for example, when someone quits smoking. So it’s important to stay away from the pollutants than to spend a whole lot of time trying to do cleansing after pollution.