Everything You Need to Know About Cilia in the Lungs

Closeup of stethoscope on patient's chest

Every time we take a breath, air enters our lungs and oxygen from the air moves from our lungs to our blood. Though each part of your respiratory system is essential, there is one area that may be overlooked. In this article, we’ll focus on the importance of cilia, tiny hair-like structures that help prevent mucus buildup. Similar to other parts of the lungs, if cilia become damaged, it can make breathing more difficult and may lead to other respiratory issues.

Keep reading to find the answers to these common questions about cilia:

  • What is cilia and where is it found?
  • What happens if your cilia is damaged?
  • Can you repair cilia?
  • How can I prevent future damage to cilia?

What Is Cilia and Where Is It Found?

Though very tiny, cilia plays an essential role in removing mucus from your lungs. Picture very small, hair-like structures that move in a brushing (or wave-like) motion. Located along your bronchial tubes, cilia work to carry mucus upward and into your throat, where it can be more easily coughed up or swallowed. [1]

In a previous article, we discuss the important role that mucus plays in our bodies. Mucus is an invaluable defense mechanism that our bodies produce to help catch germs and other airborne irritants to prevent them from entering into our lungs. Each time we cough, sneeze, or clear our throats, our respiratory system is working to clear the lungs of mucus to prevent buildup. [2]Request a patient packet button

What Happens If Your Cilia are Damaged?

If, whether through hereditary or external factors, your cilia become damaged, your lungs will struggle to clear mucus independently. Imagine if those tiny hair structures stop working and can no longer mobilize mucus, which is filled with bacteria. This would mean those germs stay inside your lungs, potentially leading to a respiratory infection. And when mucus builds up, it can also become much more difficult to breathe:

At this point, the cilia are not able to move as much mucus (especially thicker mucus) and the inability to move the contaminated mucus often leads to infections and lung irritation as well as disrupting the airflow causing the patient to experience feeling tightness in the chest and short of breath. [3]

We mentioned that people may experience damage to their cilia through either hereditary or external factors. Let’s break this down even further:

hereditary iconHereditary Causes of Damaged Cilia

Primary Ciliary Dyskinesia (PCD) is a rare, inherited disease that affects the development and function of cilia. [4] Though this disease is still being studied, what researchers do know is that it often affects a person’s sinuses, ears, or lungs with common symptoms ranging from chronic cough to respiratory infections. [5]

External Causes of Damaged Cilia

Smoking iconAccording to the FDA, harmful toxins such as cigarette smoke can damage cilia and cause individuals to develop what’s known as “smoker’s cough.” [6]

This condition occurs as a result of chemicals disrupting cilia’s ability to move mucus: “Upon entering the body, many of these chemicals interfere with the function of the cilia…[r]esearch indicates that formaldehyde and other chemicals slow the movement of the cilia and even reduce their length, allowing more toxins to enter the lungs.” [7]

Fumes iconAir pollution represents yet another external factor that may cause individuals to experience damage to their cilia, too. [8]

What are some other factors that may cause damage to your cilia?

If you’re living with a chronic lung condition, such as COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease) or bronchiectasis, overtime, your airways may become constricted, making it more difficult to breathe. And when it becomes harder for air to flow naturally, your airways slowly lose their ability to mobilize and clear mucus, potentially resulting in a respiratory infection.

Can You Repair Damaged Cilia?

Quitting smoking may help restore your cilia, as the chemicals found inside cigarettes cause these hair structures to slow down. [9] However, for conditions like PCD, there is no known cure to help restore proper function of the cilia. [10]

If you are living with a preexisting lung condition, effective airway clearance may help slow the progression of the disease and prevent the further loss and/or damage of cilia in the lungs.

How to Prevent Further Damage to Cilia?

The best defense against obstructed airways, mucus buildup, and damage to the lungs and cilia is through effective airway clearance. Depending on your individual condition, your doctor may prescribe manual chest physiotherapy or vest therapy, breathing exercises, antibiotic regimens, or a combination of each. The ultimate goal is to help open up your airways and create airflow that helps push mucus upwards, where it can be more easily coughed out.

Vest therapy, also known as high frequency chest wall oscillation (HFCWO) therapy is typically prescribed for individuals living with COPD, bronchiectasis, Cystic Fibrosis, or other respiratory conditions that cause shortness of breath, chronic cough, and mucus buildup.

Proven EffectiveThe SmartVest Airway Clearance System has multiple proven studies that demonstrate its ability to help treat individuals living with bronchiectasis and improve patient outcome. In fact, SmartVest is shown to help stabilize lung function and prevent further damage to the lungs from repeated infection and inflammation. [11]

Is SmartVest Right for Me?

If you’re struggling to breathe due to a preexisting lung condition or damage to your cilia caused by heredity or internal factors, talk to your doctor about which treatment options are right for you. If airway clearance is the best line of defense to help you get back to breathing independently and enjoying a better quality of life, tell your doctor about SmartVest.

Talk to our Patient Care Advocate about SmartVest


SmartVest is easy to prescribe, and our team will work with your healthcare provider on your behalf to help you find the symptom relief you need long-term. We also offer in-person training for all SmartVest users, which means you’ll learn how to operate your device at home, on your own schedule with more confidence.

To get started, request our patient packet today to take to your next doctor’s appointment.


[1] American Lung Association: “Why Are Lungs Important?” Retrieved from https://www.lung.org/lung-health-diseases/how-lungs-work

[2] American Lung Association: “Why Are Lungs Important?” Retrieved from https://www.lung.org/lung-health-diseases/how-lungs-work

[3] COPD Foundation. “Coping with Airway Mucus.” Retrieved from https://www.copdfoundation.org/Learn-More/I-am-a-Person-with-COPD/Coping-with-Airway-Mucus.aspx

[4] National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. “Primary Ciliary Dyskinesia.” Retrieved from https://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health-topics/primary-ciliary-dyskinesia

[5] National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. “Primary Ciliary Dyskinesia.” Retrieved from https://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health-topics/primary-ciliary-dyskinesia

[6] FDA. Keep Your Air Clear: How Tobacco Can Harm Your Lungs.” Retrieved from https://www.fda.gov/tobacco-products/health-information/keep-your-air-clear-how-tobacco-can-harm-your-lungs

[7] Medical News Today. “Everything You Need to Know about Smoker’s Cough.” Retrieved from https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/318931

[8] Medical News Today. “Air Pollution May Affect the Lethality of COVID-19.” Retrieved from https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/air-pollution-may-affect-the-lethality-of-covid-19

[9] The Mayo Clinic. “Healthy Lifestyle: Quit Smoking.” Retrieved from https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/quit-smoking/expert-answers/quit-smoking/faq-20057818

[10] National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. “Primary Ciliary Dyskinesia.” Retrieved from https://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health-topics/primary-ciliary-dyskinesia.

[11] Powner, J, et al. Employment of Algorithm of Care Including Chest Physiotherapy Results in Reduced Hospitalizations and Stability of Lung Function in Bronchiectasis. BMC Pulmonary Medicine, BioMed Central. 25 Apr. 2019.