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What happens when you quit smoking?

Though it can be challenging, giving up cigarettes improves your health in many different ways

Each year, on the third Thursday in November, thousands of people across the U.S. take the first step toward quitting smoking (or vaping) as part of the Great American Smokeout. This event, sponsored by the American Cancer Society, encourages participants to lead healthier lives and reduce their risk of stroke, cancer, and heart disease by freeing themselves from the grip of cigarettes and other tobacco products. 

But while the Great American Smokeout and other smoking-cessation measures have had a tremendous impact—reducing the percentage of Americans who smoke from 42% in 1965 to 14% in 2019—there are still 34 million American adults who smoke and 480,000 deaths each year that are directly attributed to smoking. Those are numbers that are too high by any measure, and they highlight how hard it is to quit smoking. Difficult as it may be, though, quitting smoking can almost immediately improve your health and, quite literally, save your life.

RELATED: Smoking statistics

What happens when you quit smoking?

According to the American Lung Association, the benefits of quitting smoking start almost as soon as you finish your last cigarette. Here’s a timeline of what happens when you stop smoking tobacco:

  • Within 20 minutes of your last smoke, your heart rate, typically elevated by nicotine use, drops back to a normal level. 
  • Within 12 to 24 hours, the carbon monoxide level in your blood drops to normal, and your risk of heart attack is significantly reduced. Depending on how long you’ve smoked, healthy color replaces yellow or pallid skin within 24 hours of quitting as circulation is improved.
  • One to two weeks after quitting, nerve endings in the nose and mouth begin to grow and your sense of smell and sense of taste improve.
  • Two weeks to three months after quitting, your risk of a heart attack drops even further, and your lung function begins to improve.
  • One to nine months after you stop smoking, coughing decreases and shortness of breath improves.
  • Within a year of quitting smoking, your added risk of coronary heart disease drops to about half that of a smoker’s.
  • Within five years of quitting, the risk of hearing loss associated with smoking decreases.
  • Five to 15 years after quitting, your risk of a stroke drops to the same level as a nonsmoker, and your risk of developing cancer of the mouth, throat, or esophagus decreases to half that of a smoker’s.
  • Ten years after quitting, your risk of cervical cancer or cancer of the larynx, kidney, or pancreas decreases, and your risk of developing bladder cancer or dying from lung cancer drops to about half that of a smoker’s.
  • Fifteen years after quitting smoking, your risk of coronary heart disease decreases to the same level as a nonsmoker.

Although it’s easy to point out the benefits of quitting smoking, it can still be very hard to actually take that step due to the addictive nature of nicotine. “Whether you’re an occasional teen smoker or a lifetime pack-a-day smoker, quitting can be tough,” says Sanul Corrielus, MD, a board-certified cardiologist and CEO of Corrielus Cardiology in Philadelphia. “Smoking tobacco is both a physical addiction and a psychological habit. The nicotine from cigarettes provides a temporary and addictive high. Eliminating that regular fix of nicotine causes your body to experience physical withdrawal symptoms and cravings.”

Quitting smoking all at once (going “cold turkey”) rather than quitting smoking over time, can be especially difficult. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), you may experience intense cravings for nicotine and withdrawal symptoms like irritability, depression, restlessness, difficulty sleeping, trouble concentrating, increased appetite, constipation, mouth ulcers, nausea, and a cough or sore throat. These symptoms can be severe, particularly for long-time frequent smokers, and they can make it easy to relapse and start smoking again.

After quitting, the first few days are usually very difficult (with many people saying the third day is the hardest), the good news is that withdrawal symptoms are temporary, and most resolve within a month of quitting smoking. Mouth ulcers and constipation may last longer than a month, and increased appetite can continue for 10 weeks or more and lead to unwanted weight gain.

Nicotine withdrawal symptoms usually peak within the first three days of quitting and last for about two weeks,” Dr. Corrielus says. This can vary from person to person, of course, and cravings can come and go—stronger one day, weaker the next—but according to the National Cancer Institute, most people will conquer their cravings within about six months.  

8 benefits of not smoking tobacco

Giving up cigarettes or vaping benefits your entire body, including better heart health, improved oral health, and slower aging. Below are all 8 benefits of giving up tobacco.

1. Improved lung function

Smoking tobacco can damage your body in numerous ways, with the lungs being the most heavily affected body part. According to smokefree.gov, cigarette smoke (or vapor from e-cigarettes) inflames small airways and tissues in the lungs, which can lead to tightness in the chest, wheezing, and shortness of breath. Smoking also permanently destroys tiny air sacs in the lungs, called alveoli, that allow the oxygen exchange your body depends on. This destruction causes emphysema, a condition that causes severe shortness of breath and even death. Smoking paralyzes or destroys cilia, which are tiny hairs in your bronchi that sweep away mucus and dirt to keep your lungs clean. Nonfunctional cilia makes you more susceptible to infections.

Some damage to your lungs and other organs from smoking may be permanent, but your lungs will eventually heal and recover much of their function after you quit, and the tar built up in your lungs as a result of smoking will go away. As a general rule, for every six years you smoked, it can take about a year for the tar to clear from your lungs.

2. Better heart health

Tobacco smoke affects your heart by increasing your blood pressure and carbon monoxide levels, causing excessive cholesterol and unhealthy fats to build up in your arteries. Smoking also makes your blood thicker and stickier. All of these conditions are additive, making your heart work harder to pump blood around your body. Over time this increases your risk of heart disease, heart attack, and stroke.

3. Decreased risk of vision problems

Smoking increases the risk of cataracts and macular degeneration, both of which can lead to blindness. When you quit, these vision issues are less likely to occur.

4. Better hearing 

Smoking reduces the supply of blood to the cochlea, a tiny structure in your inner ear. When blood flow is chronically restricted, it can lead to hearing loss. Quitting smoking can help to restore normal functioning.

5. Improved oral health

Smokers typically have more oral issues than non-smokers, including mouth ulcers and sores, gum disease, cavities, tooth loss, and cancer of the mouth or throat. Your mouth and your dentist will thank you when you kick the habit. These issues become less common after quitting.

6. Slower aging

Tobacco smoke causes the facial skin to dry out and lose elasticity, leading to unsightly wrinkles and a dull, gray skin tone that can add years to your appearance. When you stop smoking, your complexion may recover.

7. Improved social and financial stability

In addition to improving your overall health, quitting smoking also saves you lots of money (the average price in the U.S. for cigarettes is currently almost $7 per pack) and improves your social life by not driving away people who might be turned off by smoking. 

Quitting often improves your sex life, as smoking decreases blood oxygen levels, disrupts blood flow to the genitals, and causes erectile dysfunction in men as young as 20, according to the anti-smoking organization Truth Initiative

8. Better gut health

Smokers generally have bigger bellies and less muscle than non-smokers, and they are more likely to develop Type 2 diabetes.

By not smoking, you can decrease the likelihood of the health risks above, and the health benefits of quitting extend to the people around you, as well. According to the CDC, secondhand smoke causes numerous health problems in infants and young children, including more frequent and severe asthma attacks, respiratory infections, ear infections, and sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS). In adults, secondhand smoke can contribute to lung cancer, coronary heart disease, and stroke. 

How to quit smoking

It’s easy enough to say you’re going to quit smoking, but the reality of the situation can be very different. Nicotine cravings, habit, stress, peer pressure, and numerous other factors can make it easy to relapse. That’s why it helps to have a solid quit plan and a support network you can rely on to help you. You can start by taking one day—the Great American Smokeout or the new year are perfect opportunities—to stop smoking and then go from there. Some pro-quit efforts that have worked for numerous people include the following.

  • Do not have any cigarettes easily available.
  • Nicotine replacement therapy: Many smokers have had success giving up cigarettes by using nicotine patches, gums, lozenges, prescription nasal sprays or inhalers, or non-nicotine medication to stop smoking such as Wellbutrin (bupropion) or Chantix (varenicline). 
  • Avoid triggers: Identify the times of day, the places (bars, parties, etc.), and the situations where you smoke, and then formulate a plan to get through them without smoking or avoid them entirely.
  • Get help: Talk with a friend, family member, therapist, or support group, or call an anti-smoking quitline like 800-QUIT-NOW (800-784-8669) to get support and counseling.
  • Keep your mouth occupied: Whether it’s gum, hard candy, carrot sticks, or some other snack, give your mouth something to chew on during tobacco cravings.
  • Physical activity. Exercise can be a great way to overcome cravings. Go for a walk or jog, or, if you have to stay at home, try yoga, squats, pushups, jumping jacks—anything to distract you from thinking about smoking. 
  • Relaxation techniques: Meditation, taking deep breaths, visualization exercises, massage, and listening to soothing music can all help you stay calm during nicotine cravings.
  • Remember why you quit: Whenever you think you might slip up and smoke a cigarette or vape, remind yourself of the reasons you quit in the first place: better health, saving money, improved social and sexual interactions, and no secondhand smoke for the people in your life. 
  • Do not restart: One cigarette will often start you off again at the beginning, so be sure to have a plan for when a friend offers you one.
  • Appreciate the hard work you have done.

RELATED: What are my options for smoking cessation drugs?

“The best advice for quitting smoking is to seek out professional help and find a support system,” says Anthony Puopolo, MD, a board-certified physician and chief medical officer for LifeMD. “Whether it is a doctor or a counselor, someone who can help you navigate the process of quitting smoking both mentally and physically will heighten your chances of success. If you combine this with a support system, such as an accountability partner, someone who has quit before, or others going through the same process, you will find increased capacity for conquering smoking, cravings, and relapse.”