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Have You Been Told to Quit Smoking? Here's What to Know

Nina Ghamrawi, MS, RD, CDE
February 11, 2022
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If you smoke, you’ve probably been asked to stop by nearly everyone you know. We all know it can be harmful to health, but oftentimes, quitting can be tough. You may make initial plans to quit, but life happens, and our cravings and withdraws are more powerful, sometimes, than our strength of conviction. If you want to quit, here’s what you should know to be prepared for the process, and some resources to help you through it.

What Smoking Does to the Body, and What Happens When You Quit:

1. Lungs and breathing trouble increases.

  • Increase risk of chronic bronchitis, COPD, and emphysema by 12 to 13 times
  • What stopping smoking does for the lungs: You’ll notice an improvement in lung health in at little as 8 weeks. If you have a pre-existing lung condition, you may see an improvement in your ability to breathe in as little as 4-6 weeks, potentially reducing your reliance on medications.

2. Risk of heart attack and stroke increase by 2-4x

  • Increases risk coronary heart disease by two to four times, increasing a person’s risk of heart attack
  • Increases risk of stroke by two to four times
  • What stopping smoking does for the heart: Stopping smoking, alone, doesn’t reverse risk. But if you eat healthfully and exercise along with smoking, you can gradually reduce the risks.

3. Cancer risk increases 4-23x

  • Risks of Laryngeal cancer, Oral cancer, and Esophageal cancer increases by 4x
  • Lung cancer risk in men by 23x, and in women by 13x
  • What stopping smoking does to cancer: Quitting smoking doesn’t reverse the risk, but it doesn’t make risk worse, either. If you already have cancer, and you stop smoking, you may immediately see that treatments for your cancer are more effective, and your symptoms with the cancer are less bothersome.

Symptoms of Nicotine Withdrawal

Nicotine, the active component in cigarettes, acts as a drug to boost mood, reduce your appetite, temporarily improve concentration, and reduce anxiety. Nicotine uses similar chemical pathways in the brain as alcohol, morphine, and cocaine, leading to addiction. When you quit, as with all substances of this nature, you’ll likely have some side effects and symptoms of withdrawal. But don’t worry - after quitting smoking, most symptoms will ease and resolve in as little as a week.

1. Weight Gain - Smoking suppresses the appetite, so when you quit, naturally you may become more hungry and snack more. When you stop smoking, your taste buds and sense of smell will return to normal. This is great, except that you may crave food more often, or crave foods higher in fat and sugar, even if you didn’t crave these things before.

How to handle it:

  • Snack on crunchy, low-calorie, healthy things: carrot sticks, apple slices, celery, or sweet bell peppers are all great snacks with few calories. Munching on these may help satisfy hunger and also reduce some of the anxiety and gut symptoms listed below.
  • Keep your hands and mouth busy: fiddle or chew on a toothpick, or a drinking straw.
  • Distract yourself: drink water, go for a walk, do some deep breathing to curb the cravings.
  • Avoid mealtime distractions. Turn off the TV, and silence your phone. Be mindful of when you’re hungry and when you’re just bored.

2. Coughing, sore throat: A cough caused by smoking often known as a smoker’s cough, which is chronic, and has a distinct sound. It is usually caused by increased mucus in the throat that the body releases in response to irritants in the airway, sometimes worsened by aggravated asthma or other breathing problem. When quitting smoking, usually one develops a sore throat, and their cough may change because they’ll naturally have less irritants in the airway, less mucus, and more dryness. It subsides several weeks after quitting smoking.

How to handle it: drinking fluids frequently may help. You may also try sugar-free gum or candy

3. Irritability, Anxiety, or Depression: quitting smoking means we no-longer have those fake mood-boosting feelings flooding our neurons, potentially leading to depression, irritability or anxiety. When we are nervous, anxious, irritable, or depressed, we may also have other symptoms more often, like increased sweating, headaches, insomnia, trouble concentrating, constipation, nausea, or also stomach cramping

How to handle it:

  • Add some calming hobbies in your life to help you healthily cope on your smoking cessation journey- painting, pottery, or other kinds of artwork are great ways to focus on pleasing activities; get a library card and start reading books.
  • Meditate & focus: yoga, meditation, tai chi, or a 5 minute brisk walk on your typical smoking breaks.

Overcome Withdrawal Symptoms by:

1. Quitting slowly. Quitting ‘cold-turkey’ may lead to more withdraw symptoms, and be tougher to actually commit to.

2. Managing Medications. The most popular kind of medication regimens for people who want to stop smoking are nicotine replacement therapies.

  • Nicotine replacement therapies (NRT) can help you manage your withdrawal symptoms and control your cravings. You can get nicotine replacement from chewing gum, patches that adhere to your skin, lozenges, and even sprays.
  • NRT is usually recommended if you are smoking more than 10 cigarettes per day and want to quit cold-turkey, numerous studies have found NRTs to be safe, with fewer symptoms than the cold-turkey method.
  • If the replacement therapy isn’t helping as much as you’d like, you might want to talk to your doctor about adding an antidepressant. This type of combined therapy has been shown to help some people quit.

Surround yourself with support. Having a support system around you of people to keep you honest, keep you on-track, and get you back on track if you are struggling.

Learn more about what happens in the hours, days, and years after you quit smoking.

Additional Resources to Help You Get Started and Stay On-Track

Takeaways

Overcoming nicotine withdrawal is often the most difficult part of quitting smoking. Many people have to try more than once to quit. The more you try to quit, the more likely you’ll succeed. Avoid stressful triggers that may make you more tempted to backtrack, like stressful situations, driving, or socializing with certain people in specific environments. Regardless of how many attempts you’ve made to quit in the past, being prepared with the potential symptoms of withdrawal, and having tools and support handy to help you through tough times will make your journey a little easier. Talk to your doctor if you plan to quit and you are prone to depression, have bipolar disorder, had trouble quitting in the past, or smoke more than 10 cigarettes per day, as these may be indications that you need some help from your physician to monitor or adjust certain medications for you.

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