We all know the health risks of smoking, but that doesn’t make it any easier to kick the habit. Whether you’re an occasional teen smoker or a lifetime pack-a-day smoker, quitting can be really tough. The nicotine in cigarettes offers a quick and reliable way to boost your outlook, relieve stress, and unwind. To successfully stop smoking, you’ll need to not only change your behavior and cope with nicotine withdrawal symptoms, but also find healthier ways to manage your moods. With the right game plan, though, you can break the addiction and join the millions of people who’ve kicked the habit for good.
Why is quitting so hard?
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. Because of nicotine’s “feel good” effect on the brain, many of us smoke as a way of coping with stress, depression, anxiety, or even boredom. Quitting means finding different, healthier ways to cope with those feelings.
Smoking is also ingrained as a daily ritual. It may be an automatic response for you to smoke a cigarette with your morning coffee, while taking a break at work or school, or on your commute home at the end of a hectic day. Or maybe your friends, family, or colleagues smoke, and it’s become part of the way you relate with them.
To successfully stop smoking, you’ll need to address both the addiction and the habits and routines that go along with it. But it can be done. With the right support and quit plan, any smoker can kick the addiction—even if you’ve tried and failed multiple times before.
1. Find Your Reason
To get motivated, you need a powerful, personal reason to quit. It may be to protect your family from secondhand smoke. Or lower your chance of getting lung cancer, heart disease, or other conditions. Or to look and feel younger. Choose a reason that is strong enough to outweigh the urge to light up.
2. Nicotine replacement therapy (NRT)
Many people find it easier to replace the nicotine in their system with replacement therapies like gum or patches.
Nicotine in cigarettes is addictive, which is why people experience unpleasant withdrawal symptoms when they try to quit.
Nicotine replacement therapy (NRT) provides a low level of nicotine without the other poisonous chemicals in tobacco smoke.
This helps to ease some of the symptoms of nicotine withdrawal, such as intense cravings, nausea, tingling of hands and feet, insomnia, mood swings, and difficulty concentrating. NRT is available as:
Patches can be bought in a pharmacy without prescription. They act by slowly releasing nicotine, which is absorbed into the body through the skin. Over 8-12 weeks, the amount of nicotine the body is exposed to is gradually reduced by switching to lower-dose patches until it is no longer required. Some people wear their patches all the time and provide a steady dose of nicotine over 24 hours, while others remove their patches at night. Discuss which option is right for you with your doctor.
Inhalers, gum, lozenges, and sprays work quickly, but their effects only last for a short time. As such, it is often recommended that a patch is used to provide a daily dose of nicotine and the fast-acting products used to relieve intense cravings.
Evidence shows that using a combination of NRTs can significantly increase the chances of success compared with using just a single product.
Varenicline (Champix) works by triggering the release of dopamine. Dopamine is a chemical messenger that helps control the brain’s reward and pleasure centers. Smoking raises levels of this feel-good chemical in the body artificially. So, when smokers quit, they often experience depression and anxiety until their natural dopamine production levels are restored.
Varenicline helps to counteract these low dopamine levels and lessen some of the symptoms caused by nicotine withdrawal. At the same time, it blocks the satisfying effects of nicotine should the person relapse and smoke. As such, it is also useful to reduce the reinforcing effects of nicotine.
Bupropion (Zyban) is an antidepressant, but it has been found to help people stop smoking. Like varenicline, it reduces the dopamine shortfall experienced in nicotine withdrawal and so may reduce the irritability and difficulty in concentrating linked to quitting smoking.
Bupropion may be particularly useful for those concerned about potential weight gain while quitting smoking as it has been shown to decrease appetite and the tendency to overeat.
An e-cigarette is an electronic device that allows for the inhalation of nicotine in a vapour without the other harmful byproducts of tobacco, such as tar and carbon monoxide.
New research suggests that e-cigarettes can help in quitting smoking because people can gradually reduce the nicotine content of the e-liquid in a similar way to NRT. However, there is some controversy in the literature about this approach to smoking cessation.
6. Allen Carr’s Easyway
Many people have successfully quit smoking using Allen Carr’s Easyway. It is the world’s bestselling book on how to stop smoking. It works by helping smokers understand common misconceptions about why they smoke and helps them to address the fears that keep them hooked on smoking.
This study shows that smokers following the Allen Carr method were six times more likely to have not smoked after 13 months compared with those going cold turkey.
There is anecdotal evidence which suggests that lobelia (also called Indian tobacco) can help people to stop smoking. Lobeline, the active ingredient in the lobelia plant, is thought to work by binding to the same receptor sites in the brain as nicotine, causing a release of dopamine, therefore helping with the mood swings and cravings that occur when stopping smoking.
Lobelia may also be effective in helping to clear excess mucus from the respiratory tract, including the throat, lungs, and bronchial tubes that smokers often experience on quitting, however, more research is needed to determine if this is accurate.
8. Vitamins B and C
Various studies have shown that smokers generally have lower concentrations of circulating B vitamins and lower levels of vitamin C as compared with non-smokers. Smokers often cite stress as one of the triggers that increases the craving for a cigarette. The B vitamins are known as the “anti-stress” vitamins and they can help to balance mood.
Vitamin C is a powerful antioxidant that may help to protect the lungs from the oxidative stress caused by cigarette smoke. So supplementing with these vitamins may help when stopping smoking.
9. Use an app to track habits
Certain apps can help to track and cut down on smoking cigarettes.
Habits such as smoking are triggered in response to certain cues. Research has shown that repetition of a simple action in a certain setting leads to that action being activated in similar settings; for example, automatically smoking with your morning coffee.
But healthy habits can be formed by repeating healthy actions consistently in the same context, and there are a variety of free apps online that can help track your progress.
These apps can help track smoking consumption and nicotine-craving cues; this information can then be used to plan when and where to reinforce a new healthy habit in place of the old unhealthy one.
10. Make a list
For those smokers who are planning to quit cold turkey, making a list to stay motivated may be helpful when times get tough. Such reasons may include:
- Improving overall health
- Saving money
- Setting a good example for children
- Looking better and smelling better
- Taking control and becoming free of addiction
By reviewing the list every day and especially in difficult moments, smokers can train the mind to focus on the positive aspects of their goal and reinforce their will to quit.
11. Practice Tai Chi
A study in the Journal of Addiction and Therapy suggests that practicing Tai Chi three times a week is an effective means to help people “either stop smoking or reduce their habit.” An added benefit of Tai Chi is that it improves blood pressure and reduces stress. Mind-body practices such as yoga, meditation, and Tai Chi offer an alternative drug-free treatment option to those trying to quit.
Why not try some of the above measures to quit smoking today? A combination of therapies is more likely to result in success than any single approach. If relapse occurs, try to pinpoint the reason for the slip up and try again; most smokers try to quit a few times before they finally kick the habit.
12. Prepare Before You Go ‘Cold Turkey’
There’s more to it than just tossing your cigarettes out. Smoking is an addiction. The brain is hooked on nicotine. Without it, you’ll go through withdrawal. Line up support in advance. Ask your doctor about all the methods that will help, such as quit-smoking classes and apps, counseling, medication, and hypnosis. You’ll be ready for the day you choose to quit.
13. Consider Nicotine Replacement Therapy
When you stop smoking, nicotine withdrawal may give you headaches, affect your mood, or sap your energy. The craving for “just one drag” is tough. Nicotine replacement therapy can curb these urges. Studies show that nicotine gum, lozenges, and patches improve your chances of success when you’re also in a quit-smoking program.
14. Learn About Prescription Pills
Medicines can curb cravings and may also make smoking less satisfying if you do pick up a cigarette. Other drugs can ease withdrawal symptoms, such as depression or problems with concentration.
15. Lean On Your Loved Ones
Tell your friends, family, and other people you’re close to that you’re trying to quit. They can encourage you to keep going, especially when you’re tempted to light up. You can also join a support group or talk to a counselor. Behavioral therapy is a type of counseling that helps you identify and stick to quit-smoking strategies. Even a few sessions may help.
16. Give Yourself a Break
One reason people smoke is that the nicotine helps them relax. Once you quit, you’ll need new ways to unwind. There are many options. You can exercise to blow off steam, tune in to your favorite music, connect with friends, treat yourself to a massage, or make time for a hobby. Try to avoid stressful situations during the first few weeks after you stop smoking.
17. Avoid Alcohol and Other Triggers
When you drink, it’s harder to stick to your no-smoking goal. So try to limit alcohol when you first quit. Likewise, if you often smoke when you drink coffee, switch to tea for a few weeks. If you usually smoke after meals, find something else to do instead, like brushing your teeth, taking a walk, texting a friend, or chewing gum.
18. Clean House
Once you’ve smoked your last cigarette, toss all of your ashtrays and lighters. Wash any clothes that smell like smoke, and clean your carpets, draperies, and upholstery. Use air fresheners to get rid of that familiar scent. If you smoked in your car, clean it out, too. You don’t want to see or smell anything that reminds you of smoking.
19. Try and Try Again
Many people try several times before giving up cigarettes for good. If you light up, don’t get discouraged. Instead, think about what led to your relapse, such as your emotions or the setting you were in. Use it as an opportunity to step up your commitment to quitting. Once you’ve made the decision to try again, set a “quit date” within the next month.
20. Get Moving
Being active can curb nicotine cravings and ease some withdrawal symptoms. When you want to reach for a cigarette, put on your inline skates or jogging shoes instead. Even mild exercise helps, such as walking your dog or pulling weeds in the garden. The calories you burn will also ward off weight gain as you quit smoking.
21. Eat Fruits and Veggies
Don’t try to diet while you give up cigarettes. Too much deprivation can easily backfire. Instead, keep things simple and try to eat more fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and lean protein. These are good for your whole body.
22. Choose Your Reward
In addition to all the health benefits, one of the perks of giving up cigarettes is all the money you will save. There are online calculators that figure out how much richer you will be. Reward yourself by spending part of it on something fun.
23. Remember That Time Is on Your Side
As soon as you quit, you start to get immediate health benefits. After only 20 minutes, your heart rate goes back to normal. Within a day, your blood’s carbon monoxide level also falls back into place. In just 2-3 weeks, you will start to lower your odds of having a heart attack. In the long run, you will also lower your chance of getting lung cancer and other cancers.
Stop Smoking Recovery Timetable
What happens when you quit smoking within:
20 minutes: Your blood pressure, pulse rate and the temperature of your hands and feet have returned to normal.
8 hours: Remaining nicotine in your bloodstream has fallen to 6.25% of normal peak daily levels, a 93.75% reduction.
12 hours: Your blood oxygen level has increased to normal. Carbon monoxide levels have dropped to normal.
24 hours: Anxieties have peaked in intensity and within two weeks should return to near pre-cessation levels.
48 hours: Damaged nerve endings have started to regrow and your sense of smell and taste are beginning to return to normal. Cessation anger and irritability will have peaked.
72 hours: Your entire body will test 100% nicotine-free. Over 90% of all nicotine metabolites (the chemicals nicotine breaks down into) have passed from your body via your urine. Symptoms of chemical withdrawal have peaked in intensity, including restlessness. Unless use cues have been avoided, the number of cue induced crave episodes experienced during any quitting day have peaked for the “average” ex-user. Lung bronchial tubes leading to air sacs (alveoli) are beginning to relax in recovering smokers. Breathing is becoming easier and your lung’s functional abilities are improving.
5 – 8 days: The “average” ex-smoker is down to experiencing just three cue induced crave episodes per day. Although we may not be “average” and although minutes may feel like hours when normal cessation time distortion combines with the body’s panic response, it is unlikely that any single episode will last longer than 3 minutes. Keep a clock handy and time the episode to maintain an honest perspective on time.
10 days: The “average” ex-user is down to encountering less than two crave episodes per day.
10 days to 2 weeks: Recovery has likely progressed to the point where your addiction is no longer doing the talking. Blood circulation in your gums and teeth are now similar to that of a non-user.
2 to 4 weeks: Cessation related anger, anxiety, difficulty concentrating, impatience, insomnia, restlessness and depression have ended. If still experiencing any of these symptoms get seen and evaluated by your physician.
2 weeks to 3 months: Your heart attack risk has started to drop. Your lung function has noticeably improved. If your health permits, sample your circulation and lung improvement by walking briskly, climbing stairs or running further or faster than normal.
21 days: The number of acetylcholine receptors, which were up-regulated in response to nicotine’s presence in the frontal, parietal, temporal, occipital, basal ganglia, thalamus, brain stem and cerebellum regions of your brain have now substantially down-regulated. Receptor binding has returned to levels seen in the brains of non-smokers (2007 study).
3 weeks to 3 months: Your circulation has substantially improved. Walking has become easier. Your chronic cough, if any, has likely disappeared. If not, get seen by a doctor, and sooner if at all concerned, as a chronic cough can be a sign of lung cancer.
4 weeks: Plasma suPAR is a stable inflammatory biomarker that helps predict development of diseases ranging from diabetes to cancer in smokers. A 2016 study found that within 4 weeks of quitting smoking, with or without NRT, that suPAR levels in 48 former smokers had fallen from a baseline smoking median of 3.2 ng/ml to levels “no longer significantly different from the never smokers’ values” (1.9 ng/ml)
8 weeks: Insulin resistance in smokers has normalized despite average weight gain of 2.7 kg (2010 SGR, page 384).
1 to 9 months: Any smoking related sinus congestion, fatigue or shortness of breath has decreased. Cilia have regrown in your trachea (windpipe) thereby increasing the ability to sweep dirt and mucus out of your lungs. Your body’s overall energy has increased.
1 year: Your excess risk of coronary heart disease, heart attack and stroke has dropped to less than half that of a smoker.
5 years: Your risk of a subarachnoid hemorrhage has declined to 59% of your risk while still smoking (2012 study). If a female ex-smoker, your risk of developing diabetes is now that of a non-smoker (2001 study).
5 to 15 years: Your risk of stroke has declined to that of a non-smoker.
10 years: Your risk of being diagnosed with lung cancer is between 30% to 50% of that for a continuing smoker (2005 study). Risk of death from lung cancer has declined by almost half if you were an average smoker (one pack per day). Risk of cancer of the mouth, throat, esophagus and pancreas have declined. Risk of developing diabetes for both men and women is now similar to that of a never-smoker (2001 study).
13 years: The average smoker lucky enough to live to age 75 has 5.8 fewer teeth than a non-smoker (1998 study). But by year 13 after quitting, your risk of smoking induced tooth loss has declined to that of a never-smoker (2006 study).
15 years: Your risk of coronary heart disease is now that of a person who has never smoked. Your risk of pancreatic cancer has declined to that of a never-smoker (2011 study – but note a 2nd pancreatic study making an identical finding at 20 years).
20 years: If a female, your excess risk of death from all smoking related causes, including lung disease and cancer, has now reduced to that of a never-smoker. Risk of pancreatic cancer has also declined to that of a never-smoker.
Your personal stop smoking plan
While some smokers successfully quit by going cold turkey, most people do better with a tailored plan to keep themselves on track. A good quit plan addresses both the short-term challenge of stopping smoking and the long-term challenge of preventing relapse. It should also be tailored to your specific needs and smoking habits.
Questions to ask yourself
Take the time to think of what kind of smoker you are, which moments of your life call for a cigarette, and why. This will help you to identify which tips, techniques or therapies may be most beneficial for you.
- Are you a very heavy smoker (more than a pack a day)? Or are you more of a social smoker? Would a simple nicotine patch do the job?
- Are there certain activities, places, or people you associate with smoking? Do you feel the need to smoke after every meal or whenever you break for coffee?
- Do you reach for cigarettes when you’re feeling stressed or down? Or is your cigarette smoking linked to other addictions, such as alcohol or gambling?
Start your stop smoking plan with START
S = Set a quit date.
Choose a date within the next two weeks, so you have enough time to prepare without losing your motivation to quit. If you mainly smoke at work, quit on the weekend, so you have a few days to adjust to the change.
T = Tell family, friends, and co-workers that you plan to quit.
Let your friends and family in on your plan to quit smoking and tell them you need their support and encouragement to stop. Look for a quit buddy who wants to stop smoking as well. You can help each other get through the rough times.
A = Anticipate and plan for the challenges you’ll face while quitting.
Most people who begin smoking again do so within the first three months. You can help yourself make it through by preparing ahead for common challenges, such as nicotine withdrawal and cigarette cravings.
R = Remove cigarettes and other tobacco products from your home, car, and work.
Throw away all of your cigarettes, lighters, ashtrays, and matches. Wash your clothes and freshen up anything that smells like smoke. Shampoo your car, clean your drapes and carpet, and steam your furniture.
T = Talk to your doctor about getting help to quit.
Your doctor can prescribe medication to help with withdrawal symptoms. If you can’t see a doctor, you can get many products over the counter at your local pharmacy, including nicotine patches, lozenges, and gum.