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How to quit smoking

Dr Karen Martin
Reviewed by Dr Karen MartinReviewed on 19.10.2023 | 7 minutes read

While most of us know that smoking has no health benefits, it isn't easy to stop. Some people think stopping is all about willpower, and they insist on going cold turkey to give it up – but experience tells us that they are more likely to return to smoking in the future.

The good news is that several tried and tested methods will help you quit smoking. But it’s a good idea to understand the hold cigarettes have on us first.

Why is it so hard to quit smoking?

Smoking tobacco is highly addictive due to the nicotine that it contains. Nicotine causes a temporary high, which helps release endorphins in the brain. This is something the brain comes to rely on to make us feel happy and creates cravings.

This temporary high is a hefty price to pay for the cost of smoking on the body. Smokers often experience dry coughs, yellow nails, headaches, and other unpleasant side effects, along with feeling socially isolated due to the smell. In the long term, they risk lung cancer, difficulty with breathing, and heart disease, all of which can significantly shorten their lives.

Smoking takes a mental hold on us, providing a psychological crutch that’s hard to give up. Daily smoking becomes a ritual around drinking morning coffee, work breaks, and nights out. It’s suggested that it takes at least 60 days to break a habit, which is why relapses often occur for those trying to quit smoking.

To quit for good, smokers must adjust their lifestyle completely, ensuring that smoking is no longer a part of their routine and daily activities and is not used to relieve low mood, anxiety, depression, or boredom.

Let’s talk through how to quit smoking, including some tried and tested methods to put yourself in the best position to quit and stay that way.

Doctor’s advice

Preparing yourself to quit

The first place to start when quitting smoking is to identify why you smoke. For most people, it is because of the addictive nicotine effects, but habits are complex behaviors that reinforce the addiction to smoking, such as:

  • smoking being a part of your lifestyle
  • smoking being habitual
  • smoking to cope with stress
  • smoking to cope with low moods
  • smoking to cope with boredom
  • smoking as a social activity – with friends, family, or work colleagues

It is essential to identify which of these situations applies to you. This will help you identify the first steps you need to take to quit smoking. Only then can you take full advantage of services and aids that can help you.

Stop Smoking counseling

For most of those who successfully quit smoking, combining nicotine replacement products with professional counseling offers you the best chance to quit. An expert adviser will encourage you to pick the best date to stop and help you mentally prepare.

They may encourage you to look at why you wish to quit smoking, the barriers to stopping, and the reasons that keep you smoking. They may ask about previous attempts to quit. They will then champion you along your journey to quitting.

Breaking the behavioral habit is much harder than the chemical addiction – you may associate cigarettes with a break from work, a reward, stress relief, or a night out with friends. These need to be addressed rather than ignored, and strategies put in place – such as avoiding some social situations at the beginning – rather than hoping for the best.

Your doctor can put you in touch with professional counseling. Other options include apps, helplines, and text messaging services – ask your doctor what’s available in your area.

Coping with nicotine withdrawal symptoms

One thing people overlook when trying to quit is how to cope with the withdrawal symptoms that always accompany it. This can make or break the quitting process and is ultimately why it becomes a challenge.

The body does fight this process, so symptoms can range from simple cravings to physical pain. Every person varies in how intense these cravings are and how long they last, but for most, symptoms start around an hour after the last cigarette and peak around 48 hours later. These can continue for up to four weeks.

Nicotine withdrawal symptoms include:

  • cigarette cravings
  • irritability, frustration, or anger
  • anxiety or nervousness
  • difficulty concentrating
  • restlessness
  • increased appetite
  • headaches and migraines
  • insomnia
  • tremors
  • increased coughing
  • fatigue
  • constipation or upset stomach
  • depression
  • decreased heart rate

These symptoms usually ease as the toxins are flushed from the body, so it only works if the quitter is persistent. It’s a good idea to make your colleagues, family, and friends aware you may experience these symptoms so that they can be more understanding and supportive throughout this challenging time.

Treatment: products

Nicotine replacement therapy and anti-craving medication

Nicotine is an addictive substance in cigarettes. Withdrawal of nicotine sparks the craving to smoke, which peaks after about three days and continues for about two weeks.

Nicotine replacement therapy (NRT) is a highly effective way to reduce these cravings, and you will be utilizing a reducing regimen to ease off the chemical addiction. These come as gum, lozenges, patches, inhalers, or sprays.

Bupropion (Zyban) and varenicline are tablets prescribed to reduce cravings and withdrawal symptoms and reduce the pleasurable effects of smoking and nicotine. These are available on prescription.

If medication is not for you, there are alternatives to managing nicotine withdrawal without using a chemical replacement. These include some old-fashioned psychological tricks to overcome temptation. Alternative ways to manage nicotine cravings include:

  • distract yourself
  • remind yourself why you quit
  • get out of the tempting situation
  • reward yourself in other ways

Vaping and e-cigarettes

Electronic cigarettes or vapes have become popular in recent years and offer two ways to help stop smoking: they give you something to hold and draw on, imitating a cigarette, and they can provide nicotine as an alternative means of replacement.

This makes vaping an alternative that addresses both the habitual and chemical causes of smoking.

Unfortunately, it’s too early to know the long-term risks of e-cigarettes, and there is no regulatory control over what substances are in them. The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has not approved e-cigarettes as a method in helping cigarette smokers quit.

Treatment: home & drug-free

For many people, smoking has become integrated into their everyday lifestyle. It can be a strong habit to break but don’t lose heart, there are ways to adjust your lifestyle to welcome new healthy habits.

Here are some lifestyle changes that can help:

Regular Exercise: Some people find exercising helps when quitting smoking – they can monitor an increase in fitness and well-being from the date they quit. It helps release endorphins and clear any stress that can build up with quitting smoking.

Start new hobbies and projects: Distraction techniques can be a useful tool to help quit – immersing yourself in a hobby or starting a new project, or simply setting aside time for reading, cooking, or listening to music at the times you would have had a cigarette. This helps you create new habits that you don’t associate with smoking.

Set a quit date goal: Setting your quit date is important – you can discuss this with your adviser, but why not plan something fun to look forward to then? Or take time away or go on holiday to remove yourself from any initial temptations to smoke. Ensure you remove all smoking paraphernalia and everything that reminds you of smoking before quitting.

Use your friends and family for support: Let your family and friends know so they can support you. If they smoke, you could even quit together to boost your chances. It is much easier to quit when you have declared your intention and set expectations among your family and friends.

Focus on the benefits and treat yourself: You’ll notice several benefits to quitting smoking. From financial benefits to health improvements. Take note of these and keep reminding yourself why you are quitting smoking. Keep tabs on the money you’re saving from kicking the habit – perhaps save up for something nice to reward all your hard work.

What if you slip up?

Quitting is not an easy task. It’s common to take multiple attempts when fighting nicotine addiction, so slips and relapses do happen, and it’s not something to beat yourself up about. In any situation where setbacks occur, try to view it as a learning opportunity rather than a total failure. Use the relapse to analyze why this occurred and what triggers caused it. From there, implement changes to your plan and avoid any traps in the future. And you can always try again.

If quitting is proving difficult, talk to a doctor about medical aids and confide in family and friends to keep your morale boosted throughout the process.

What happens to your body once you quit smoking?

A final positive note, if you need any more incentive: you are looking at a healthier you if you quit and stay quit. Your body will feel better within hours of stopping, with short-term effects like your heart rate and oxygen levels returning to normal. Carbon monoxide and other poisonous chemicals will be flushed out of the body.

It can take time for your lungs to work through damage and repair the lung tissue, but lung function can improve by around 10% within nine months. The same goes for the heart, taking around a year for healthy circulation to return.

Looking to the future, you will halve your chance of lung cancer within 10 years compared to someone else who has continued to smoke.

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This article has been written by UK-based doctors and pharmacists, so some advice may not apply to US users and some suggested treatments may not be available. For more information, please see our T&Cs.
Dr Karen Martin
Reviewed by Dr Karen Martin
Reviewed on 19.10.2023
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