A few weeks ago, I wrote about how much I worry about my patients with diabetes, but there’s another group I often fret about: smokers. As a society, we’ve made huge leaps in helping people quit and in preventing people from starting in the first place. In spite of that, there are still a lot of people out there who smoke. As I’ve mentioned in the past, living a healthy life is impossible if you smoke cigarettes. The damage this habit wreaks on almost every organ of your body contributes to the early death of the equivalent of two 747 planes of Americans every day. But if you’re a smoker, you’ve probably heard all of this before and chances are good you’re ready to quit. The Great American Smokeout is this week, and I want to get into what you can do to get off of cigarettes and the sorts of changes you can hope to see once you kick the habit.
Why It’s So Hard to Quit
Few people realize that nicotine is one of the most addictive substances we know of. Once you’re hooked, it’s incredibly hard to break the habit. On average, most Americans try to quit seven times before they’re able to quit for good. If you’ve tried to quit and failed, you’re in good company, since the same is true for almost every other smoker. It’s not because you’re weak or don’t have the willpower needed to do it. The fact that you’ve tried at all shows that you have what it takes to quit. But the power nicotine has over your brain takes a long time to go away. The key to quitting isn’t willpower – it’s persistence.
Where to Start When You’re Ready to Quit
The most important first step is to find help and support. Going at it alone makes the task doubly challenging, and you’re more likely to be successful with others involved in the journey. To give yourself the best chances of quitting, you want the support of at least one healthcare professional and ideally your friends and loved ones as well. The more people you have in your life that know you want to quit, the higher the barrier you have to smoking. These people will hold you accountable when you’re most tempted to fall back on your old habits. You should head to your doctor’s office before the day you plan to quit and set yourself up with some quitting aids. We’ve gone far beyond patches and gum; you can now get nicotine lozenges, nasal sprays, or inhalers that help take the edge off of the cravings. Two medications, varenicline and bupropion, also help to decrease the cravings you feel. Most professionals recommend starting with two therapies, a medication and a nicotine supplement, to give you the best shot at quitting.
Planning Is Key
While medications and nicotine aids can help, you’re going to run into many situations that will tempt you to pick up smoking again. It’s extremely important that you run through some of these scenarios in your mind before they happen so you can plan on what to do. Here are some common ones:
- You’re out with a friend who smokes and they offer you a cigarette or start smoking right next to you.
- You’re at a party where a lot of other people are smoking.
- You’re trying to figure out what to do during your usual smoking breaks at work.
- You find yourself in the store where you usually buy cigarettes and the person behind the counter asks if you’d like to buy any.
- Things pick up at work and you’re extremely stressed out.
You may still succumb to temptation in these situations, but thinking out how you’ll avoid smoking in tempting situations makes it much less likely that you’ll relapse.
Try Something New
If you’ve tried to quit a few times the same way and you’re still smoking, it’s probably time to try a new approach. Ask your doctor about a different medication or different type of nicotine aid. Reflect on what has triggered your cravings in the past and take action to avoid those triggers. Find new ways get your mind on other things when the desire for nicotine starts to take hold. It doesn’t matter exactly how you do it, since there’s no single method that works for everyone. You have to be willing to shift gears if one thing isn’t working to get yourself back on the path to better health.
The Question of E-Cigarettes
I’m asked a lot about my thoughts on e-cigs as a way to help quit and I did a show last year to try and learn more about them. The fact is, we still don’t know enough to say one way or another whether they really help you quit or whether they just get you hooked on one more thing. Just like cigarette companies, the companies that make e-cigarettes have a financial interest in keeping you as an addicted customer, not in helping you kick the habit. Many other methods based on good evidence are available to help you quit. With that said, different methods work for different people. Before starting to use e-cigarettes, talk to your doctor about the pros and cons and make a decision that seems right for you.
What You’ll Get When You Stop
The benefits of quitting range from immediate to long term. Here are a few:
- Within half an hour: lower heart rate and blood pressure.
- Within a day: lower levels of carbon monoxide, which means more oxygen in your blood circulating to your body.
- Within a month: better circulation and easier breathing, which means exercise is easier and your body heals more quickly.
- Within six months: cough and breathing troubles start to go away as the lungs repair themselves.
- Within a year: your risk of heart disease is half of what it was when you were smoking.
- Within five years: Cancer risk to most major organs is cut in half and your stroke risk is no higher than it was before you started smoking.
- Within 10 years: Your lung cancer risk is cut in half.
- Within 15 years: Your heart disease risk returns to normal and is no higher than it was before you started smoking.
I Know You Can Do It
I’ve had many patients look at me despairingly when I tell them they really need to quit. It’s not that they don’t want to, but it’s that they don’t think they can. Many have tried and failed a few times and have given up any hope of leaving cigarettes behind. But I know better. I’ve seen many people in similar situations from all walks of life kick the habit for good. It may take months or years, but they leave smoking behind forever and turn their health around in doing so. They’ve done it and so can you. Head over to the American Cancer Society’s information page to get started and take a step toward better health today.