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Smoking: It's Never Too Late to Stop

NIA

"I've smoked two packs of cigarettes a day for 40 years — what's the use of quitting now?"

If you quit smoking, you are likely to add years to your life, breathe more easily, and have more energy. You will have extra money for spending or saving, and food will taste better. When you quit smoking, you join over a million people who break the habit each year. Whether you are young or old, you will also have:

  • less chance of cancer, heart attack, and lung disease,
  • better blood circulation,
  • healthier family members, particularly children and grandchildren,
  • a healthy lifestyle example for children and grandchildren,
  • no odor of smoke in your clothes and hair, and
  • a more sensitive sense of smell.

What Smoking Does

Cigarette smoke damages your lungs and airways. Air passages swell and, over time, become filled with mucus. This can cause a cough that won't go away. Sometimes this leads to a lung disease called chronic bronchitis. If you keep smoking, normal breathing may become harder and harder as emphysema develops. In emphysema, airways become blocked as the tissue of your lungs undergoes changes that make getting enough oxygen difficult. Smoking can shorten your life. It brings an early death to more than 400,000 people in the United States each year. Lifelong smokers have a 1 in 2 chance of dying from a smoking-related disease. Smoking doesn't just cut a few months off the end of your life. It reduces the life of the average smoker by 12 years. Smoking makes millions of Americans sick by causing:

  • Heart Disease. If you have high blood pressure or high cholesterol (a fatty substance in the blood) and also smoke, you increase your chance of having a heart attack.
  • Cancer. Smoking causes cancer of the lungs, mouth, larynx (voice box), and esophagus. It plays a role in cancer of the pancreas, kidney, bladder, and maybe the cervix in women. The chance of getting cancer grows as you smoke more cigarettes, smoke more years, or inhale deeply.
  • Respiratory Problems. If you smoke, you are more likely than a nonsmoker to get the flu (influenza), pneumonia, or other infections that can interfere with your breathing (such as colds). Flu and pneumonia are very dangerous for older people.
  • Osteoporosis. If you are an older woman who smokes, your chance of developing osteoporosis is greater. Women who are past menopause tend to lose bone strength and sometimes develop this bone-weakening disorder. Bones weakened by osteoporosis fracture more easily. Also, women smokers sometimes begin menopause sooner than the average woman does.

Good News About Quitting

As soon as you stop smoking, your heart and circulatory system (the arteries and veins that blood flows through) start getting better. Your chance of heart attack, stroke, and other circulatory diseases begins to drop. The flow of blood to your hands and feet gets stronger. Your breathing may be more difficult in the first few weeks, but should become easier a few months after your last cigarette. Quitting smoking can't undo permanent lung damage. It may, however, help slow further damage to the lungs. Your chance of getting cancer from smoking also begins to shrink. Within 10 to 15 years after quitting, the risk of cancer and heart disease is almost as low as that of a nonsmoker.

Nicotine Is A Drug

In cigarette smoke there are thousands of chemicals, including 60 substances that are known to cause cancer. Another, nicotine, is a very addictive drug. At first, when you smoke, nicotine makes you feel good and you want to smoke more. Soon, your body starts to need more nicotine in order to feel good. Then you smoke even more to keep getting that pleasurable feeling.

The first few weeks after quitting are the hardest. Some people who give up smoking have withdrawal symptoms. You may become grumpy, hungry, or tired. You may have headaches, feel depressed, or have problems sleeping or concentrating. Some people have no withdrawal symptoms at all. You may be worried about gaining weight if you stop smoking. Many people who stop smoking gain little or no weight. Those who do gain usually add less than 10 pounds. But, even if you add a few pounds, you will be healthier than if you continued smoking.

Breaking the Habit

Smoking is a strong addiction for both your body and mind. That is why it is so hard to stop. But, people do succeed. Since 1965 over 30 million Americans have quit. There is help. You can:

  • read self-help literature,
  • take a quit-smoking class,
  • use individual or group counseling,
  • join a support group,
  • get a friend to quit with you,
  • take medicine to help with nicotine withdrawal, or
  • use nicotine replacement therapy.

Each person is different. Find what works best for you. Sometimes combining several methods is the answer. Many people can stop on their own. Others need help from doctors, clinics, or organized groups. The first step is to make a firm decision to quit. Then, choose a date to stop smoking, and pick one or more methods for quitting. Before you stop, try changing your smoking habits. For example, if you smoke a cigarette after each meal, wait a while at first. Perhaps you smoke while reading the newspaper. Try to not smoke and instead chew gum. Then, when you do stop smoking, habits such as these may be easier to break.

When you quit, you may need special help to cope with your body's desire for nicotine. Nicotine replacement therapy can help control withdrawal symptoms, but it's not for everyone. Check with your doctor first. He or she might recommend one of the four forms.

  • Nicotine chewing gum is available without a doctor's prescription.
  • The nicotine patch is also available over the counter.
  • Nicotine nasal spray requires a doctor's prescription.
  • Your doctor might also prescribe a nicotine inhaler.

These provide nicotine to the body without the harmful substances found in tobacco smoke. They reduce withdrawal symptoms. This makes it easier for you to learn to fight the physical habit and mental addiction of smoking. Also, this dose of nicotine is less than that from a cigarette and is tapered off during the treatment period. It is dangerous to smoke while on nicotine replacement therapy.

There is a drug to help handle your cravings. Known as bupropion hydrochloride, it does not contain nicotine and must be prescribed by your doctor. The most common side effects are dry mouth and problems getting to sleep.

Cigars, Chewing Tobacco, and Snuff Are Not Safer

Some people think smokeless tobacco (chewing tobacco and snuff), pipes, and cigars are safer than cigarettes. They are not. Using smokeless tobacco can cause cancer of the mouth, a pre-cancerous lesion known as oral leukoplakia, nicotine addiction, and possibly cancer of the larynx and esophagus, as well as tooth and heart problems. Pipe and cigar smokers may develop cancer of the mouth, lip, larynx, pharynx, and esophagus. Those who inhale have the same chance of lung cancer as cigarette smokers have.

If You Are Around Someone Who Smokes

Passive smoking happens when a nonsmoker breathes smoke from someone else's cigarette, pipe, or cigar. It is also called secondhand smoke. We now know that such secondhand smoke is unsafe. People who don't smoke but live or work with smokers are more likely to develop lung cancer than other nonsmokers. In fact, each year an estimated 3,000 people who don't smoke die of lung cancer because of secondhand smoke. It has also been linked to heart disease in nonsmokers.

Passive smoking is very dangerous for someone with asthma, other lung conditions, or heart disease. It may cause bronchitis, pneumonia, an asthma attack, or inner ear infections in babies and young children. It may be associated with SIDS (sudden infant death syndrome). These problems are just some good reasons for a parent or grandparent to think about quitting smoking. Everyone should try not to smoke around young children or infants.

Where To Get Help

Organizations, doctors, and clinics offering stop-smoking programs are listed in telephone books under headings such as "Smokers' Treatment and Information Centers." Further information can be obtained from organizations such as the following. These three organizations have many local chapters which can be found in a local telephone directory.

American Heart Association
National Center
7272 Greenville Avenue
Dallas, TX 75231
800-AHA-USA1
Website: www.americanheart.org

American Lung Association
61 Broadway, 6th Floor
New York, NY 10006
800-LUNG-USA
Website: www.lungusa.org

Several government agencies also have information on the dangers of smoking.

Office on Smoking and Health
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
Mail Stop K-50
4770 Buford Highway, NE
Atlanta, GA 30341-3724
800-CDC-1311
Website: www.cdc.gov/tobacco

National Cancer Institute
Bethesda, MD 20892
Cancer Information Service
800-4-CANCER
Website: www.cancer.gov

Smoking Quitline
1-877-44U-QUIT
Website: www.smokefree.gov

For more information on health and aging, contact:

National Institute on Aging
Information Center
P.O. Box 8057
Gaithersburg, MD 20898-8057
1-800-222-2225
1-800-224-4225 TTY
www.nia.nih.gov

 

U. S. Department of Health and Human Services
Public Health Service
National Institutes of Health
2003

This document sourced from the Alzheimer's Disease Education and Referral Center, a service of the National Institute on Aging.