What Quitting Smoking Will Do for Your Health
Your health begins to improve as quickly as 20 minutes after you smoke your last cigarette. Here are the health milestones you can expect if you quit smoking today.
Updated: Wednesday 27 July 2022
Since the first Stoptober in 2012, the annual stop-smoking campaign has skyrocketed in popularity. Founded on the evidence that smokers who quit for 28 days are five times more likely to quit for good, the initiative encourages smokers to give up the habit for the month of October. As it enters its ninth year, it is apparent that the government’s national stop smoking campaign has been a resounding success. Between 2010 and 2018, the percentage of people in England who smoke fell from 21% to a record low of 14.4%. This year, that number has already fallen to 13.9% - and campaigners hope to get it even lower.
The status of smoking in the UK has changed drastically in the last half century. In 1962, less than 50 years ago, more than 80% of British men and 40% of British women smoked. While the first identifiable link between tobacco smoking and lung cancer was discovered in the 1920s, it took decades for scientists to confirm it. After a series of preliminary studies conducted in the 1950s, the Royal College of Physicians (RCP) published a groundbreaking paper confirming beyond all doubt that smoking tobacco greatly increased the likelihood of developing lung cancer.
Despite the RCP’s demands that the government take action to stamp out smoking among the UK population, it took some time before their findings started to reach a wider audience. It wasn’t until the mid-1970s, at which point 45% of the population still smoked, that Britons started quitting in greater numbers. Around 30% of the population still smoked in the mid-1990s. But a raft of new legal measures and campaigns put in place since then - including the ban on smoking in enclosed public places and an increase in the legal age to buy cigarettes from 16 to 18 - caused the numbers to decline quite rapidly.
There are a number of reasons a person might want to stop smoking. Perhaps they’re concerned for their family, or they have a health condition that smoking exacerbates. But the root of it is simple: not smoking is far, far better for your health - and the health of those around you. How much better? Here’s a rundown of what would happen to your health if you smoked your very last cigarette today.
It may feel a bit rubbish at first
While the physical benefits of stopping smoking are almost innumerable, the immediate psychological impact is what makes it so difficult to do. Smoking affects every system in your body - meaning that you could feel a diverse range of symptoms upon quitting. This is particularly true for heavy smokers: if you’re used to higher amounts of nicotine, the withdrawal symptoms are likely to be worse for a while.
Here are some common symptoms people experience after quitting smoking:
- Headaches and nausea - when you stop smoking, the lack of nicotine often causes similar physical symptoms that people experience while feeling under the weather or ill
- Tingling in the hands and feet - one of the benefits of quitting smoking is improved blood circulation. Initially, however, this can cause a tingling sensation in your extremities, which may unsettle some people
- Coughing and sore throat - smoking causes mucus and other debris to build up in the lungs in substantial quantities. Upon quitting, you may experience flu-like symptoms such as coughing and a sore throat as your immune system works to clear these substances from the body
- Increased appetite and weight gain - as a stimulant, nicotine has properties that suppress your appetite. Upon quitting, it’s common to notice some weight gain as your appetite returns to normal
- Intense nicotine cravings - smokers’ bodies are dependent on nicotine, and will therefore crave it when they go without. Cravings are usually worst between two and four weeks after quitting
- Constipation - the stimulant properties of nicotine don’t just affect the brain. They also stimulate bowel movements. After quitting, you may experience constipation as your body adjusts to the change
- Mood changes - smokers tend to suffer mental health conditions such as depression and anxiety in greater quantities. When smokers quit, these conditions may emerge or become worse as your body craves the dopamine shots caused by nicotine
- Difficulty sleeping - ex-smokers may find it difficult to sleep at first as the side effects of quitting emerge
While not everyone who quits smoking will experience all these symptoms, they collectively are what can make it so difficult to quit. This is why people who quit smoking often do so with the help and supervision of their doctor or local pharmacy, who can advise on how to deal with withdrawal symptoms and recommend supplementary treatments to make the journey easier.
But the rewards are almost endless
While kicking the habit can be difficult at first, the good news is that the health benefits, both long-term and short-term, are almost endless. Once you’re over the hump, you can look forward to healthier organs, increased energy levels, lower blood pressure, and greatly reduced risk of major diseases, to name but a few.
Here’s a timeline of what happens to your body after you finish your last cigarette - from 20 minutes to 15 years.
Cigarettes have a number of immediate effects on the body, including higher blood pressure and heart rate. As soon as 20 minutes from finishing your last cigarette, these effects will begin to reverse: your blood pressure will return to normal levels, and your heart rate will drop to its resting pace.
8 to 12 hours
Carbon monoxide, the dangerous substance that comes from car exhausts, is also produced when tobacco is burned. When inhaling cigarette smoke, you also breathe in carbon monoxide, which is then absorbed through the lungs and into the bloodstream. Eight to twelve hours after your last cigarette, however, the levels of carbon monoxide in your body will begin to drop - increasing your blood oxygen level as a result.
Smoking affects all parts of the body in a variety of different ways - including the nerve endings in your mouth and nose. The chemicals found in cigarette smoke damage the nerves that allow you to smell and taste, which reduce these sensations as a result. After two days of smoking cessation, these sensations will begin to improve as your body repairs the damaged nerve endings.
2 to 9 weeks
While your heart rate and blood pressure begin to improve just 20 minutes after your last cigarette, your heart health continues to improve for a long time afterwards. From as soon as a fortnight after quitting, your heart rate and blood pressure will continue to drop, and your circulation, oxygen levels and lung function will all improve - reducing your risk of a heart attack.
1 to 9 months
The debris and mucus build-up that smoking causes in the lungs can cause shortness of breath, coughing and sinus congestion. Between one and nine months after quitting, these symptoms will begin to improve. Your lungs will feel healthier. You’ll cough less. Your sinuses will be clearer. Your energy levels will increase.
The evidence clearly shows that smoking greatly increases your risk of heart disease. It damages circulation, increases your blood pressure and heart rate and lowers your blood oxygen levels. The good news, however, is that a year after quitting your risk of heart disease will be cut in half.
The more a person smokes, the more they are at risk of stroke. Depending on your overall health and the length of time you’ve smoked, however, your risk of stroke will be the same as someone who’s never smoked within 5 to 15 years of quitting.
People who smoke are 15 to 30 times more likely to develop or die from lung cancer than people who have never smoked. It isn’t just heavy smokers this affects, either: infrequent or social smoking will increase your chances of developing lung cancer later on in life. After 10 years of quitting, however, your risk of lung cancer will drop to that of someone who’s never smoked. And as a bonus, your risk of developing other cancers drops significantly as well.
After a decade and a half of quitting, your chances of developing heart disease go back to the same level of someone who has never smoked. Your cholesterol will be lower, your risk of blood clots will reduce, and your blood pressure will be healthier as well.
The bottom line
Quitting smoking is often a huge challenge. The immediate withdrawal symptoms and nicotine cravings can make it all too easy to relent and start smoking again. But when compared to the myriad of health benefits that result from quitting, the short-term difficulties are a drop in the ocean. And if you do find it too challenging, there are a variety of treatments that can make it much easier to quit for good.