Breaking the Habit

You may be surprised by some of the benefits from quitting smoking – and how fast they arrive.

Medically Reviewed by Brunilda Nazario, MD on May 12, 2008

Almost 70% of adult smokers say they want to quit; the most common reason given is concern about their health.

The concern is well justified. The four leading causes of death in the U.S. -- cardiovascular disease, stroke, cancer, and lung disease -- are all strongly linked to cigarette smoke exposure. One out of every five deaths in the U.S. can be attributed to smoking.

The dangers get worse with age. People still smoking in their 40s and 50s face a risk of death over the next 10 years three to four times greater than a nonsmoker's.

But gaining extra years are not the only reward for quitting. Other benefits begin immediately, according to the American Cancer Society, and they just keep coming.

Healthier Life

Within 20 minutes of snuffing out your last cigarette, your blood pressure and heart rate decline.

Within 12 hours, the level of poisonous carbon monoxide in your body from cigarettes has returned to normal.

Over the next few months, your lungs will regain their ability to remove pollutants efficiently, thereby reducing your risk of infection. Your ability to taste and smell will improve, and that chronic sinus congestion should disappear.

By the first anniversary of your last cigarette, your risk of heart disease should be about half of a smoker's. (By your 15th anniversary, it should be about the same as the risk for someone who never smoked.)

And within a decade, your risk of dying from lung cancer will have dropped by half. It will never drop as low as the risk faced by those who have never smoked, but it will come pretty close.

Stop Smelling

Another benefit of quitting also begins immediately, says Norman Edelman, MD, chief medical officer of the American Lung Association. "As soon as you take a shower and change your clothes, you stop smelling," he tells WebMD.

"You may cough more, but that shouldn't be a concern because it means you're clearing the gunk out of your lungs and opening your airways," says Edelman. "In a few weeks you should begin to notice an increase in your exercise tolerance."

The Extreme Makeover

Michael K. Cummings, PhD, has spent 20 years studying the harmful effects of tobacco. He calls quitting "the extreme makeover."

"If you quit smoking early enough, by 30 or so, your risk of dying prematurely becomes almost the same as someone who never smoked," says Cummings, chairman of the Roswell Park Cancer Institute's department of health behavior in Buffalo, N.Y. "If you wait another decade, the benefits are about half of what they would have been. If you quit [then] you add eight to 10 years to your life."

An Array of Problems

Though everyone knows cigarettes promote cardiovascular disease and lung ailments, it's less understood that they promote an array of other ailments, says Cummings.

Peripheral vascular disease, for example, which constricts blood flow to the hands, feet, and other organs, is accelerated by cigarette smoke. "I've heard of it occurring in people in their 30s," Cummings tells WebMD. "The best treatment for it is, don't smoke."

Smoking, he adds, can also lead to macular degeneration, the No. 1 cause of blindness among older people. It also promotes gum disease.

Quitting brings psychological benefits as well, according to Cummings.

"Most smokers regret their decision to start smoking," he says. "When they quit, they gain a sense of control, a sense of empowerment."

Lung Transplant Pioneer

Joel Cooper, MD, performed the world's first successful lung transplant nearly 25 years ago. He is a pioneer in techniques for treating lung disease.

Cooper tells patients who smoke he will not operate on them unless they have been off cigarettes for at least three weeks prior to surgery.

"One of the most serious complications of chest surgery is congestion, which can lead to pneumonia and respiratory failure," Cooper tells WebMD. "If you have mucus from cigarette smoking, you'll have greater clogging of the airways. Just three weeks away from cigarettes will reduce some of that inflammation and reduce the chances of complications."

Cooper admits that if everyone quit smoking today, the need for his services would drop by 70% over the next 20 years. But nothing would make him happier. He especially urges young people to quit.

"If I can get one young person to stop smoking, I will have contributed to more years of healthy life than if I got a week's worth of my patients to quit," he says. "There is nothing you can do that would add more years of health and longevity to your life than to stop smoking right now."

Show Sources

Published Nov. 15, 2006.

SOURCES: American Cancer Society. Norman Edelman, MD, chief medical officer, American Lung Association. Michael K. Cummings, PhD, chairman, department of health behavior, Roswell Park Cancer Institute, Buffalo, N.Y. Joel Cooper, MD, chief, division of thoracic surgery, University of Pennsylvania Health System. CDC.

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