How to Quit Smoking

Medically Reviewed by Sabrina Felson, MD on September 09, 2023
9 min read

Congratulations! You’ve decided to quit smoking, one of the best choices you can make for your health. Right after you take that last puff, your body will start to recover. Carbon monoxide levels in your blood will drop. In less than a week, it’ll be easier to breathe.

Blame nicotine, the active ingredient in tobacco, for your smoking addiction. Your brain quickly adapts to it and craves more and more to feel the way you used to feel after smoking just one cigarette.

Over time, your brain learns to predict when you're going to smoke a cigarette. You feel down and tired, so you think, "I need a cigarette," and the cycle starts again.

But it's not just about brain chemistry. Certain situations make you want to smoke. Everyone's triggers are different. Yours might include the smell of cigarette smoke, seeing a carton of cigarettes at the store, eating certain foods, or drinking your morning coffee. Sometimes just the way you feel (sad or happy) is a trigger. One of the biggest keys to quitting smoking is spotting the triggers that make you crave smoking and trying to avoid them.

Your first days of not smoking will be the hardest. Pick a date to quit smoking and then stick to it. Write down your reasons for quitting before your quit day, and read the list every day before and after you quit.

Come up with a quit plan. It will help you stay focused and motivated. Here are some ideas to get started:

  • Write down when you smoke, why you smoke, and what you’re doing when you smoke. These are your smoking triggers. You need to avoid these as often as possible going forward.
  • Stop smoking in certain situations (such as during your work break or after dinner) before actually quitting.
  • Make a list of activities you can do instead of smoking, like taking a brisk walk or chewing a piece of gum. You have to be ready to do something else when you want to smoke.
  • Ask your doctor about using nicotine replacement therapy gum or patches or prescription medications (see below). Some people find these helpful in curbing cravings.
  • Join a smoking cessation support group or program. Call your local chapter of the American Lung Association to find groups near you.
  • Tell your friends and family about your quit smoking plan, and let them know how they can support you.

As you probably know, there are many different ways to quit smoking. Some work better than others. The best plan is the one you can stick with. Consider which of these might work for you:

Cold turkey (no outside help). About 90% of people who try to quit smoking do it without outside support -- no aids, therapy, or medicine. Although most people try to quit this way, it's not the most successful method. Only about 5% to 7% are able to quit on their own.

Behavioral therapy. This involves working with a counselor to find ways not to smoke. Together, you'll find your triggers (such as emotions or situations that make you want to smoke) and make a plan to get through the cravings. You can use it as your main method or as a support tool. Brief sessions, even as short as 3 minutes, have been shown to help. Programs differ, but in general, they help you pick a quit date, give you techniques to make the change, and teach you how to manage the process and prevent a relapse. Many hospitals and clinics offer solo and group sessions with counselors for free or at a low cost. If that isn’t an option, every state has a quit-smoking hotline you can call.

Nicotine replacement therapy. These products slowly break your addiction with controlled doses of nicotine that get lower and lower as you take them, so you get used to less and less nicotine before you stop altogether. They let you manage your cravings and provide some relief from withdrawal symptoms. You may have up to a 70% higher chance of quitting if you use one of these products. (If you’re pregnant or breastfeeding, check with your doctor before you start.)

Placed right on your skin, patches release a small amount of nicotine into your body. They’re available over the counter (OTC), which means you don’t need a prescription. It may be more effective to start using the patch a few days before your quit date and to use it along with another nicotine product.

You can also chew nicotine gum. Your dose depends on how much you smoke. When you feel a tingle in your mouth, stop and put it in your cheek, where it is absorbed into the blood. When the tingling is gone, start chewing again. Do this over and over again until the tingle is gone – usually after about 30 minutes. For the first 6 weeks, you’ll chew one piece every 1 or 2 hours. Treatment should last around 12 weeks. If you feel the need to continue, talk to your doctor.

Nicotine lozenges are OTC capsules you take after meals. They dissolve in your mouth. Your dose depends on how much you smoke. Treatment should take 12 weeks.

Sprays deliver nicotine through your nose or mouth. Some you can buy over the counter, and for others, you’ll need to visit your doctor to get a prescription. Like other nicotine products, you should use it for 12 weeks.

Inhalers let you breathe in a puff of nicotine. You get one by prescription only, and you’ll use it for about 12 weeks.

Prescription medications. You can only get these medicines with a prescription from your doctor. You’d need to start either drug before your quit date to give it time to build up in your system.

Varenicline (Chantix) is probably the first medicine you'll try if you need a prescription. It works with the part of your brain that reacts to nicotine so you enjoy smoking less. It also eases withdrawal symptoms. Varenicline is safe to use with nicotine products, and one study shows that a combination of the two may improve your chances of quitting for good. Side effects may include nausea, trouble with sleep, strange dreams, headaches, and vomiting.

Bupropion is an antidepressant that lowers your desire to smoke. You’re most likely to get it if varenicline doesn’t work or if there’s a reason you can’t take it. Don’t take it with nicotine products unless your doctor tells you to. Common side effects are insomnia, nightmares, and a dry mouth.

Hypnosis. A trained hypnotherapist will place you into a trance-like state. They’ll then make suggestions that will help you get rid of the urge to smoke. Doctors still don’t know how effective this method is or if it works at all. Some studies say that it works better than using nicotine products, while others say there’s no benefit.

Acupuncture. This might work if you’ve had side effects from other quitting methods. A trained practitioner uses thin metal needles to stimulate pressure points on your body. Spots on your ears, in particular, seem to boost brain chemicals that help curb your desire to smoke. Studies haven’t confirmed that it works for this purpose. You’ll need several sessions, and you’ll want to check on whether your insurance covers it, unless you’re OK paying for it out of your own pocket.

Laser therapy. This works like acupuncture, but instead of needles, it uses low-level lasers that won’t hurt your skin. Studies haven’t confirmed that it works.

Combo treatments. You might be more likely to quit for good if you use a mix of different methods. For example, using both a nicotine patch and gum may be better than a patch alone. Other helpful combinations include behavioral therapy and nicotine replacement therapy; prescription medication with a nicotine replacement therapy patch; and a nicotine replacement therapy patch and nicotine spray. The FDA hasn’t approved using two types of nicotine replacement therapies at the same time, so be sure to talk with your doctor first to see if this is the right approach for you.

When you quit smoking, you will have both physical and mental withdrawals. You may crave cigarettes, feel irritable and hungry, cough often, get headaches, or have trouble concentrating. You have these symptoms of withdrawal because your body is used to nicotine.

When withdrawal symptoms happen in the first 2 weeks after quitting, stay in control. Think about your reasons for quitting. Remind yourself that these are signs that your body is healing and getting used to being without nicotine.

The withdrawal symptoms are only temporary. They are strongest when you first quit but will go away within 10 to 14 days. Remember that withdrawal symptoms are easier to treat than the major diseases that smoking can cause.

Everyone is different, and how tough it will be for you depends on:

  • How many cigarettes you smoke a day
  • If your friends and family members smoke
  • Why you smoke

Focus on the benefits. Within hours of stopping cigarettes, your body starts to recover from the effects of nicotine and additives. Your blood pressure, heart rate, and body temperature -- all of which are higher than they should be because of the nicotine -- return to healthier levels.

You can breathe easier. The levels of poisonous carbon monoxide in your blood drops, so your blood can carry more oxygen.

No doubt about it: Quitting helps your whole body. It can even improve your looks: You'll be less likely to get wrinkles when you're still young. And you'll save money, too.

Slipping is a common part of quitting. For most people trying to quit, even “just one puff” counts. And if you “have just one,” it makes it that much harder to go completely smoke free.

But slipping doesn’t mean you go back to smoking regularly. Use your slip-up to focus on your triggers and learn how to better deal with cravings. And to avoid further slip-ups and relapses, try these tips:

  • If you live with a smoker, ask them not to smoke around you.
  • When you get the urge to smoke, take a deep breath. Hold it for 10 seconds and release it slowly. Repeat this several times until the urge is gone.
  • Keep your hands busy. Doodle, play with a pencil or straw, or work on a computer.
  • Change activities that were connected to smoking. Take a walk or read a book instead of taking a cigarette break.
  • Hang out with nonsmokers or go to places that don't allow smoking, such as the movies, museums, shops, or libraries.
  • Don't substitute food or sugar-based products for cigarettes.
  • Exercise. Exercising will help you relax.
  • Get support for quitting, especially from family and friends.
  • If you’re worried about gaining weight, keep in mind that the average weight gain after quitting is less than 10 pounds. Focus on staying healthy and active instead of stressing about the scale

You can also focus on the health benefits of not smoking. Here are some of the biggest things you'll enjoy less of:

It's called a relapse, and a lot of people go through it before they kick the habit for good. It’s also very normal in strong addictions like smoking. If it happens, try to smoke as little as possible until you're ready to quit again. Stopping permanently is a process that might take some time. But it’s worth it.