Everyone knows smoking is bad for your health. Smokers know this, too – in fact, most people who smoke want to quit for that very reason. Quitting can be extremely difficult, which is why most people who still smoke haven’t yet kicked the habit.
“Even if you have tried to quit smoking in the past, it’s not too late to try again,” says Dr. Katherine Kane, a vascular surgeon. “For many smokers, it takes multiple attempts before successfully quitting for good. Your doctor can help you quit – it’s one of the most important things you can do to improve your health and reduce your risk of dying prematurely.”
November is a great time to quit smoking. The third Thursday of every November is the Great American Smokeout – the day that smokers are urged to put down their cigarettes and begin life as a non-smoker. This year, the Smokeout falls on November 17th.
November is also Lung Cancer Awareness Month and Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) Awareness Month. Smokers are at much higher risk for both diseases.
According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), “Tobacco use is the leading cause of preventable disease, disability, and death in the United States.” Cigarette smoking tops the list of risk factors for lung cancer, as 90 percent of all diagnosed lung cancers are linked to smoking.
Lung cancer is the top cause of cancer death in the United States. Symptoms of lung cancer include a cough that doesn't go away and gets worse over time, constant chest pain, coughing up blood, hoarseness, wheezing and fatigue.
Cigarette smoking is also the leading cause of COPD, which is a progressive and debilitating lung disease and the third-leading cause of death in the United States. Smoking is the cause of 80 percent of all COPD-related deaths. COPD usually involves two main conditions - chronic bronchitis and emphysema.
COPD restricts breathing, causing shortness of breath, wheezing, fatigue and other symptoms. COPD gets worse over time if left untreated and can prevent many people from being able to enjoy an active lifestyle or even accomplish basic day-to-day chores. According to the National Institutes of Health, millions of Americans, mostly middle-aged or older adults, are diagnosed with COPD and there are many more that are unaware they have the disease.
Although there is no cure for COPD, a patient can manage symptoms by eliminating cigarette smoking and following physician’s instructions.
In addition to lung cancer and COPD, cigarette smoking can cause:
Many types of cancer in addition to lung cancer
Gum disease and tooth loss
These are all compelling reasons to quit smoking, right? Yes, but it’s not always that easy.
Why Is It So Difficult to Quit?
Nicotine is the reason cigarettes are so addictive. When someone inhales on a cigarette, nicotine is carried deep into the lungs, dispersed into the bloodstream and then delivered to the brain, where it produces a temporary feeling of pleasure. This process occurs in a matter of seconds.
When a smoker goes a long time without a cigarette, the nicotine level in the bloodstream diminishes, leading to intense cravings. As the cravings intensify, the smoker can become anxious and irritable. Nicotine withdrawal can also make it difficult to concentrate. Nicotine is dangerously addictive – so much so that it is considered as addictive as heroin or cocaine.
In addition to its addictive qualities, nicotine itself is unhealthy; it can cause blood vessels to narrow, resulting in higher blood pressure and blockages. But nicotine is not the only cigarette ingredient that smokers need to worry about: there are more than 7,000 chemicals contained in cigarettes. Seventy of those chemicals are known to cause cancer in humans. It’s this toxic cocktail that makes cigarettes so dangerous.
You Don’t Have to Quit on Your Own
Because nicotine is such an addictive drug, many people need professional medical help to successfully quit. There are a few ways your health care provider can help you.
“There is prescription medication available that has proven effective at helping smokers quit,” says internal medicine physician Dr. John Ira Thurmond, III. “This medicine blocks the nicotine receptors in the brain, which eliminates the ‘pleasure’ that is derived from smoking.” Such medications often come with access to an online support program so that the patient also receives emotional support and encouragement.
There are also various over-the-counter nicotine replacement therapies available. These include nicotine patches, which release a steady amount of nicotine into your system, as well as gum and lozenges. These therapies are designed to reduce cravings and wean the smoker from the nicotine addiction with a step-down approach, gradually decreasing the amount of nicotine in the body over a period of a few months.
While these therapies are available without a prescription, it’s a good idea to visit with your physician first – he or she can provide options and make a recommendation on which stop-smoking strategy would be best for you.
Experts agree that to successfully stop smoking, it’s essential to break both the physical addiction and the mental habit of smoking. Medications and replacement therapy can help with the physical addiction, while numerous online support programs exist to help break the habit of smoking.
Make a Plan
Once you’ve settled on a strategy to give you the best chance of quitting, it’s time to make your plan.
Choose a quit day: pick a date that you will stop smoking and mark it on your calendar. Pick a day of the week that makes sense for your schedule. For example, if Mondays are particularly hectic and stressful days, that may not be the best choice.
Identify and then avoid your paired habits: Ask yourself what the triggers are that make you want to smoke, as well as activities that often go hand-in-hand with smoking. For many people, drinking coffee and alcohol are often paired with smoking. If that applies to you, figure out how to reduce or eliminate these beverages from your routine, at least until you’ve been smoke-free for a while. It’s a good idea to avoid other smokers as you begin your journey as a non-smoker; being around people who are smoking will increase the temptation factor.
Get active: when you quit smoking, your body will begin to repair itself from the damage caused by cigarettes. Take advantage of this and start exercising – it doesn’t have to be anything elaborate or intense; going for a brisk walk every day will help improve your circulation and make you feel better.
What About Vaping?
Some smokers wonder if “vaping” – inhaling nicotine through an electronic device known as an “e-cigarette” – is a safe alternative to smoking tobacco cigarettes. Texas Health Care/Privia North Texas physicians say no.
“We have no idea what chemicals are contained in the liquid nicotine that is used in vaping products,” warns Dr. Oyeyemi Fabuyi, a pulmonologist. “And we know that nicotine in and of itself is unhealthy, so e-cigarettes are not a safe alternative to smoking. Their use will simply continue the addiction to nicotine, when the most important thing for a healthier life is to break the addiction for good.”
Quitting = Better Health
It’s normal for anyone who has quit smoking to be tempted by occasional, powerful cravings. These diminish over time but when they do occur, it’s important to remember why you quit in the first place and what you stand to gain by resisting the temptation to start back up. Here’s a look at how your body repairs itself after you’ve smoked your last cigarette.
20 minutes: heart rate and blood pressure drop
12 hours: carbon monoxide levels fall to normal
48 hours: ability to smell and taste improves
1 year: risk of heart attack drops significantly
2-5 years: risk of stroke drops to that of a non-smoker
5 years: risk of cancer of the throat, mouth, esophagus and bladder is reduced by half
10 years: risk of lung cancer drops by half
In addition to the health benefits, think of the other ways that becoming an ex-smoker will improve your life:
You’ll save money; a pack-a-day smoker can easily spend more than $2,000 a year on cigarettes
Your hair, clothes, car and home will no longer smell like smoke
Your teeth will look better and your breath will smell better
You’ll feel better!
“Write down your personal reasons for quitting smoking and look at them often,” suggests Dr. Fabuyi. “Go back to them in those moments that you crave a cigarette – it will help you overcome those cravings and power ahead on your new road as a non-smoker.”
Quit for Good
This November, make a commitment to yourself and your family that you’ll take the single most important step for your health that you can: you’ll quit smoking for good. Make an appointment to see your physician today and get started on making your plan. You’ll feel better, be healthier and likely add years to your life by beginning your journey as a non-smoker.
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