Cigarette smoking is the leading cause of preventable disease, disability and death in the United States. It accounts for more than 480,000 deaths each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Approximately 30.8 million adults in the U.S. currently smoke cigarettes, and more than 16 million live with a smoking-related disease. Although smoking is most closely associated with lung cancer, it can cause other health issues, such as heart disease and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). If you are thinking about giving up cigarettes, here's how to improve your lung health after quitting smoking.
How does smoking affect the body?
Smoking doesn't just affect your lungs — it affects every part of your airway, from your throat to your air sacs, says Dr. Susan Garwood, HCA Healthcare's national physician director of pulmonary disease and advanced bronchoscopist at Sarah Cannon Cancer Institute at TriStar Health.
"It does that through inflammation and destruction of the lung tissue, which can start as soon as your first puff," she adds.
Smoking decreases the function of the cilia; hair-like structures in the lungs that help clean out pollutants. Once the cilia slow down, they stay that way for several hours.
"When that happens, it increases cough as your body tries to clear pollutants," Dr. Garwood says. "It increases mucus production and increases your risk of infections over time from that mucus. Eventually, it will result in more permanent damage, which we call COPD."
COPD can include worsening of asthma, chronic bronchitis or emphysema, which is when the air sacs are damaged, and it becomes harder for the lungs to move oxygen in and carbon dioxide out of the body.
"One of the things people don't realize is that it doesn't take a lot of cigarettes to cause damage," says Dr. Garwood. "Smoking fewer than five cigarettes a day, compared to a pack-and-a-half a day, causes two-thirds the amount of long-term damage."
When most people think about the harmful substances in cigarettes, they mainly think about tar and nicotine. However, as many as 7,000 chemicals can be found in cigarettes, and all of these can cause inflammation and damage, according to Dr. Garwood.
What happens when you quit smoking?
There are a few things that happen once you quit smoking. The first is that your carbon monoxide levels go back to normal within 12 hours.
"The first day you stop smoking, you have an immediate benefit that allows oxygen to circulate to your organs more normally, and this will immediately result in things like improved heart rate, blood pressure and blood flow to your major organs — immediately decreasing cardiovascular risk for heart attack and stroke," Dr. Garwood says.
There will also be excess mucus production and therefore increased coughing as the tar coating the cilia starts to fall off. This mucus production can last for two to four weeks, depending on how much the person smokes.
"The important thing we need to know is that the damage that results in COPD is only minimally reversible with medications," Dr. Garwood says. "The only way to avoid accelerated loss of lung function is to stop smoking."
Quitting also lowers the risk of lung cancer, and by the fifth year, the risk is substantially reduced.
"The sooner you quit, the better. Cancer risk will go down, cardiovascular risk will improve, and oxygen level will improve. Cough will get worse, and then it'll get tremendously better," says Dr. Garwood.
How to prepare to quit smoking
As you prepare to quit smoking, it can help to approach the task systematically, Dr. Garwood says. QuitAssist offers five keys for quitting:
- Get ready by choosing a specific date to quit by and getting rid of temptation.
- Get support and encouragement from friends, family and coworkers.
- Learn new skills and behaviors to distract yourself from urges and to help manage withdrawal symptoms.
- Consider taking medication, such as nicotine replacement therapy medication, and use it correctly.
- Be prepared for relapse, especially within the first three months or when difficult situations arise.
What treatments are available to help quit smoking?
If you are having trouble quitting smoking, there are several treatment options available that may help. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved bupropion (Zyban) and varenicline (Chantix) to help people quit smoking. Neither product contains nicotine, and both are available in tablet form by prescription only. Both can help alleviate nicotine withdrawal symptoms.
Other treatments include nicotine replacement therapy products such as skin patches, nicotine gum and lozenges. There are also sprays and inhalers that deliver small doses of nicotine over time without the added exposure to toxic chemicals found in cigarette smoke.
How to improve lung health after quitting smoking
Once you've quit smoking, you may discover that you need to find something else to do instead. Exercise can be a good replacement because it improves your lung capacity and lung endurance over time. It also releases endorphins — happy hormones that can help to ease withdrawal symptoms.
It's also important to talk to your doctor about how much you've smoked and been exposed to smoke in the past, Dr. Garwood says. You may need a pulmonary function test to evaluate your lungs for permanent damage, such as chronic bronchitis or emphysema.
"You may not even be aware that you have impaired lung function; you may have just adjusted your activity over time," Dr. Garwood adds.
When you make the decision to stop smoking, it can be helpful to think about why you started smoking in the first place and what your triggers are. Once you understand what activities or feelings cause you to smoke, you can anticipate the urges and find new ways to deal with them. If you need help quitting, your doctor can assist and offer resources to support your new smoke-free life.
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