by Dr Chris Steet, MB ChB
In the UK about one third of adults smoke. Smoking is slowly decreasing in adults, but is on the increase in teenage girls and young women. Fourteen million adults continue to smoke despite the widespread awareness of the risks. With people's attitude to smoking changing, and smoking being banned in many workplaces and public areas, there has never been a better time to stop. Stopping smoking never killed anybody, but continuing to smoke kills 300 people every day in the UK.
Why stop smoking?
Kicking the habit can be difficult but it is the single most important thing you can do for the good of your health. A total of 75 per cent of all deaths are caused by heart disease, strokes and cancers, and smoking contributes to all of these conditions. Forty per cent of smokers do not even collect their pension - they die before they retire.
Barriers to stopping
Many smokers worry about gaining weight after stopping. However, the amount of weight people put on is much less than you might think - between 4 and 8lbs on average. The health risks from this extra weight gain are negligible, especially compared to the substantial risks of smoking. Weight gain is less of a problem in people who use nicotine replacement therapies (such as nicotine gum, patches, nasal spray or nicotine vaporiser) to give up. Weight gain can also be controlled by regular exercise and a sensible diet. Try to exercise for 20 minutes every day, come rain or shine. Walking briskly or slow jogging will do.
Avoid high calorie snacks, eat more fruit and vegetables, drink plenty of water, fruit juices and low-calorie drinks. Remember, one in four people who give up smoking actually lose weight or stay the same.
Some smokers rely on their cigarettes to help them control stress. However, there are many healthier ways to relax. Try taking slow, deep breaths when you feel stressed or angry. Learn a stress-management technique, such as yoga, meditation or tai chi.
Do more exercise or take steps to change the situations that cause stress. If necessary, talk to your doctor or see a counsellor for advice.
How do you stop?
Stopping all at once, rather than cutting down, works best for most people. Set a day for stopping. If you smoke most at work, Saturday may be a good day to pick. If you smoke mainly on weekends, stopping on Monday may work best for you. It is helpful to keep a diary of your smoking habits for a few days to pinpoint the times when you most need a cigarette.
Coping with nicotine withdrawal
After stopping smoking, most people experience nicotine withdrawal symptoms such as anxiety, difficulty concentrating, depression and trouble sleeping. However, these are temporary symptoms. The worst is usually over after 2 to 3 days and most have passed after a week or two.
For many smokers, nicotine replacement therapy (such as nicotine gum, patches, nasal sprays and vaporisers) can make stopping a lot more comfortable. The levels of nicotine these treatments provide is way below smoking levels and so is safer than smoking.
The gum delivers nicotine into the circulation through the lining of the mouth, the patch through the skin, the nasal spray through the delicate and sensitive membranes of the nose and the vaporiser through the airways into the bloodstream. You must use all of these treatments every day for three months and then gradually reduce their use, so you wean yourself off nicotine.
The first two weeks are the most critical time for relapse, but you will need to be on your guard for many months after quitting. Don't fall for the trap of having tjust one cigarettev. If you slip up examine the situations in which they happen so you can learn from them and cope better with them next time. Then set a new stop date and try again. Don't be discouraged by a failed attempt. Remember that most successful ex-smokers make several serious attempts before finally giving up for good. Every time you try, your chance of success increases, so keep trying.
Benefits of stopping
After giving up smoking your health improves rapidly as your body starts to repair itself. Within 8 hours the nicotine has disappeared, within 24 hours all the carbon monoxide has gone and after that most of the 4,200 chemicals present in tobacco smoke are eliminated over time. Insurance companies will class you as non-smoker after you have been 'off' cigarettes for only 12 months, no matter how long you have smoked. Smokers often say how great they feel after giving up. You will have more energy, breathe better and have an improved sense of taste. Not only will you no longer be poisoning the people around you, but you will be setting a good example to your children.
If you smoke 20 a day you will also be saving over £1,000 a year by giving up. It's never too late to stop smoking, even giving up in old age improves your quality of life and reduces the health risks.
Tips to help you stop
- If you always smoke after meals, try leaving the table immediately and washing up, cleaning your teeth, going for a walk or getting involved in a hobby
- Beware of alcohol as it can undermine your decision not to smoke. Try low-alcoholic drinks or avoid the pub or parties until you feel more confident
- If you smoke when you have a cup of coffee, try a different drink, such as herbal tea or fruit juice
- Avoid difficult situations (such as being around smokers or arguments at home) for the first week or two
- Stop after a respiratory tract infection eg flu
- Distract yourself if you experience cravings. For example, take some deep breaths or count backwards from 100.
- Remember cravings only last 2 to 3 minutes and will soon pass
- Have a drink when a craving troubles you. Drink lots of water or low-calorie drinks
- Tell your friends and family you are stopping and get their help and support
- Buy yourself rewards with the money you save from not smoking
- Visit the dentist to have your teeth cleaned of tobacco stains
- Find something else to do with your hands
What happens when you stop smoking
- Blonde and white hair unstains
- Wrinkles (crow's feet) improve
- Food tastes better.
- Teeth become unstained
- Less wheezy if asthmatic
- Lungs heal
- Heart heals
- Cuts and sores heal faster
- Bladder heals
- Male and female fertility increases
- Bones less brittle
- Veins and arteries unclog
The Gloucestershire Smoking Advice Service offers you friendly and practical information, support and advice if you want to stop smoking and would like help.
The service works with GP surgeries, pharmacies and a range of other people in Gloucestershire, where there are trained Stop Smoking Advisers who will offer you support.