Please note: This information was current at the time of publication but now may be out of date. This handout provides a general overview and may not apply to everyone. 

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Am Fam Physician. 2002;66(9):1751-1752

Why does it seem so hard to stop smoking?

It seems hard to stop smoking because smoking causes changes in your body and in the way you act. The changes in your body are caused by an addiction to nicotine. The changes in the way you act have developed over time as you have bought cigarettes, lit them, and smoked them. These changes have become your smoking habit.

When you have a smoking habit, many things seem to go along with having a cigarette. These might include taking a break at work, having a drink, or socializing with friends. But for every smoking habit, there are good reasons to stop smoking (see box to the right).

How do I get ready to stop smoking?

Set a stop date 2 to 4 weeks from now. This will give you time to get ready to stop. Start by writing down the reasons why you want to stop. Keep your list with you to look at when you feel the urge to smoke. Make your list personal.

Keep a diary of when and why you smoke to help you better understand your smoking habit. You'll have to deal with the things that make you want to smoke a cigarette.

Think of other things to do instead of lighting up, such as walking, drinking a glass of water, chewing sugarless gum, breathing deeply and slowly, or reviewing your list of reasons to stop. Think of changes in your routine that will help you not smoke. See the box to the right for steps you can take to prepare to stop.

Immediate reasons to stop

  • Bad breath and stained teeth

  • Bad smell in clothes and hair and on skin

  • Lower athletic ability

  • Cough and sore throat

  • Faster heartbeat and raised blood pressure

  • Risk of passive smoking to people around you

  • Expense

  • Risk of fires

Long-term reasons to stop

  • Risk of cancer

  • Risk of heart disease

  • Serious breathing problems

  • Time lost working or having fun because you're sick

  • Wrinkles

  • Risk of ulcers

  • Risk of gum disease

  • Risk of damage to babies of pregnant women who smoke

  • Setting a good example for your children

Preparing to stop

  • Smoke fewer cigarettes as your stop date nears (but don't inhale more deeply).

  • Buy only 1 pack of cigarettes at a time.

  • Delay lighting up for longer and longer.

  • Switch to a brand you don't like as much.

  • Ask a friend or family member who smokes to stop smoking with you.

What happens when I stop smoking?

How you feel when you stop depends on how much you have smoked, how addicted your body is to nicotine, and how well you get ready to stop. You may crave a cigarette, be hungrier than usual, feel edgy, and have trouble concentrating. You also may cough more at first, and you may have headaches. These things happen because your body is addicted to nicotine. They are worse during the first few days after stopping. Most are gone in a few weeks. If you think these symptoms are a major problem, talk to your doctor about using a nicotine replacement product.

What about nicotine replacement products or medicine to help me stop?

Nicotine replacement products are ways to take in nicotine without smoking. They allow you to change the things you do that support your habit before you deal with your addiction to nicotine. These products include the chewing gum, patch, nasal spray, and inhaler. You can buy the patch and gum without a prescription.

A medicine called bupropion (brand name: Zyban) helps some people stop smoking. It is taken as a pill and does not contain nicotine.

For any of these products to work, you must follow the directions on the package carefully. It's important that you don't smoke while using nicotine replacement products. Talk to your doctor about which of these products might help you.

Will I gain weight when I stop smoking?

Most people gain a few pounds after they stop smoking. Try not to replace smoking with overeating. Make sure you have healthy, low-fat snacks on hand in case you do reach for food. And start exercising or exercise more. Exercise helps burn calories and has the added benefit of keeping you busy so you can't smoke.

What if I smoke again?

The first few days after stopping will probably be the hardest. Most people who start smoking again do so within the first week. You don't have to give up if you smoke a cigarette. Keep trying to stop.

If you do start smoking again, think about what triggered you to light up and what you can do to keep from lighting up again. Learn from your experience. Set a new stop date. Many people who stopped smoking didn't quit the first time, but they didn't stop trying.

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Copyright © 2002 by the American Academy of Family Physicians.

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