Stopping smoking

Smoking harms your health, but it's difficult to stop. That’s because most people who smoke have become addicted to nicotine, a chemical in tobacco. It's good to know that there are treatments available that can help you give up cigarettes.

We've brought together the best and most up-to-date research about stopping smoking, to see what treatments work. You can use our information to talk to your doctor or pharmacist and decide which treatments are best for you.

Why should I stop smoking?

You probably already know that smoking is one of the worst things you can do for your health. But it may help to remind yourself of the problems smoking can cause. More than 120,000 people die in the UK each year from diseases caused by smoking.

Every time you breathe in smoke, you breathe in poisons that harm your body. The tar and chemicals in tobacco smoke damage your lungs, making it harder to breathe. You’ll get more coughs and lung infections. You may get permanent lung damage, like chronic obstructive pulmonary disease or lung cancer.

Carbon monoxide from tobacco smoke gets into your blood, so your blood can’t carry so much oxygen. This puts a strain on your heart and makes you tired. Smoke damages your blood vessels and makes them narrower. This increases your chance of a heart attack or stroke.

Research shows:

  • About one-half of all smokers die of a disease caused by smoking. The most common ones are lung cancer, heart disease, and strokes

  • On average, people who smoke live 16 years less than people who don't smoke

  • Smokers are more likely to get cancer of the lungs, intestine, throat, pancreas, kidneys, bladder, or cervix.

Smoking can also damage other people. If you smoke when you’re pregnant, you may damage your baby’s health. Smoking around children means they get more coughs, more chest infections and ear infections, and can make their asthma worse.

What makes it so hard to stop smoking?

It’s hard to stop smoking once you are addicted to nicotine. If you're addicted to something, you feel a strong need for it and get withdrawal symptoms if you don’t have it.

If you're addicted to nicotine and you go longer than usual without a cigarette, you may feel depressed, irritable, anxious, unable to concentrate or restless. You may crave food. It's these feelings that make you reach for another cigarette. But once you break your addiction, you stop getting withdrawal symptoms. You’ll stop needing a cigarette to feel better.

Certain things seem to increase a person's chances of getting addicted to nicotine. These include:

  • Smoking as a teenager

  • Coming from a poorer background

  • Family problems

  • Feeling depressed

  • Having parents who smoke.

What treatments work?

The good news is that you can stop smoking. People give up smoking every day. And there are some good treatments that can help you get through stopping. These treatments give you a better chance of stopping smoking than if you rely on willpower alone.

You may need to try several times before you're able to stop smoking for good. The important thing is to keep trying. It could save your life.

Professional help

Asking your doctor for help is a great first step. Research shows that getting advice, counselling, and support from a doctor, nurse, or counsellor increases your chances of stopping successfully.

There are many different types of counselling. Here are some examples:

  • One-off advice from your doctor, backed up with leaflets and the phone numbers of helplines

  • A regular weekly session with someone trained to help people stop smoking (a nurse, psychologist, or counsellor)

  • Group therapy with a counsellor, where you and other people meet regularly to share your experiences of giving up.

You may want to try other types of help as well as counselling: for example, taking medicines.

Nicotine replacement

If you smoke more than 10 cigarettes a day, using nicotine replacement therapy (NRT) can help you stop. NRT provides a small supply of nicotine to your body. You use it for the first three months after you stop smoking. In studies, about 17 in 100 people who use NRT stop smoking for at least six months, compared with 10 in 100 people who don't use it. But many people start smoking again afterwards.

NRT comes as patches, gum, inhalers, lozenges, tablets you put under your tongue, and a nasal spray. You can buy these products from a pharmacy and you can sometimes get them on prescription from the doctor.

Almost everyone can use these products, even women who are pregnant or breastfeeding. But if you've recently had a heart attack or you have an unusual heart rhythm (a condition called arrhythmia), you should talk to your doctor before trying NRT.

You may get some side effects while using NRT. If you use nicotine replacement gum, you may get hiccups, an upset stomach, jaw pain, and dental problems. Your skin may get red or itchy where you've worn a patch. Nicotine inhalers and sprays may irritate your mouth or nose.

Medicines

Taking an antidepressant called bupropion (brand name Zyban) can help you stop smoking. You need a prescription from your doctor. You start taking bupropion for two weeks before the day you plan to stop and continue taking it for seven to 12 weeks after you stop smoking. You're twice as likely to stop smoking for at least one year if you take bupropion, than if you don't take it. Using bupropion along with nicotine patches works better than patches on their own.

Some antidepressants, including bupropion, may increase the risk of suicide or self-harm, especially in young people. If you are worried by any thoughts or feelings you have while taking bupropion, see your doctor. Another risk with bupropion is that it might cause seizures (fits) at high doses. But this is rare. Studies have found that about 1 in every 1,000 people taking bupropion will have a seizure if they're taking up to 300 milligrams a day (which is twice the usual dose).

If you're pregnant or breastfeeding, you shouldn't take bupropion.

Varenicline (brand name Champix) is a new drug to help people stop smoking. You need a prescription from your doctor for this medicine. It helps ease withdrawal symptoms and blocks the effects of nicotine if you start smoking again. It seems to work better than bupropion (Zyban).

You start taking varenicline one or two weeks before you plan to stop smoking, and you take it for 12 weeks. If you stop smoking, you can continue taking it for an additional 12 weeks. The most common side effects are:

  • Feeling sick and vomiting

  • Having headaches

  • Having wind

  • Finding it hard to sleep

  • Having strange dreams

  • Finding that things taste different.

A few people have had mood changes while taking varenicline, or even become depressed enough to think about suicide. See your doctor straight away if you're worried by any thoughts or feelings you have.

Other treatments

There’s some evidence that taking regular exercise may help you give up smoking. You might feel less withdrawal symptoms and put on less weight if you exercise for at least half an hour, three times a week, while you’re giving up. But not all studies show this.

Sometimes people go to a hypnotherapist when they're trying to stop smoking. The hypnotherapist makes you deeply relaxed and gives you suggestions to help you change the way you behave. But there's no evidence that hypnotherapy works any better than getting advice from a doctor or nurse.

There has been lots of research to see if acupuncture can help you give up smoking. But most research suggests that it probably doesn't help. People who don’t have treatment, or who have a dummy treatment, are just as likely to give up smoking as those who have acupuncture.

What will happen to me?

Giving up smoking is the best thing you can do for your health. Almost as soon as you stop smoking, your body starts to clear itself of the poisonous chemicals found in smoke. Here's what happens:

  • Your blood pressure and pulse rate will drop within 60 minutes of stopping

  • The amount of carbon monoxide in your blood will return to normal within 48 hours

  • Your sense of taste and your sense of smell will improve within a few days

  • Your blood circulation will improve in two to 12 weeks.

Stopping smoking reduces the chances that you'll get lung cancer or any of the other health problems that are linked with smoking. If you stop smoking before the age of 35, you avoid 90 percent of the health problems linked with smoking. But even if you stop after the age of 50, you reduce your chances of dying from a disease linked to smoking.

You may face some problems when you give up. But they are temporary and the benefit to your health will outweigh these problems. You may feel depressed and anxious, or find it hard to concentrate while you are getting over your nicotine addiction. Smokers who stop may get sore throats, coughs, and other cold symptoms. But these symptoms seem to last for just two weeks after you stop, and then they go away. For many people, the biggest drawback to stopping smoking is putting on weight. The average weight gain is about 4.2 kilograms (10 pounds).

Where to get more help

The NHS provides free help and advice for people who want to give up smoking. For more information, ask your doctor or find your local NHS Stop Smoking Service by calling 0800 022 4 332.

Last updated: Mar 31, 2014