When I was a teenager, we were told at school to ask our parents about smoking. When I asked my dad, he said that he smoked for a couple of years in his 20s. After minimal smoking, 40 years later, he still had the occasional craving.
After many years, how much more challenging is it to quit this pastime that puts a dent in your pocket and your health? It seems to be only after you get some bad news from your doctor or the doctor pesters you at each visit. Is it time to quit smoking or time to find a doctor that will just leave you alone?
Over 7 million people die worldwide and over 480,000 people die each year in the United States because of smoking. Try rock, paper, scissors with a buddy who smokes and one of you likely won’t make it thanks to the cigarettes. The leading causes of death from smoking are clogged arteries, lung cancer and COPD.
Though that pesky addictive nicotine will be nagging at you to pick up a cigarette, you will be doing yourself and those you care about a great benefit by quitting. Whether you are 18 or 88, let us explore the reasons why quitting is so important.
What can happen if I stop smoking?
The good benefits are numerous but some hard to notice right away. Everyone has heard that smoking can lead to lung cancer, but that’s not the only kind. Cancers can also occur in the colon, rectum, head, neck, kidney, liver, bladder and pancreas.
If you stopped smoking today, you’d decrease the risk of heart attack and stroke. Smoking can worsen asthma and put yourself and family members at risk for respiratory infections — everything from the common cold to pneumonia.
Regarding reproductive health, smoking decreases fertility in both men and women. In women, it complicates pregnancy, making it a more dangerous pregnancy for mom and baby. In men, smoking can cause difficulty engaging in intimate activities. Erectile dysfunction is a common complaint, and it’s difficult for patients to hear that their smoking habit is the culprit.
Also, be warned, nicotine withdrawal can be difficult to handle while you’re on your smoking cessation journey. Nicotine is the drug that keeps smokers coming back.
Without this drug, cravings are most intense during the first three days after quitting; this decreases over a month but can last for years. Potentially, there is increased appetite, weight gain, depression, irritability and poor concentration. The average weight gain is 8 to 11 pounds. Is it worth it? Absolutely.
What is available to help me stop?
Congratulations on deciding to quit — making this important decision is the first step. To stop, we recommend medications and group support or counseling to keep you on track. The latter equips you with skills to cut the habit. Individual, group, phone or text message counseling have all shown to help people quit and are better than medication alone.
Some medications will sound familiar to decrease your cravings and make the transition off cigarettes a little easier. Chantix? Wellbutrin? Surely, you’ve heard of nicotine replacement therapy — the patch, gum, and lozenges. We attack this addiction from all angles, recommending some medicine to help ease the transition off cigarettes and usually two kinds of nicotine replacement.
The most effective is the patch and either gum or lozenges. We still give nicotine, intending to eliminate it eventually, in order to reap the smoking cessation benefits right away. It’s not just nicotine in the cigarettes; all those other chemicals in tobacco products are also bad news.
I would not recommend vaping as an alternative. People end up using more nicotine than they would with cigarettes and instead of hot smoke and chemicals hurting your lungs, you have what is similar to hot steam boiling them. Most people who vape keep their nicotine addiction, only switching from one delivery system to another.
What if I try but fall back into the habit?
Your doctor knows that it is hard to quit. We expect some relapse as it can take several tries to cut the habit for good. The counseling component of treatment is crucial to stay motivated and have accountability. If you quit and picked up the habit again, know that your doctor is on your team and knows how just one enticing puff can pull you back into the habit.
If you’re read this far, now it’s time to reach out to your doctor! While it won’t be easy, you can know that you are improving the long-term health of yourself and those you care about. Good luck!
Dr. Victoria Timmermans is a part of the family medicine resident program at Northeast Georgia Health System. Columns publish monthly from residents in the program.