Smoking is one of the biggest causes of death and illness in the UK contributing to 78,000 deaths and causing 70% of lung cancers.
Despite the frightening ways that smoking impacts on health, it can be difficult to break a long-term habit, especially if it has become a coping mechanism or provides comfort. But quitting smoking is the single most important way to improve your health and wellbeing, as well as saves you a huge amount of money (on average £2,200 per year).
What will happen when I stop smoking?
The instant you stop smoking, your body will start to recover. You may experience some nicotine withdrawal and recovery symptoms in the first few weeks. You may still have the urge to smoke or feel a bit restless, irritable, frustrated or tired. Some people find it difficult to sleep or concentrate. Remember the symptoms will pass and there are lots of things you can do to manage them in the meantime.
Helping your body and brain learn how to quit nicotine is challenging. Withdrawal from nicotine is a short phase overall, but it can be intense. Deal with nicotine withdrawal with mental strategies you can use as you go through the early days of smoking cessation. Empowering yourself with knowledge about what to expect can make this process more manageable.
We have listed tips to help encourage you give up smoking for good! Keep reading below for common FAQs...
If you want to stop smoking, you can make small changes to your lifestyle that may help you resist the temptation to light up.
Working in the health and social care sector, it can mean that stress levels may be higher than usual and for those of you who find smoking to be relaxing, you may have also noticed that you have been smoking more since the start of the pandemic. Here are 10 tips to help you stop smoking by the NHS, give them a go!
You might have tried to quit smoking before and not managed it, but don't let that put you off.
Look back at the things your experience has taught you and think about how you're really going to do it this time.
Make a plan to quit smoking
Make a promise, set a date and stick to it. Sticking to the "not a single drag" rule can really help. Write it down and stick it on your work desk if you have to!
Whenever you find yourself in difficulty, say to yourself, "I won't even have a single drag", and stick with this until the cravings pass.
Think ahead to times where it might be difficult (a busy shift, for instance), and plan your actions and escape routes in advance.
Consider your diet
Is your after-lunch cigarette your favourite? A US study revealed that some foods, including meat, make cigarettes more satisfying.
Others, including cheese, fruit and vegetables, make cigarettes taste terrible. So swap your usual steak or burger for a veggie pizza instead.
You may also want to change your routine at or after mealtimes. Getting up and going to speak to a colleague after lunch or settling down in a room where you don't smoke may help.
Change your drink
The same US study as above also looked at drinks. Fizzy drinks, alcohol, cola, tea and coffee all make cigarettes taste better.
So when you're at work or out, drink more water and juice. Some people find simply changing their drink (for example, switching from wine to a vodka and tomato juice) affects their need to reach for a cigarette.
Identify when you crave cigarettes
A craving can last 5 minutes. Before you give up, make a list of 5 minute strategies.
For example, instead of going to the smokers area at work, instead visit a colleague in another department, or go to the kitchen and grab a glass of water.
And think about this: the combination of smoking and drinking raises your risk of mouth cancer by 38 times.
Get some stop smoking support
If friends or family members want to give up too, suggest to them that you give up together. There's also support available from your local stop smoking service.
A review of scientific studies has proven that exercise, even a 5 minute walk or stretch, cuts cravings and may help your brain produce anti-craving chemicals.
Make non-smoking friends
When you're at work, stick with the non-smokers.
"When you look at the smokers, don't envy them," says Louise, 52, an ex-smoker. "Think of what they're doing as a bit strange – lighting a small white tube and breathing in smoke."
Keep your hands and mouth busy
Nicotine replacement therapy (NRT) can double your chances of success.
As well as patches, there are tablets, lozenges, gum and a nasal spray. And if you like holding a cigarette, there are handheld products like the inhalator or e-cigarettes. Stefani, our Drug and Alcohol Practitioner, can talk to you more about NRT if you are unsure or want a bit more information.
When you're out, try putting your drink in the hand that usually holds a cigarette, or drink from a straw to keep your mouth busy.
Make a list of reasons to quit
Keep reminding yourself why you made the decision to give up. Make a list of the reasons and read it when you need support.
Ex-smoker Chris, 28, says: "I used to take a picture of my baby daughter with me when I went out. If I was tempted, I'd look at that."
So if you have decided you want to stop smoking, now what?! Have a read of our sections below to continue the steps to being smoke free.
After you quit smoking, your body burns calories more slowly. Even if you eat no more than when you smoked, you may put on some weight.
But being more active can help. Regular exercise may prevent about half the weight gain expected after a year of quitting smoking. It burns off calories and reduces cravings for cigarettes.
Build up to at least 150 minutes (2.5 hours) of moderate-intensity aerobic exercise, such as fast walking, swimming or cycling, every week. Moderate-intensity activity means working hard enough to make you breathe more heavily than normal and feel slightly warmer than usual, The more exercise you do, the more calories you'll burn.
The important thing about stopping smoking is that you see it through. If you're concerned about weight gain but think stopping smoking and dieting at the same time will be too much, stop smoking first and deal with any weight gain afterwards.
If you're really worried about putting on weight, ask your GP to refer you to a dietitian for a diet plan tailored to your individual needs. This diet plan will guide you on how much to eat based on your current weight, age, gender and activity level, and stop you gaining more weight.
Stop smoking medicines, such as nicotine replacement therapy (NRT) can double your chances of quitting successfully. They also seem to help limit weight gain in the first few months.
E-cigarettes have become a very popular stop smoking aid. Although not completely risk-free, they're substantially safer than smoking and many people have found them helpful for quitting.
Read more about how to get into exercise and healthy eating by visiting our physical health and eating well resources page.
We all know that quitting smoking improves physical health. But it's also proven to boost your mental health and wellbeing: it can improve mood and help relieve stress, anxiety and depression.
Smoking, anxiety and mood
Most smokers say they want to stop, but some continue because smoking seems to relieve stress and anxiety. It's a common belief that smoking helps you relax. But smoking actually increases anxiety and tension. Smokers are also more likely than non-smokers to develop depression over time.
Why it feels like smoking helps us relax
Smoking cigarettes interferes with certain chemicals in the brain. When smokers haven't had a cigarette for a while, the craving for another one makes them feel irritable and anxious. These feelings can be temporarily relieved when they light up a cigarette. So smokers associate the improved mood with smoking. In fact, it's the effects of smoking itself that's likely to have caused the anxiety in the first place.
Cutting out smoking does improve mood and reduces anxiety.
The mental health benefits of quitting smoking
When people stop smoking, studies show:
- Anxiety, depression and stress levels are lower;
- Quality of life and positive mood improve;
- The dosage of some medicines used to treat mental health problems can be reduced.
Stopping smoking can be as effective as antidepressants.
Individuals with mental health problems are likely to feel much calmer and more positive, and have a better quality of life, after giving up smoking. Evidence suggests the beneficial effect of stopping smoking on symptoms of anxiety and depression can equal that of taking antidepressants.
If you can control your cravings for a cigarette, you'll significantly boost your chances of quitting. The most effective way to tackle cravings is a combination of stop smoking medicines and behavioural changes.
Going cold turkey may be appealing and works for some, but research suggests that willpower alone isn't the best method to stop smoking. In fact, only 3 in every 100 smokers manage to stop permanently this way.
Using nicotine replacement therapy (NRT) and other stop smoking medicines can double your chances of quitting successfully compared with willpower alone. This is because untreated cravings often result in lapses.
Types of cravings
Cravings happen because your body misses its regular hits of nicotine.
There are 2 types of craving:
- The steady and constant background craving for a cigarette decreases in intensity over several weeks after quitting.
- Sudden bursts of an intense desire or urge to smoke are often triggered by a cue, such as having a few drinks, feeling very happy or sad, having an argument, feeling stressed, or even having a cup of coffee.
These urges to smoke tend to get less frequent over time, but their intensity can remain strong even after many months of quitting.
How to tackle those cravings?
There are 3 tried and tested ways to tame cravings:
- Nicotine replacement therapy
- Prescription stop smoking medicines
- Behaviour changes
Nicotine replacement therapy
Nicotine replacement therapy (NRT) gives your body the nicotine it craves without the toxic chemicals that you get in cigarettes, so it doesn't cause cancer. It helps you stop smoking without having unpleasant withdrawal symptoms. NRT won't give you the same "hit" or pleasure you would expect from a cigarette, but it does help reduce cravings. NRT is available as gum, patches, lozenges, microtabs, inhalator, nasal spray, mouth spray and oral strips.
It's important to use the right NRT product for your lifestyle.
Some products, like the patch, release nicotine into your system slowly and steadily, so they're ideal for relieving background cravings.
Others, such as the nasal spray and mouth spray, release nicotine quickly in short bursts, so they're better suited to sudden intense cravings.
A good strategy is to use the nicotine patch to manage the steady and constant background cravings, and carry a fast-working product with you to deal with the sudden intense cravings.
Stop smoking medicines
Prescription tablets are an alternative to NRT in helping you stop smoking. They don't contain nicotine, but work on your brain to dampen cravings. As they take a few days to work fully, you need to start these medicines for a week or two before you stop smoking.
Change your behaviour
NRT and stop smoking medicines can help curb cravings, but they can't completely eradicate them. There are some additional things that can help:
- Avoid triggers: For you, some events or times of the day may have a strong association with smoking: after food, with a coffee, after putting the kids to bed, when chatting to a friend, or having an alcoholic drink. Try doing something different at these times. You don't have to make this change forever, just until you have broken the association with smoking.
- Stay strong: Expect your cravings to be at their worst in the first few weeks after quitting. The good news is that they'll pass, and the quickest way to achieve this is to commit to the "not a single drag" rule. When you're ready to stop for good, promise yourself "I won't even have a single drag on a cigarette". If you feel like smoking, remember "not a single drag" to help the feeling pass.
- Exercise: Physical activity may help reduce your nicotine cravings and relieve some withdrawal symptoms. It may also help you reduce stress and keep your weight down. When you have the urge to smoke, do something active instead. Going to the gym or local swimming pool are good, as is a little gentle exercise like a short walk, or something useful like doing the housework or gardening.
- Be prepared: Expect cravings at special events like holidays, funerals or weddings. You may have never experienced these before as a non-smoker, so you'll associate them strongly with smoking. Have some fast-acting NRT with you just in case.
- Delay: When an urge to smoke strikes, remember that although it may be intense, it'll be short-lived and will probably pass within a few minutes. Each time you resist a craving, you're 1 step closer to stopping smoking.
Many people who quit smoking relapse at some point. Don't be put off trying again. The key is to learn from what went wrong so you're more likely to succeed next time.
If you're tempted to start smoking again, call the free NHS Smokefree helpline on 0300 123 1044 to get support from a trained adviser or self-refer to us and our Drug, Alcohol and Tobacco Practitioner will be in touch!
When you quit smoking, it's important to be positive and really believe that you'll be successful.
You shouldn't expect to start smoking again. A slip-up shouldn't mean that you'll return to smoking the way you did before. It's an opportunity to learn a bit about yourself and what will help you to be more successful in the future.
If you do relapse, don't worry. It can take a few tries to quit smoking for good.
It can be helpful to commit yourself to the "not a single drag" rule. Promise to yourself and others that you'll not even have a single drag on a cigarette. By sticking to this simple rule you can guarantee that you won't start smoking again.
Help to prevent relapse
The risk of relapse is highest in the first few weeks after stopping. But some people can relapse several months, or even years, after stopping smoking.
Avoiding a relapse is best, but if you do give in to temptation, don't despair. Really think about what went wrong and plan how you'll deal with a similar situation in the future.
If you have had a cigarette or two:
- Don't give up – you can still avoid a full relapse. Commit to the "not a single drag" rule and get back on with it.
- Remind yourself why you want to quit. Then take control again.
- Get support – call the free NHS Smokefree helpline on 0300 123 1014 to speak to a trained adviser. Lines are open Monday to Friday, 9am to 8pm and Saturday and Sunday, 11am to 5pm.
- Make it hard to smoke – avoid places where you can easily ask someone for a cigarette. And don't buy a packet.
- Stay strong – if you're tempted to smoke again, force yourself to wait 2 hours. Then decide if you really need the cigarette.
- Keep taking any prescribed stop smoking medicine or using nicotine replacement therapy, unless you go back to regular smoking. It can help you get back on track.
If you have relapsed and are back to regular smoking:
- Don't become despondent – set a new quit date, maybe in a week or so.
- Learn from your mistakes – what caused you to slip up? Think of ways you could have avoided smoking. Work on your coping skills so you're prepared next time you're in the same situation.
- Talk to your GP or a friend – if you need more help to cope with cravings in your next quit attempt.
- Stay positive – making mistakes or slipping up can be a useful experience if you're prepared to learn from it. Remember, you'll be stronger next time because you'll know what to look out for.
Why is it that some people who have stopped return to smoking? The main reason is giving in to cravings. These are powerful urges to smoke, often triggered by stress, seeing other people smoking, getting drunk, or emotional events like arguments.
The best way to withstand cravings is a combination of stop smoking medicines and behavioural changes.
It's also important to stay away from people who smoke. Most people who relapse do so because they're with other people who are smoking, and this is usually after having asked one of them for a cigarette.
Talk to us
Did you know that you're up to four times more likely to quit successfully with their expert help and advice? The Keeping Well Team is here to support you. Our Drug and Alcohol Practitioner can offer you support and advice and help with any questions or queries you may have.
Get in touch with us below by:
You can also call the NHS Smokefree helpline on 0300 123 1044, open Monday to Friday, 9am to 8pm and Saturday to Sunday, 11am to 4pm.