There’s no doubt that smoking permanently damages your health. But, already within an hour of quitting, the benefits start. Over longer periods of abstention, years can be added to an ex-smoker’s life.
Smokers have heard it all: “You are committing slow suicide.” “Don’t you know how bad that is for you?” “Have fun with your cancer sticks.”
These warnings may be well-intentioned, in fact, one may question whether or not the reason many refuse to quit is perhaps because they believe (rightly or wrongly) that their fate is already sealed. It’s like a medical riff on the sunk cost fallacy, a phenomenon in which people continue supporting losing enterprises because they have invested so much time, energy, or money into them. Why butt out if the damage is done?
There’s no question that smoking is extremely destructive to human health. But not all of that damage is irreversible.
It’s true that smoking does permanent harm to the body, right down to its DNA. But the good news is that the body can heal a lot of these wounds once it is given a chance to breathe freely. Even if you have been a heavy smoker for decades, quitting yields immediate improvements to your health, and the benefits accumulate over longer periods of abstention.
Let’s break it down: You just had a cigarette, and resolved that it will be your last. What health benefits do you get within one day?
Within 20 minutes, your blood pressure and heart rate will drop towards normal levels, after having been elevated by nicotine inhalation. This is good news for smokers with pre-existing cardiovascular disease, who have already reduced their risk of heart attack or stroke mere minutes after their last puff.
Within 12 hours, the carbon monoxide (CO) from your last cigarette has exited your bloodstream. CO gas is a famously deadly poison that enters the blood through the lungs where it binds with hemoglobin, a vital protein found in red blood cells, to create carboxyhemoglobin.
Fortunately, carboxyhemoglobin has a short half-life of around five to six hours. If you stop smoking, the molecule filters out quickly, freeing up hemoglobin to carry out its normal job—delivering oxygen around the body. You may even feel tingly in your hands and feet due to the increased circulation and oxygenation.
When hemoglobin hooks up with carbon monoxide, it cannot carry this life-giving package to the cells that need it. Oxygen deprivation hinders tissues all around the body, but especially in the heart and brain.
The first week after quitting smoking is usually the toughest. But within just days of smoking cessation, people also start to experience positive results. Now, say it’s been a week since your last puff. Hopefully, you are enjoying your sharpened sense of smell and taste. Cigarette smoke damages sensory nerves and causes mucus to build up in nasal and gustatory pathways , reducing sensitivity to fragrances and food. Within days of smoking cessation, those nerves start to repair, regrow, and restore a richer sensory experience of the world. This renewed vitality should coincide with a drop in the intensity of your nicotine withdrawal. You are officially over the hardest period of quitting. It will take about three months for nicotine receptors in your brain to stop demanding fixes, but symptoms like headaches, insomnia, and mood swings typically subside after one week.
Stay strong, because the biggest gains of quitting start to kick in several months after your last drag. You will literally be breathing easier at this point, and might find that climbing stairs, hauling groceries, or other activities don’t make you feel so puffed anymore.
Without the daily pressures of tobacco smoking, the lungs start to clean chemicals and irritants out, which is good for the immune, circulatory, and respiratory systems. This is because cilia, special hair-like organelles (aka cell components) that line the walls of your lungs, have had a chance to recover from the onslaught of cigarette smoke. Cilia acts like a bouncer that turns away weird microbes and dangerous chemicals from the exclusive club that is your bloodstream. Smoking paralyzes cilia, letting chemicals and microbial pathogens waltz right on into your blood, which makes smokers more susceptible to disease and infections.
As the cilia start regrowing in the weeks after you quit, you may experience elevated coughs and phlegm production because your lungs are clearing out accumulated toxins and mucus. But after three months, the cilia cleanup crew will be mostly done with its emergency sweep, vastly boosting your immune, respiratory, and circulatory function.
Cigarette smokers are about four times more likely to die of cardiovascular disease than non-smokers, primarily because toxic chemicals cause constriction in their blood vessels. These circulatory pathways are lined with a tissue called endothelium that is damaged by cigarette smoke, making it lose elasticity and become sticky. As a result, gunk like cholesterol gets attached to the artery walls and stiffens into plaque, causing blood vessels to narrow and harden. This ebbed blood flow is what makes clots, heart attack, stroke, erectile dysfunction, and other cardiovascular conditions more common in smokers.
Heart disease is the leading cause of death for smokers. But this damage is also significantly reversible for ex-smokers.
So, say you reach the first anniversary of butting out for good. This is a major milestone for any ex-smoker and it comes with a great gift: Your risk of heart disease is now half that of an active smoker after one year. Given that heart disease is the leading cause of death worldwide, this is a big deal.
But it gets better. Five years after smoking cessation, your risk of stroke has dropped to match that of a lifelong non-smoker. After 15 years, your risk of heart disease will also be equivalent to someone who has never smoked.
At this point, you may have noticed some glaring exceptions in all the great news - including COPD and cancer. There’s no way around the hard truth - cigarette chemicals, which include some carcinogens, are extremely insidious agents that ravage the body at its core levels, within cells and genes. Some of those scars will never heal, and worse, some might fester until they become malignant.
Smoking permanently raises the odds of developing many cancers. But after a decade or so, ex-smokers gradually start to experience lower rates of some cancers.
It takes several years of not smoking before the risk of certain cancers significantly recedes. Unlike heart disease, no amount of abstention wipes out an ex-smoker’s heightened odds of getting some form of cancer. On the bright side, after five as a nonsmoker, you will become about half as likely to develop cancers of the mouth, throat, esophagus, and bladder, and women’s risk of cervical cancer drops to that of someone who never smoked. A decade after quitting, the odds of developing cancer of the larynx or pancreas start to go down, and you are half as likely to get lung cancer as an active smoker.
There’s no question that smoking is a habit with permanent negative health consequences. The more you smoke, and the longer you delay quitting, the bigger your chance of becoming one of the seven million smokers who die prematurely each year.
If you butt out by your 30th birthday, about 10 extra years gets tacked onto your life expectancy. Even if you smoke until you’re 60, you will live an average of three years longer than if you kept lighting up.
None of us can escape death forever, much to the chagrin of rich narcissists everywhere. But quitting smoking can hold the grim reaper up in traffic for a few years, and that’s reason enough to do it.
Head photo by Stocksy