What Happens to Your Body When You Stop Smoking?

(Last Updated On: August 3, 2018)

There’s no point even trying to sugar coat the damage that smoking does. Smoking is a gross habit, it makes you smell, it makes your teeth turn brown, your fingers turn yellow, it ages you like nothing else, and it slowly kills you.

Stopping smoking is the best decision that you can make for your health. Some of the beneficial effects happen very quickly while others take longer to come about.

After 20 minutes, your pulse rate will return to normal.

After 8 hours, carbon monoxide and nicotine levels in your blood reduce by more than half and oxygen levels increase to normal amounts.

After 48 hours, the carbon monoxide and nicotine will be out of your system entirely. Your lungs will begin to clear away the mucus and other smoking related debris, and your sense of taste and smell will improve.

After 72 hours, breathing becomes easier and energy levels increase.

After 2 – 12 weeks, circulation improves.

After 3 – 9 months, coughing and wheezing subside, and breathing problems lessen as lung function increases.

After 1 year, your risk of heart disease is about half of that of a person who is still smoking.

After 10 years, your risk of lung cancer falls to half that of a smoker.

After 15 years, your risk of a heart attack is the same as that of a person who has never smoked.

But to gain all of these health benefits you’re going to have to go through a withdrawal period. Cigarettes are addictive because of the nicotine that they contain, and like any addictive drug, when the body is suddenly deprived of a substance that it has grown used to, it produces some pretty unpleasant symptoms.

If you’re planning to quit cold turkey you may be in for a tough time, especially for the first days and weeks.

Physical symptoms of withdrawal include dizziness, headaches, fatigue, nausea, hunger, insomnia and coughing.

Don’t be discouraged though. All of these symptoms subside over time, usually taking between a few weeks to several months, depending on how much and how long you’ve been smoking.

You may also experience psychological withdrawal symptoms. Things like mood swings, confusion, depression, jitters, lack of focus, irritability, and powerful cravings. The cravings will obviously be for cigarettes, but you may also crave food.

No matter how bad things seem to get, remember that these feelings are temporary. Psychological withdrawal symptoms start to subside after about two weeks, and most ex-smokers find that they are completely gone in nine months.

You May Gain Weight

You May Gain Weight

Weight gain when you stop smoking isn’t inevitable, but it is quite common. The nicotine in cigarettes is an appetite suppressant. When you smoke you naturally eat less because your brain isn’t sending out so many hunger signals.

When nicotine reaches your brain, it stimulates receptors in an area in your brain called the hypothalamus which activates the fight-or-flight response. When your body is in this mode, appetite is naturally decreased because the entire digestive system (and the feedback that it sends to the brain) is essentially dialled down.

This makes sense from an evolutionary perspective because when survival is on the line, the body needs to direct all available energy to the systems that make it possible for us to either fight to protect ourselves, or to run away as fast and as far as we can.

Also, while in fight-or-flight mode a hormone called epinephrine triggers the release of stored glucose and fat to supply the energy that your body needs to run for its life or to fight for its survival. This fuel supply making sure that your cells don’t go short of energy is another reason why hunger signals aren’t triggered.

When you quit smoking, you should make sure that you eat plenty of nutritious food to supply your body with sustained energy, instead of reaching for sugary snacks or indulging in high carb comfort foods.

To prevent weight gain once you stop smoking, stick to protein, healthy fats and vegetables at mealtimes, and snack on fruits and nuts.

Even With Some Weight Gain Your Insulin Resistance Will Improve

Nicotine triggers insulin resistance. Insulin resistance or prediabetes is usually associated with overweight individuals, but it’s also very common in smokers who may not be overweight at all. When you have insulin resistance, your blood sugar levels will be higher than they should be and in smokers this is associated with developing cardiovascular disease.

Researchers suspect that the link between nicotine and insulin resistance is the stress hormone cortisol. Smoking causes cortisol levels in the body to rise and high cortisol levels are known to affect insulin.

Once you stop smoking your insulin sensitivity will slowly return to normal, and 8 weeks after you quit, your insulin will doing its job properly again. This is true even if you gain a moderate of weight (around 3 kilos or 6.5 pounds) in that time.

Your Circulation Improves

In just two short hours after you stop smoking, your blood circulation will be greatly improved.

Nicotine increases your heart rate and raises your blood pressure. When you stop smoking your heart rate and blood pressure quickly return to normal, sometimes this can happen as soon as 30 minutes after the last cigarette.

While healthy circulation will have no end of benefits for your body, the ones that you’ll notice the soonest will be warmer hands and feet, since poor circulation leads to restricted blood flow to the extremities.

Your Heart Health Will Improve

When you smoke, carbon monoxide reduces the level of oxygen in your blood. In non smokers the level of carbon monoxide depends on the background levels in the air. So in clean air environments there should be little to none. Non smokers will generally have (depending on air quality) zero to eight parts per million carbon monoxide in their blood.

In smokers who smoke one pack of cigarettes a day the level of carbon monoxide is likely to be 20 parts per million, and in those smoking 2 packs a day it will be closer to 40 parts per million.

Carbon monoxide is the odorless gas produced as a result of incomplete combustion. When you smoke, carbon monoxide enters your bloodstream via your lungs and combines with your red blood cells. Red blood cells carry oxygen, and when carbon monoxide is present, they can’t carry as much.

Every cell in your body has a constant need for oxygen, when oxygen in the blood is decreased the heart has to pump harder to increase blood flow and deliver the oxygen it carries. The heart itself also needs huge amounts of oxygen.

When the heart has to constantly work harder, and when there is less oxygen available, the risk of heart attack and heart disease goes up.

The good news is that once you stop smoking, carbon monoxide levels will drop, your heart won’t have to work so hard, and your body will have a full complement of oxygen once more.

It takes about 12 hours for carbon monoxide levels to begin dropping and after a couple of days your levels will be completely normal.

While you heart health will be compromised by your decision to smoke, its health does improve over time. A year after you stop smoking your risk for heart attack and heart disease drops to half that of a smoker, and if you manage to quit for the long term, in 15 years your risk will be the same as for a non smoker.

Your Risk Of Suffering A Stroke Dramatically Decreases

Your Risk Of Suffering A Stroke Dramatically Decreases

Smoking causes atherosclerosis which is a narrowing of the blood vessels. This causes high blood pressure and increases your risk of suffering a stroke.

High blood pressure weakens arteries and makes them more likely to rupture especially with the increased pressure running through them, it can also cause blood clots to form.

In addition to high blood pressure, smoking also causes inflammation which damages arteries.

Once you quit smoking your body can begin to repair the damage to your arteries. Your blood pressure will return to a healthy level fairly quickly but the inflammation will take longer to rectify, and you will need to eat a healthy diet to allow that healing to take place.

Depending on how many years you smoked and how many cigarettes you smoked each day, your risk for stroke will gradually lower, until it reaches that of a non smoker. This can take anywhere from 18 months to 15 years.

It’s also important to be aware that if you are using hormonal birth control, smoking raises your risk of suffering a fatal stroke significantly.

Your Breathing Will Get Easier

When you stop smoking, your lungs will begin to improve fairly quickly and you’ll notice that your breathing becomes less laboured after a few weeks or a few months.

Tobacco smoke paralyzes the tiny hair like projections in the airways called cilia. Cilia move with a wave like motion and sweep mucus and dirt out of the lungs. When they aren’t working this mucus accumulates and congests the lungs.

Once the tobacco smoke is gone, the cilia can recover and they will get to work clearing your lungs.

You Will Cough More For A While

As part of the lungs being spring cleaned by the now fully working cilia, you will cough a lot more as your lungs clear out. The coughing can continue for months but it usually stops within around nine months after quitting.

You can help your lungs to recover more quickly by using an air purifier and practicing deep breathing exercises.

While dairy products ares healthy foods, they are also known to increase mucus production in the body, so you may want to limit your dairy consumption while your lungs are working hard to clear existing mucus.

Inhaling steam with a few drops of an expectorant essential oil like eucalyptus can be beneficial too.

Your Smile Will Be Brighter

Your Smile Will Be Brighter

Smoking can cause a lot of damage to the mouth and to the teeth, but most of it can be undone once you stop smoking.

Tooth discoloration will fade with regular cleaning, and any gum disease that you have will improve.

You’ll also lose the foul breath that every smoker has.

You’ll Have Better Skin And You Won’t Age So Fast

There is no doubt that smoking ages your body both inside and out. While you can’t see what’s happening on the inside, you can definitely see the toll that smoking takes on your skin.

The thousands of chemicals in cigarettes damage elastin and collagen which are the two main structural components in the skin.

When these fibers are damaged, skin loses its firmness, strength and suppleness, causing wrinkles to develop earlier and more frequently that they do in non smokers. These wrinkles are particularly evident around the eyes and around the mouth.

Smoking also causes the skin to take on a greyer appearance because of the narrowed blood vessels reducing blood supply to the skin, and because that blood carries less oxygen.

Because of the compromised blood flow, your skin will also receive fewer nutrients and fewer free radical fighting antioxidants.

While most of the existing skin damage won’t be entirely reversible, you will prevent any more premature lines and wrinkles, and your skin tone will return to a healthy color which will go a long way to restoring a healthy glow.

If you haven’t been smoking for a long time, you can avoid looking 70 by the time you’re 50, by stopping smoking right now!

You Will Cut Your Risk Of Developing Cancer

You Will Cut Your Risk Of Developing Cancer

Smoking increases your risk for developing a number of different cancers including, mouth cancer. esophageal cancer, lung cancer, bowel cancer, breast cancer, cervical cancer, stomach cancer and liver cancer to name just a few.

The sooner you quit, the better your chances of staying cancer free will be.

Your Sense Of Smell Will Improve

Smoking blunts your sense of smell. Within a few days of giving up smoking, your ability to smell normally will shoot back up.

You’ll soon notice how much you’ve been missing by not having full use of one of your most important senses.

You’ll be able to wear less perfume too because you’ll be able to smell a light spritz now.

Food Will Taste Better

Food Will Taste Better

Your sense of smell has a huge impact on the flavor of the food that you eat. In fact people that lose their sense of smell tend to find that most foods taste bland and almost flavorless.

Smoking also impacts your sense of taste in another way by interfering with the taste buds on your tongue and preventing their healthy regeneration.

When you stop smoking your sense of taste will improve within a few days and you’ll be able to fully enjoy the wonderful range of flavors in your favorite foods again.

Your Immune System Will Get Stronger

Smoking weakens your immune system, making you more likely to get sick, and to stay sick for longer once you pick up an infection. Even minor cuts, and spots and ulcers take longer to heal when you smoke.

You’ll also be particularly susceptible to respiratory infections like bronchitis and pneumonia because of the irritation and damage smoking causes to your lung tissue.

Smokers are also more prone to developing autoimmune responses where your immune system attacks your lung tissue as if it were a foreign substance.

When you stop smoking your immune system will get back to full strength quickly and you’ll be able to fight off infections and heal any wounds much more effectively than before.

You Will Have Thicker Hair

You may have noticed that you shed more hair when you brush your hair or when you wash it. This isn’t a coincidence. The chemicals in tobacco seep into every part of your body including your hair follicles.

Hair follicles also lose health due to the compromised blood flow that smoking causes. Hair follicles rely on blood flow to bring them the nutrients that they need to produce strong, healthy hair, and to hold onto that hair instead of shedding it early.

Once you stop smoking your hair follicles will be able to get all of the nutrients and oxygen that they need to grow you a lustrous head of hair once more. And as a bonus, that lovely shiny new hair won’t smell of stale cigarette smoke anymore.

Don’t Leave It Too Long Before You Quit

The more years that you spend smoking cigarettes, the more that you risk causing lasting damage to your body.

Quitting smoking is the only smart thing to do, and your body will always benefit, no matter how long you’ve been addicted to cigarettes.

However some smoking damage can’t be reversed, and those who have smoked for a long time are at risk of developing chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), or chronic bronchitis that  cause damage that can’t be reversed. You will always be healthier though as an ex-smoker with COPD, than as a smoker with COPD.

Another condition that can develop is emphysema, and that’s also permanent. Emphysema causes the walls between the tiny air sacs in the lungs to break down. This leads to bigger air sacs which are less efficient at exchanging oxygen for carbon dioxide.

Your lungs can’t grow new walls for these air sacs, once they are gone, they are gone for good, which makes the condition permanent.

The sooner you quit smoking, the lower the chance that you’ll have to worry about facing these long term issues at all, and even if you do develop them, the sooner you stop smoking the less severe the damage that they cause will be.

Written by Irina Radosevic MD
Irina graduated from the University of Belgrade, School of Medicine as a Doctor of Medicine (MD) and spent over 3 years working in the Clinical Hospital Center Zvezdara, in the Department of Emergency Medicine. She also undertook a postgraduate in Cardiology from the same University and had previously worked for over a year as a Physician and Nutritionist Dietitian for the Fitness club Green Zone. She eventually left her chaotic but fulfilling job in the ER to pursue her passion of writing, travelling and mountain climbing which has included writing a first aid course for the alpine club of Belgrade. Irina currently works as a VA for PintMedia focusing on medical and travel writing. Feel free to connect with Irina on LinkedIn and FaceBook. Her CV can be seen here.