How to Quit Smoking

By Sarah Malka, MD
Medically reviewed
October 13, 2021

More than 34 million Americans smoke cigarettes—about 14 percent of the country’s adult population.

That number is much lower than it used to be: In 2015, more than 20 percent of the nation was still smoking.

That means millions of Americans have quit—and if you’ve tried to join them in doing so, you know that it’s a huge accomplishment to kick the habit.

That’s in large part because cigarettes are addictive: The nicotine in tobacco can cause both mental and physical withdrawal symptoms when you try to quit.

It can also wreak havoc on your health, decreasing your immune response and posing cardiovascular, respiratory, and gastrointestinal risks.

But with the right help and right plan, you can quit smoking—and lower all these risks.

In this article, I’ll discuss some of the dangers of smoking, what to expect when you quit, some symptoms you can expect while quitting, and how to manage cravings.

I’ll also offer advice on what to do if you relapse while quitting. Finally, I’ll talk about if and when you should see a doctor.

Trying to quit smoking? Chat with a doctor today for only $23 to discuss your options.

Chat Now

Deciding to Quit Smoking

Smoking is the leading cause of preventable death in the United States and leads to myriad health conditions including cancer, diabetes, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), sleep apnea, chronic cough, difficulty breathing, and more.

Quitting can improve your health and  prolong your life.

Pros of Not Smoking

Since smoking can lead to life-threatening health conditions and in many cases, death, quitting comes with a long list of pros.

Here are a few health and lifestyle improvements you can expect after you quit:

  • Better lung function
  • More energy, and consistency in energy
  • Fewer mood swings
  • Better sleep
  • Younger looking skin 
  • Healthier teeth, gums, and fingernails
  • An improvement in your senses of smell and taste
  • Greater fertility 
  • Better sex
  • Less coughing
  • Money saved
  • Lower blood pressure

What to Expect

When you quit smoking, you will be confronted with a period of nicotine withdrawal.

During this period, cravings and symptoms will manifest as the nicotine leaves your system.

While there is no health danger for nicotine withdrawal, it can be extremely challenging to overcome in the days and weeks after your last cigarette.

Understanding what to expect can help you navigate withdrawal and fight through it.

Here is a nicotine withdrawal timeline for when you have finished your last cigarette.

  • After 30 minutes to 4 hours: Effects from the nicotine will subside and cravings for another cigarette will develop. 
  • After 10 hours: You may become restless as you battle the craving for a cigarette. You may also experience anxiety and depression. 
  • After 24 hours: You may notice an increase in your appetite and feel irritable. 
  • After 2 days: Headaches are common during this period as the nicotine leaves your system.
  • After 3 days: This is when symptoms peak. Depression and anxiety may increase along with brain fogginess. You may also develop a cough and general malaise during this period.
  • After 3 to 4 weeks: This is the period when you notice your nicotine withdrawal symptoms will begin to disappear.

How to Quit

The best way to quit smoking is to decide on a quit day, have a plan, and know the supplemental resources available to you when you are going through nicotine withdrawal.

Here are a few key tips to help you ensure your success.

Find your smoking triggers

Once you identify what triggers your smoking, you can work to eliminate or minimize these triggers.

While different people will have different triggers, they tend to fall into four main categories.

  • Emotional triggers: Feeling intense emotions can be the trigger for many to crave a cigarette. This means that when a person feels particularly stressed, they may reach for a cigarette. Or when they are extremely energetic, they may also crave tobacco to calm their mood.
  • Social triggers: When you’re socially triggered, you want to smoke when you’re surrounded by other people who smoke—at a bar, concert, party, or social event, or when spending time in settings where you would typically smoke.
  • Pattern triggers: These are activities that you associate with smoking. For instance, you may always have a cigarette after a cup of coffee or while taking a work break—so doing those things may trigger your craving to smoke.
  • Withdrawal triggers: If you have been smoking regularly, when you stop, your body will enter a nicotine withdrawal, which will spark your cravings.

Therapy

Support groups, apps, and quit-line services via text or phone can help you stop smoking.

Consider joining a group where you can discuss your challenges with others going through the same experience.

If you would prefer a more private setting, a counselor who specializes in substance abuse and addiction can help you develop a quitting plan and offer the necessary support you need.

E-cigarettes

E-cigarettes are battery-powered electronic cigarette devices that contain nicotine and other chemicals that can be harmful to your health.

They are considered to be safer than cigarettes as they cause less direct damage to your lungs than smoking, but are still not entirely harmless and do contain addictive nicotine.

E-cigarettes can be used in replacement of cigarettes as a way to wean yourself off smoking altogether.

Medication

A doctor can prescribe certain medications to help you quit. Bupropion (Zyban, Wellbutrin) is an antidepressant medication that is primarily used to treat major depressive disorder and seasonal affective disorder.

It is also prescribed to people to help them quit smoking as it can help reduce cravings and the effects of nicotine withdrawal.

Varenicline (Chantix) is a drug that is prescribed specifically for quitting.

It blocks the effects of nicotine on the brain, decreasing the craving and withdrawal symptoms that occur when you quit. 

Vitamins B and C

Various studies have shown that smokers and people exposed to secondhand smoke have reduced levels of vitamin C and B-vitamins.

Since vitamin C is a powerful antioxidant, taking this as a supplement can help repair the damage done to the lungs by smoking.

B-vitamins help balance the mood and counteract stress. 

Nicotine Withdrawal Symptoms

Nicotine withdrawal is an unpleasant side effect for smokers who have made the decision to quit.

As nicotine leaves the body, withdrawal symptoms will start to occur.

These symptoms reach their peak at about 72 hours, and taper off after 3-4 weeks. Below are common symptoms associated with nicotine withdrawal.

Physical symptoms:

• Increased appetite and weight gain

Headaches

Fatigue

• Cravings

Cough

Insomnia, or changes in sleep patterns

• Sweating

• Abdominal cramps

• A slower heart rate

Nausea

Sore throat and dry mouth

Psychological symptoms: 

Anxiety

Depression

• Being easily irritated, angry or frustrated

• Poor concentration

• Restlessness 

Managing Cravings 

Unfortunately, there is no simple cure for nicotine withdrawal.

The best way to ensure success when quitting smoking is to manage your cravings and avoid triggers.

Here are few tips to help you cope with nicotine withdrawal:

  • Join a support group: Finding people you can talk with who are also quitting can help you feel supported.
  • Avoid triggering settings: It may be best to distance yourself from people when they are smoking, at least during the nicotine withdrawal period where you may struggle with cravings. This includes avoiding areas where you can breathe in secondhand smoke.
  • Avoid alcohol: If you tend to smoke after a few drinks, consider avoiding alcohol until your nicotine withdrawal has eased. 
  • Create a smoke-free environment: Remove all cigarettes, lighters, matches, and ashtrays from your home. Wash all clothes that smell like smoke. 
  • Engage in healthy distractions: When you feel the urge to smoke, fight it by finding a distraction such as exercise, watching a TV show, playing a video game, or chatting with a friend.
  • Find something to do with your hands: You may wish to invest in a squeeze ball, or keep a pen handy for doodling. 
  • Chew on a straw or use a toothpick: This will help curb the oral fixation.

Trying to quit smoking? Chat with a doctor today for only $23 to discuss your options.

Chat Now

What to Do if You Slip or Relapse

Many people attempt to quit smoking several times before they are successful.

Don’t let this deter you from trying again. Instead, analyze what went wrong, and address it so you won’t fall into the same traps.

When you quit smoking, it’s important to believe that you will be successful and to implement a rule where you will not take a single drag of a cigarette.

This can decrease your chances of relapsing.

When to See a Healthcare Provider

If you are having a hard time quitting, or if you are a heavy smoker struggling with nicotine withdrawal, speaking to your healthcare provider can be extremely beneficial.

You will be able to design a quit plan and discuss which nicotine replacement therapies may be right for you.

In some cases, a provider may prescribe you medication to help with nicotine withdrawal symptoms. 

How K Health Can Help

Did you know you can get affordable primary care with the K Health app?

Download K to check your symptoms, explore conditions and treatments, and if needed text with a healthcare provider in minutes. K Health’s AI-powered app is HIPAA compliant and based on 20 years of clinical data.

Frequently Asked Questions

What happens if you stop smoking cold turkey?
Quitting "cold turkey" means to stop smoking suddenly rather than gradually. If you have a strong nicotine dependence, this may make withdrawal symptoms more severe and harder to cope with. Nicotine withdrawal is uncomfortable, but it is not dangerous, so it’s safe to quit abruptly if you choose.
What is the best way to stop smoking?
The best ways to stop smoking involve having a plan, knowing what to expect during the nicotine withdrawal phase, managing your triggers, and using nicotine replacement therapies to help you overcome the first few weeks of nicotine withdrawal symptoms. Having people you can speak to for support and encouragement during your quitting phase can also help.
Can your lungs heal after stopping smoking?
Yes. After you quit smoking, your lungs will slowly begin to heal and regenerate. The rate at which they will heal will depend on how heavy a smoker you were and for how long.
K Health articles are all written and reviewed by MDs, PhDs, NPs, or PharmDs and are for informational purposes only. This information does not constitute and should not be relied on for professional medical advice. Always talk to your doctor about the risks and benefits of any treatment.

K Health has strict sourcing guidelines and relies on peer-reviewed studies, academic research institutions, and medical associations. We avoid using tertiary references.

Sarah Malka, MD

Dr. Sarah Malka is a board certified emergency medicine physician with K Health. She completed her residency at Harvard Medical School.