Life Without Smoking: What to Expect

Nov 12, 2020 1:15:00 PM Posted by Iowa Radiology

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Standard lung screening guidelines have changed as of 4/1/2022. For more information visit "Lung Screening Guidelines Changes in 2022"

Quitting smoking is hard. Nicotine is highly addictive, so even occasional smokers can become dependent on it. Maybe you started by sharing a cigarette with friends and then found yourself reaching for one when you felt stressed, tired, or bored. In time, it can become difficult to imagine life without smoking. How does this happen?

Nicotine can slip into your habits by triggering the release of neurotransmitters like dopamine, creating pleasant feelings that you come to crave. At the same time, you begin to connect smoking with other actions and ideas, adding force to the habit. For example, you might associate having a cigarette in hand with spending time with friends or taking a break from work, or you might even consider it part of your personality. All of these factors work together to reinforce the smoking habit. The younger you are when you begin, the more difficult it can be to stop.


What happens when you stop?

Because nicotine is chemically addictive, smokers experience physical withdrawal symptoms when they quit. These can include headaches, fatigue, anxiety, irritability, and intense cravings. While your physical health begins to improve almost immediately, it will take time to move through the withdrawal phase. Symptoms may be most intense from three to ten days after you quit as the nicotine levels in your body drop. After about a month, however, the number of nicotine receptors in your brain will return to normal, making it easier to resist the urge to smoke.


Tips for Quitting

To make it through these early stages, it’s important to have a plan. Here are some tips to help you on your path to living smoke free.

  • Get support. Tell friends, family, and coworkers about your plan to quit, and ask for their encouragement. You can also sign up for free texting programs, apps, and social media groups that provide support.
  • Identify situations that trigger cigarette cravings and plan to avoid them when possible. Have a backup plan for situations you can’t avoid.
  • Make a list of reasons you want to quit, and read it regularly. Create a positive story about quitting in your mind. Rather than giving up or sacrificing cigarettes, you’re freeing yourself from their grip and practicing kindness to yourself.
  • Find other ways to relieve stress. Exercise is a great way to relieve stress and enjoy a number of other benefits that can help you on your journey, including better cardiovascular health, improved sleep, more energy, better moods, and weight loss.
  • Studies indicate that practicing mindfulness meditation can help people deal more effectively with stress and avoid substance use as a coping behavior.
  • Plan to do things you enjoy. Keeping busy will help keep you mind off smoking, and involving yourself with things you enjoy will support your mental health during this time of transition.
  • Remember that backsliding isn’t failure. If you slip up and have a smoke, it’s a stumble, not the end of the road. The only failure is failure to keep trying. Commit to the long haul, knowing that the reward of better health and freedom from addiction lies ahead. You’re worth the effort!


Quitters’ Timeline

As you tick off the days since your last cigarette, keeping these milestones in mind can help you remember to celebrate the progress you’ve already made and resolve to keep going to reach the next one.


First Hour

Within as little as 20 minutes, your heart rate returns to normal; blood pressure begins to drop; and your circulation may improve.


First Day

After just twelve hours, excess carbon dioxide is eliminated from your body and oxygen levels increase.


First Week

After the first day, lower blood pressure and increased oxygen levels begin to reduce the risk of heart disease and make exercise easier. After two days, your senses of smell and taste may become sharper.

After three days, you may notice intensifying withdrawal symptoms as nicotine levels in your body drop. Try to remember that this is actually a sign of health as poisons leave your body.


First Month

Your lung function may begin to improve in as little as a month. You might notice that you cough less, breathe more easily, and have greater cardiovascular endurance.


First Year

Within nine months, the cilia, which help to move mucus, pathogens, and pollutants out of the lungs, heal. This will help you better resist lung infections (including COVID-19). At the end of the first year, your risk of heart disease is about half of what it was the day you quit.


After the First Year

The risk of heart disease continues to decline beyond the first year of being smoke free. The risk of suffering a stroke begins to decline five years after quitting and continues to fall for another ten years.

After ten years, the risk of developing fatal lung cancer is about half of that of a current smoker, and the chances of developing other cancers of the mouth, throat, and pancreas are also lowered.

Fifteen years after your last cigarette, your risk of developing heart disease or pancreatic cancer is equivalent to that of a nonsmoker. Twenty years in, your odds of dying of cancer, heart, or lung disease becomes about the same as someone who has never smoked.


Lung Cancer Screening for High-Risk Individuals

If you’ve smoked heavily for a long period of time, your risk of developing lung cancer is higher. Unfortunately, lung cancer is usually not detected until it has spread outside the lungs, when it is more difficult to treat. As a result, the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force recommends annual low-dose CT lung screening for certain current and former smokers. This allows doctors to identify cancer earlier in its development, increasing odds of survival. If you meet the following criteria, your insurer may provide coverage for this lung cancer screening test:

  • You have at least a 30-pack year history (the equivalent of one pack a day for 30 years; this could also be two packs a day for 15 years or three packs a day for 10 years, for example).
  • You’re a current smoker or have quit within the last fifteen years.
  • You’re between 55 and 80 years old.


Quitting isn’t easy, but you’re worth it. Treat yourself to good health by starting your smoke-free journey today. Check with your insurer to determine your specific coverage. For information about low-dose CT lung screening at Iowa Radiology, download our free brochure.




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Nicotine Addiction: What You Need to Know. Accessed November 3, 2020.

Priddy SE, Howard MO, Riquino MR, et al. Subst Abuse Rehabil. 2018;9:103–114. Published November 16, 2018. Accessed November 3, 2020.

Sharma A, Madaan V, Petty FD. Exercise for Mental Health. Prim Care Companion J Clin Psychiatry. 2006;8(2):106–107. Published 2008. Accessed November 3, 2020.

What Happens After You Quit Smoking? Medial News Today.
Published June 16, 2017. Accessed November 3, 2020.

What Is Nicotine Dependence? Medical News Today. Published June 26, 2018. Accessed November 3, 2020.

Who Should Be Screened for Lung Cancer? Updated September 22, 2020. Accessed November 3, 2020.

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