According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, one out of four Americans over 18 years old in 2005 were smokers. This is despite hefty ads about the perils of cigarettes—each stick contains over 50 known carcinogens, as well as about 4,000 others whose effects have yet to be found. The World Health Organization claims that one person every six seconds dies as a result of smoking, whether directly or indirectly.
What makes smoking so addictive is nicotine, a substance that activates receptors in the brain that increase the flow of adrenaline. Over time, the body becomes dependent on this rush, resulting in the “need to smoke” that active smokers regularly have. Although nicotine itself isn’t carcinogenic, doctors consider it one of the most dangerous ingredients in cigarettes.
This dependence on nicotine is also responsible for what happens when you quit smoking, at least for the first few days. The effects start as little as 20 minutes after you quit smoking (or ignore your craving for the first time). First, your blood pressure and pulse start going down, and your hands and feet may start feeling warm. Some people describe this as a “relaxed” feeling, while others say they feel lightheaded.
In a few hours, your carbon monoxide levels drop and oxygen levels return to normal. This is the result of your blood regaining its ability to carry oxygen. You may not notice it right away, but your breathing may become lighter and easier.
Within a day, you’re already at a significantly lower risk of having a heart attack, as there’s a regular flow of healthy blood circulating to and from your heart. This risk drops to 50% within a year. On day two, damaged nerve endings will have regained most of their strength, enhancing your sense of smell and taste which may have been lost from years of smoking. In a few weeks you may notice better circulation—walking and exercise may be easier, and coughing and wheezing will have significantly decreased.
Improved lung function begins after a few months. If you’ve been experiencing short breath and sinus congestion, these symptoms will start to disappear as tiny structures in your lungs known as cilia) readapt to their job of moving mucus out of your lungs.
Five years on, your risk of stroke is the same as that of any healthy individual. After ten years, risk levels also drop for lung cancer, although it may still be higher than that of a non-smoker. You’ll also be at a lower risk of other cancers, including oral, throat, kidney, bladder, and pancreas. Another five years and your risk of death is no higher than that of a non-smoker. It takes time, but the health benefits are more than worth it, especially considering that withdrawal symptoms hardly ever last.