Kicking the Habit Through the Years

Smoking cessation benefits build as time passes

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Chris Galloway, M.D.

Most people know smoking is bad for the body and that quitting is a smoker’s best option for health, but it may not be exactly clear what this health improvement looks like.

When people think about smoking and health, they typically imagine a risk of throat and lung cancer way down the line.

What they don’t imagine is the many other health benefits to quitting smoking, beyond the reduced lung cancer risk. And they rarely imagine the almost immediate benefits of quitting smoking.

From The First Day On

The day you quit smoking, your body starts to reap the benefits.

Smoking is known to cause high blood pressure and increased heart rates.  The American Cancer Society (ACS) reports that as soon as 20 minutes after a person’s last cigarette, their blood pressure and heart rate begin to drop to more normal levels.

According to the National Cancer Institute (NCI), “Within a few hours, the level of carbon monoxide in the blood begins to decline. (Carbon monoxide reduces the blood’s ability to carry oxygen.)”

With carbon monoxide levels down, the blood can carry oxygen more efficiently and function more effectively.

A few weeks out? Circulation improves and the lungs already are beginning to work better. Newly recovering smokers often quickly begin to breath better, cough and wheeze less and tend to hack up less phlegm or mucus. Activities like climbing stairs may no longer leave the former smoker gasping for air.

The ACS reports that there are other quick benefits to quitting - including better-smelling breath and whiter, less stained teeth.  Hair and clothes smell better and the yellowish hue to the fingernails and fingertips starts to disappear.

Mid-range: First Months and Year

A few short months out and the benefits really start to stack up, especially in terms of lung function.

The ACS reports that in the timeframe of one to nine months after quitting, “Coughing and shortness of breath decrease; cilia (tiny hair-like structures that move mucus out of the lungs) start to regain normal function in the lungs, increasing the ability to handle mucus, clean the lungs, and reduce the risk of infection.”

According to the NCI, it is also common during this time period for people to notice an improved sense of taste and smell, allowing meals and sensory experiences to become more vibrant and enjoyable.

One year out from that last cigarette is surely a day of emotional significance and celebration for the former smoker, but it also marks a big milestone in terms of their health. The ACS reports that one year after quitting, a person’s excess risk of suffering from coronary heart disease has fallen to half the risk of a person still continuing to smoke.

As the Years Stack Up

For former smokers who have been smoke-free for five years, the ACS has good news: “Risk of cancer of the mouth, throat, esophagus, and bladder are cut in half. Cervical cancer risk falls to that of a non-smoker. Stroke risk can fall to that of a non-smoker after two to five years.”

By the 10-year mark, a former smoker’s risk of dying from a battle with lung cancer drops to half the risk of a person still smoking. The likelihood of developing pancreatic or larynx cancer (cancer of the voicebox) also goes down.

And after 15 years, the ACS reports that a former smoker’s risk of developing coronary heart disease is back down to that of the average non-smoker. 

Over time, kicking the habit also drops a person's likelihood of being diagnosed with diabetes, and leads to continued improvements in the functioning of the heart, lungs and blood vessels.

Looking at the Benefits by Age

There is another, interesting way to look at the benefits of smoking over time – what health improvements can be seen in people who quit by a certain age?

For people who are able to kick the habit early, the NCI reports, “Studies have shown that smokers who quit at about age 30 reduce their chance of dying prematurely from smoking-related diseases by more than 90 percent.”

Quitting at the age of 50? According to the NCI, people who quit at this age lower their risk of premature death to a level that is half that of their peers still smoking.

There are always health benefits to quitting smoking. As mentioned earlier, some start to set in immediately. “Even people who quit at about age 60 or older live longer than those who continue to smoke,” reports the NCI.

The ACS agrees: “Quitting while you are younger will reduce your health risks more, but quitting at any age can give back years of life that would be lost by continuing to smoke.”

It is clear that quitting smoking at any age offers a huge array of health benefits. Smokers who decide to kick the habit lower their risk of conditions like diabetes, coronary heart disease and cancers of all sorts.  

Not all of the payoffs occur years down the road. The health benefits start to build up just hours after a smoker takes their final puff.

Visiting a doctor can provide smokers with resources, information and support as they work to live a life without cigarettes. Not only will their future, healthier self thank them in 30 years, their future self might just thank them in 30 days.

Review Date: 
March 6, 2013