How to quit smoking one day at a time

17 September 2020

Read our step-by-step guide to surviving without smoking. From the first 24 hours without cigarettes and into the years to come, find out what you can do to combat nicotine withdrawal.



While it may seem daunting, the health benefits of giving up smoking – longer, healthier lives, reduced risk of heart attack and cancer, and simply being able to breathe more easily – will make kicking the habit worthwhile.

Some people just stop smoking, and get through the following months with gritted teeth and determination. However you don’t have to do this. There’s plenty of help and support available to you, and plenty of tactics to make the process easier to manage.

In this article:

Before you quit smoking
What to expect in the first days
Tips for coping with nicotine withdrawal
The benefits of quitting smoking
Treatments for nicotine withdrawal
Useful resources

Before you quit smoking

Choose the best day

Look at your diary for the week ahead, then choose the best day for giving up. Avoid days on which you have stressful meetings or social events that might make you give in to nicotine cravings. But stay busy – boredom can be a precursor to a sneaky puff too.

Find some friends to quit with you

There’s nothing like a bit of healthy competition to keep you at it, so get together with other smokers and make it a group effort. Whenever you feel weak or low, give a member of the group a call – the support will be invaluable, and peer group pressure can be an immensely effective tool in situations like this. If you don't know any fellow smokers willing to quit find an online community or take part in a campaign such as Stoptober, which starts on October 1st.

Join your local Stop Smoking Service group

Join your local NHS Stop Smoking Service. You’ll get advice and help from experts, as well as enjoying the support of other individuals in the same situation as you. It’s a good way to meet new people, which is an extra bonus to quitting, and research has found you're much more likely to stay stopped with a group. The service has trained advisers to support you, and give you information on nicotine replacement products and other stop smoking medicines which you can buy for the same price as a prescription.

See your GP

Your GP can help you quit smoking if you’d prefer not to use an NHS Stop Smoking Service. It’s in your doctor’s interests to see you give up – after all, once your body’s cleared out all the gunk you’ve been inhaling, your lungs will be clearer, you’ll suffer from fewer colds and congestion and you’ll sleep better. Ask him or her to provide you with a self-help pack, advice on different methods or aids for giving up, and information about the benefits of quitting.

Remove temptation

Get rid of any objects you associate with your habit. That doesn’t just mean ashtrays, lighters and matches; you should also try to remove or relocate things like the coffee cup you always use when you have your first cig of the day, or the chair you recline in for a ‘relaxing smoke’ after the shopping. These things are ‘triggers’ for nicotine cravings. They remind you of smoking and will make you miss it even more.

Stock up at the chemist

Can’t face the physical symptoms associated with nicotine withdrawal? Get a nicotine replacement. Choose between gum, patches, lozenges and inhalers. Go for gum or lozenges if you want something to do with your mouth. Patches are best for people who are wary of replacement activities such as chewing or inhaling, but believe they need the physical support of nicotine during the giving-up process. Inhalers are useful as a way to gradually decrease your reliance on nicotine while allowing you to continue ‘smoking’ – they are shaped and used like cigarettes. Over time, all these treatments must be reduced, gradually decreasing your body’s ‘need’ for nicotine.

The first days after quitting cigarettes

After an hour without smoking

Within an hour after you stub out your last cigarette your body is already beginning to heal itself. Your blood pressure and pulse rate are returning to normal levels, and you’ve already saved money by not lighting up another.

After one day without smoking

Waking up after a day of no smoking, you’ll probably have an itchy, sore throat. Instead of bouncing out of bed feeling great, you may feel worse than when you were smoking. This is because the cilia in your throat, tiny ‘hairs’ that are damaged by smoke, are beginning to heal. They work to remove dust and debris from your respiratory system and so initially you might get a sore throat, as well as a cough. Try to focus on the positive meaning of your sore throat – it means your body is getting back to normal.

You’ve also halved the nicotine and carbon monoxide levels in your bloodstream. And your oxygen levels are beginning to return to normal. Not bad for 24 hours.

After two days without smoking

For most people, just 48 hours after you’ve extinguished your last tobacco ember your body is free of the highly addictive chemical nicotine. You are, physically at least, free of the chains binding you to the tobacco weed, but your brain will take some convincing. This may take an extra day for some people, depending on metabolism.

After three days without smoking

Just three days after smoking your last cigarette your body will have started recovering. Your lung function will have already improved, meaning your heart won’t need to pump quite as hard and fast as it did to keep your muscles supplied with oxygen-rich blood. This also means you should begin to feel more energetic.

After a week without smoking

Once the nicotine has left your body you start to feel the withdrawal symptoms. This can make you feel irritable and give you cravings and headaches. You might also notice your sense of smell and taste improving as the nerves heal.

After a month without smoking

Chances are you will feel less shortness of breath as your lung capacity improves. This will make activities such as walking and running easier.

After a year without smoking

Even after just a year without cigarettes your risk of heart disease decreases by 50%. The cilia inside your lungs will have recovered, meaning you're considerably less likely to get lung infections.

After ten years without smoking

After ten years of quitting your risk of lung cancer is cut in half, and your risk of heart attack will be the same as someone who has never smoked. So give up, and focus on all the things you’d miss out on if you didn’t – playing with your grandchildren, going on holiday or simply spending more time in the garden.

Want to talk to a GP today? With Saga Health Insurance, you have unlimited access to a qualified GP 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. Find out more about our GP phone service.


Getting through each cigarette-free day

If you’re quitting cigarettes here are some practical tips for dealing with the often discomforting physical and mental side-effects of nicotine withdrawal.

Tell yourself there’s always tomorrow

Whenever you’re finding it difficult not to give in, tell yourself you can have a cigarette tomorrow if you can stick it out for today. The next day, tell yourself the same thing again. The longer you go without a cigarette, the more reason you have to stay nicotine-free. This is a method that many quitters use and it does work.

Quit alcohol (temporarily!) 

Don’t panic – this is only for the first few days when your resistance is at its lowest! Alcohol actually increases the pleasurable effects of nicotine, and so having a few drinks makes you even more likely to reach for a fag packet. Avoid it during the first week, when you’re most likely to fail, and you’ll be past the worst of your withdrawal symptoms when you allow yourself to have a drink again.

Take a breather

Deep breathing can help you overcome your desire for a cigarette and it also helps to strengthen your weakened lungs.

Try sitting with your back straight and your feet flat on the ground. Inhale through your nose, letting the air fill your abdomen, then your chest area, until you need to exhale.

Let the air out through your mouth. Repeat this four or five times.

Chew gum

A minty chew works on two levels - it gives you something to do with your mouth, and the fresh mint scene gives your brain sensory stimulation distracting you from your nicotine cravings.

Get some exercise

To help your body remove the filth from your airways and bloodstream, try light exercise such as walking, cycling or swimming. This helps get your circulation going, helping to flush out toxins. It also releases endorphins, feel-good hormones that will make you feel truly positive about your quitting achievement.

Drink more water

Sipping water throughout the day not only distracts you from the desire to smoke, it also helps your body flush out the thousands of chemicals you’ve been inhaling over the years. Keep a bottle of mineral water with you at all times – and if water’s too bland, add a squeeze of lemon or a splash of Robinson’s Barley Water or similar. Making sure you stay hydrated also reduces the risk of headaches, tiredness and dry mouth.

Make a list

Write a list of all the positive outcomes of quitting and carry it around with you so you can refer to it when you’re feeling weak. The list could include financial gains, health gains, psychological gains such as feeling empowered or in control of your body, emotional gains such as pleasing your partner or children, and so on.

Steer clear of smokers

Seeing a good friend with whom you usually share a smoke is one of the toughest tests of your willpower, even more so if they’re the type who feels slightly jealous of your achievement and so tries to cajole you into having ‘just the one for old time’s sake’. Convince this person to join you in quitting or avoid them until you’re confident you can survive the experience.

Treat yourself

As the nicotine and other toxins – all 4,000 of them – leave your body, you can start to feel irritable and moody. This will pass and is simply a result of your system cleansing itself. Think of it as an extended hangover. Allow yourself treats in the form of delicious, nutritious snacks, DVDs or shopping – whatever it takes to get you through the first few days.

Get hypnotised

If you’ve tried nicotine patches and cold turkey, and found yourself going back to the cigs, try hypnotism. A study published in the Journal of Applied Psychology showed that hypnosis was three times more likely to result in success than nicotine replacement therapy.

Use your hands

It can feel strange not to have something to do with your hands, and often smokers will resort to biting their fingernails to combat the sense of loss. Instead of chewing on your fingers, try knitting or learn card tricks so you can keep your hands busy.

Nibble on a carrot

Having something you can chew on helps to distract you from your desire for a cigarette and it keeps your hands and mouth occupied too. Fill a Tupperware box with Twiglets, carrot and celery sticks, a hunk of cheese and some grapes so you’ve got something to nibble on wherever you are.

See your dental hygienist

Book an appointment with a dental hygienist in the first few weeks after you’ve given up. Ask them to clean and polish your teeth, removing any stubborn tobacco stains. You’ll walk out feeling more confident in your smile and, having spent good money on removing those stains, you’ll have even more reason to refrain from smoking.

Speak to your GP about medication

NHS doctors can now prescribe Varenicline, a non-nicotine drug developed to help smokers quit. It works by stimulating the same areas in the brain as nicotine, and by blocking receptors in the brain that create the cravings. The drug is taken over a 12-week period.

Ask your GP for more information or advice.

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The benefits of giving up smoking

Remember the positive reasons why you’re quitting, including feeling good and saving money. Stopping smoking can also have some very unusual benefits, such as stronger bones and less acid reflux. Find out more about the unusual reasons to give up smoking.

Save money

If you need a reminder of just how much money you're saving, just use the NHS quitting calculator to find out how much you have saved so far. You can also save on your life insurance policy, if you have one, because being a smoker puts you in a high risk category.

Reduced cancer risk

If you continue to smoke, there’s a 50% risk of your death being smoking-related. And smokers’ deaths are unlikely to be quick or painless. Lung cancer, for example, which usually strikes smokers aged over 50, can occur without any symptoms to begin with. As the cancer grows, you’ll suffer from a persistent cough, shortness of breath, chest pain and you may cough up blood. The tumour then grows to affect your nervous system, causing paralysis of your vocal cords making it difficult to swallow or speak. Eventually the cancer attacks your bones causing crippling pain.

Your looks will improve

Giving up isn’t just about your health, your looks will improve too. Smoking affects your skin in such a way that medical experts can identify you as a smoker just by looking at a photograph. Dr Douglas Model, who coined the term ‘smoker’s face’ in an article published in the British Medical Journal in 1985, pinpointed these signs: lines radiating from the upper and lower lips, deep lines on the cheeks; gauntness, prominence of bony contours; grey skin colouring. These effects are visible irrespective of the patients’ ages.

Find out what you can do for younger-looking skin.

Your anxiety will decrease

Research published in the British Journal of Psychiatry, showed that out of 500 smokers trying to quit, those who managed to go smoke-free for six months had decreased anxiety levels. This was particularly the case with those who had smoked because of stress or other emotional problems. Read about how giving up smoking reduces anxiety here.

You'll have more energy

Research from the Universidade Estadual de Londrina, Brazil, found that smokers felt less energetic than non-smokers, had reduced lung function, and were less likely to exercise.

You'll be less likely to lose your teeth

Research among postmenopausal women, carried out at the University at Buffalo, found that the women who smoked were twice as likely to lose teeth.

Treatments to help you stop smoking

Nicotine Replacement Therapy (NRT)

NRT is useful when you’re trying to give up smoking because it helps to reduce the symptoms of giving up. These can include feeling angry, irritable and frustrated, having headaches, a cough, runny nose, and tightness in the chest and craving cigarettes. Other symptoms include feeling tired, dizzy and restless, and not being able to sleep.

There are explanations for these symptoms – for instance, the cough and running nose happens because your respiratory system is starting its clean-up process. These symptoms should clear up in under a week, but while you have them make sure you drink plenty of water.

There are different ways in which you can take NRT. You can get it in the form of skin patches, chewing gum, inhalators (these look like plastic cigarettes, but aren’t the same as e-cigarettes), tablets, lozenges, nasal spray and mouth spray. These all release nicotine into your bloodstream, replacing some of the nicotine you would have got from smoking, and helping reduce the craving you may feel for cigarettes, but without the dangerous chemicals that come with cigarette smoke.

Your GP can prescribe NRT products for you, or you can buy them from a pharmacist. Some people find it helpful to use a combination of different products – it depends on the type of smoker you are, and your triggers for smoking. Talk to your GP or pharmacist about what might work best for you. A course of NRT usually lasts for about 12 weeks, but talk to your GP about what is best for you.

Vaping

Electronic or e-cigarettes contain liquid nicotine, and are designed to mimic cigarettes, but in a less harmful way than the real thing. However, an investigation into these products by the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) raised concerns about their safety and quality. They aren’t available on the NHS, but since 2016 when the Tobacco and Related Products Regulations (TRPR) were introduced, the MHRA has regulated all products containing nicotine, including e-cigarettes, as medicines in the UK. Since the popularity of vaping has taken off in the last few years you can usually find e-cigarettes sold at specialist high street stores in towns across the country, and they're also available online. 

Medication

There are two stop smoking medications that are available on the NHS. They are varenicline (Champix) and bupropion (Zyban). Both have been found to have good success rates with people who are giving up smoking. They do, however, have possible side effects, which can including nausea, trouble sleeping and constipation or diarrhoea for Champix, and dry mouth, headaches, trouble concentrating and an increased risk of having a fit for Zyban. Talk to your GP about whether these would be suitable for you.

Resources

British Lung Foundation – advice on giving up smoking from the charity that looks after lungs.
NHS Better Health – answers to frequently asked questions on quitting smoking.
NHS Live Well – useful NHS advice.

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The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated.

The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.