Quitting smoking: how the body recovers

Carola Felchner is a freelance writer for the NetDoktor medical editorial team and a certified exercise and nutrition consultant. She worked at various trade magazines and online portals before starting her own business as a journalist in 2015. Before her traineeship, she studied translation and interpreting in Kempten and Munich.

When you stop smoking – what happens in the body? Quite a lot! Within a short time, blood pressure, sense of smell and taste, and the cleaning function of the cilia in the respiratory tract, for example, improve. This is joined by many other positive effects. Read more about what happens when you quit smoking and how long it takes for your body to fully recover here.

What happens when you stop smoking?

The body thanks you when you stop smoking. Recovery begins almost immediately and physical fitness returns surprisingly quickly. But what happens first when you suddenly stop smoking? When does the metabolism return to normal after smoking is stopped? When are the lungs healthy again after smoking has been stopped? Here are some examples of the timing of physical recovery:

  • After 20 minutes: Blood pressure and pulse rate drop.
  • After 12 hours: The carbon monoxide level in the blood drops to normal values, so that all organs are better supplied with oxygen again.
  • After 2 weeks to 3 months: Blood flow and lung function improve.
  • After 1 to 9 months: Coughing fits and shortness of breath decrease. The cilia in the bronchial tubes, which are responsible for cleaning the lungs, start working better again – mucus is transported more effectively from the lungs toward the throat, reducing the risk of infections (such as pneumonia, bronchitis).
  • After a year: Coronary heart disease (CHD) risk is now half that of a smoker.
  • After two to five years: The risk of heart attack has decreased significantly – it is now equal to that of a non-smoker.
  • After five years: The risk of oral, pharyngeal, esophageal and bladder cancers has been reduced by half.
  • After 10: The risk of laryngeal and pancreatic cancer decreases. The risk of dying from lung cancer is now only half that of someone who still smokes.
  • After 15 years: The risk for coronary heart disease is now as high as for someone who never smoked.

Smoking less instead of quitting completely doesn’t do much good. The risk of cardiovascular disease and lung cancer hardly decreases, and lung function does not change significantly.

Quitting smoking: The benefits in detail

First and foremost, quitting smoking can prolong life, because: One-fourth of adults who started smoking as teenagers die from the direct effects of smoking between the ages of 35 and 69. Another quarter puts smoking in its grave at about age 70. It’s not just the number of cigarettes smoked that matters, but also the total length of your smoking career.

If you manage to stop smoking, you can at least partially reverse this trend. The sooner the cigarette is banned, the greater the chance of a long life – for example, because the risk of tobacco-related cancers is reduced.

The risk of cancer decreases

The majority of lung cancers are caused by smoking. A look at the statistics shows how much tobacco use increases the risk of lung cancer: lung cancer is the second most common cancer in men (after prostate cancer) and the third most common in women (after breast and colon cancer).

The risk of developing lung cancer is reduced by quitting smoking – and the longer the smoking cessation period, the greater the reduction. Nevertheless, for a very long time it is still higher than in people who have never smoked. This is true not only for lung cancer, but also for cancer of the oral cavity, esophagus, stomach and pancreas.

Still, it’s never too late to quit. Even people who already have cancer benefit from quitting smoking.

The respiratory system recovers

If smoking has not yet caused permanent damage, the lungs will recover within one to two years. How quickly it happens in individual cases depends on how long and intensively someone has smoked and how badly the lungs have been damaged.

For patients with the chronic lung disease COPD, quitting smoking is the only chance that the disease will not worsen. In addition, fewer COPD patients die from their disease if they stop smoking.

Heart and blood vessels also "breathe a sigh of relief

The carbon monoxide level in the blood returns to the level of people who never smoked just a few weeks after their last cigarette. There are more functioning red blood cells available. In addition, the viscosity of the blood improves – it becomes "thinner". This reduces the risk of blood clots forming that can block a vessel (such as in heart attacks and strokes).

That means: Already six to twelve months after the smoking stop the risk for a heart attack sinks. After 15 years it is at the level of a non-smoker. The same is true for the risk of stroke if you stop smoking.

Skin – before and after

So health benefits in many ways when you stop smoking. But the physical changes also affect the appearance:

Smokers have about ten times more wrinkles than non-smokers. While skin appearance also depends on age and heredity, environmental factors such as smoking and sun also have a significant impact on how "fresh and young" we look.

Slower aging of the skin

Typical smoker’s skin is gray, pale and wrinkled. Of course there are also non-smokers with unhealthy face color, but with smokers it is to be seen clearly more frequently. The increased wrinkles occur because smoking causes the body to break down the protein collagen faster and build it up slower. Collagen is responsible for the elasticity of the skin.

Smokers’ skin becomes pale because the tiny blood vessels contract and constrict as a result of smoking – the skin is therefore less well supplied with blood. This is also the reason why smokers often have cold hands. One cigarette is enough to reduce blood flow to the skin for more than an hour!

If you stop smoking, the processes that take away the elasticity of the skin will slow down, so fewer new wrinkles will appear. In addition, the blood circulation improves – the skin looks rosier and healthier again.

Particularly harmful is the combination of smoking and frequent unprotected exposure to the sun. This puts extreme stress on the skin – increased wrinkling and an increased risk of skin cancer are the result.

The weight levels off

After quitting smoking, many people gain weight – women usually slightly more than men. One reason for this is seen in a throttled metabolism: In rest mode, the body burns slightly less energy after quitting smoking than before. How quickly the metabolism returns to normal varies from individual to individual. Usually this happens quite quickly.

However, weight gain after quitting smoking can have other reasons as well. For example, many people have more appetite once they stop smoking. Some people now turn to chocolate or snacks instead of cigarettes in situations in which they had previously smoked. In addition, a Zurich research team has found that altered intestinal flora could also contribute to weight gain after quitting smoking.

Regardless of the reason for the weight gain, a few extra kilos on the hips or belly are much less harmful to health than continuing to smoke. Especially since you soon feel fitter again after stopping smoking and can thus often get rid of the extra kilos by exercising more – especially if you also pay attention to a healthy diet.

For more on smoking and weight, read the article "Quitting Smoking: Maintaining weight!"

Other effects

Smoking increases the risk of osteoporosis (bone loss), cataracts, the eye disease macular degeneration and stomach ulcers. These risks decrease when you stop smoking.

But not only you benefit from quitting smoking, but also your environment. Passive smoking also massively harms health, for example by making people more susceptible to cancer, asthma and other respiratory diseases.

Quit suddenly or wean off slowly?

Even if it is difficult: If you want to stop smoking, you should do it abruptly from one day to the next. An investigation of the British Oxford university resulted in fact that humans, who had stopped suddenly with smoking, had to 25 per cent more success to remain also longer-term smoke-free, than those, who smoked gradually less and less.

Stop smoking – withdrawal symptoms

However, abruptly stopping smoking is difficult and exhausting – for oneself and usually also for one’s environment. Because detoxification is not without withdrawal symptoms for very few people. These unpleasant side effects of quitting smoking include, for example, increased irritability to the point of aggressiveness, as well as moodiness.

Both are due to the fact that the brain produces less adrenaline and serotonin after quitting smoking – so the feeling of reward that these neurotransmitters provide is absent. Because the "happiness hormone" dopamine is also missing, some people experience depressive moods after stopping smoking.

Smoking cessation – symptoms

In addition, newly ex-smokers often suffer from:

  • Headache
  • Inattention to the point of concentration disorders
  • Sleep disorders
  • Sweating and/or trembling
  • increased appetite

How hard nicotine withdrawal becomes and how long it lasts varies from individual to individual. Mostly the withdrawal symptoms are over after six to ten days – and this time is worth to go through after a smoking stop – for the sake of recovery for body and mind.

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