Brenda Spriggs, MD, MPH, MBA
Quitting smoking remains a difficult task--especially for long-time smokers--because of the effects of nicotine withdrawal and oral and/or social dependencies. But the bodies of ex-smokers experience several immediate health improvements within the first 15 days of smoking their last cigarettes.
The lungs begin to cleanse themselves of toxic tar almost immediately after smokers inhale their last puff of cigarette smoke, according to the American Cancer Society. Within the first 20 minutes, an ex-smoker's blood pressure and heart rate return to healthy levels. After 12 hours, toxic carbon monoxide levels leave the body as the lungs and blood regain movement of oxygen rather than smoke.
Benefits Within Two Weeks
Typically after 15 days, the blood and oxygen circulation improve as lung function and capacity increase, the American Cancer Society reports. Ex-smokers experience fewer coughing fits as the cilia--tiny cleansing structures in the lungs--continue scouring away the toxic buildup left by cigarette smoke. Ex-smokers' chances of developing smoking-related respiratory infections drop within this time as excess mucus caused by smoking lessens.
Cosmetic Effects Within 15 Days
The American Cancer Societies Web site also notes a number of cosmetic and aesthetic effects of quitting smoking that most ex-smokers realize within a week or two of quitting. The smell of breath improves, stains diminish from teeth and the stench on most smokers' hair and clothing fades. Food and the sense of smell improve as smoke and tar no longer block out those senses.
Significance Beyond 15 Days
Aside from the short-term health improvements felt by most ex-smokers within 15 days of quitting, the significance of quitting carries forward for months and years to come, reducing the likelihood of death from lung cancer.
The American Cancer Society notes than an increased breathing capacity in the lungs of ex-smokers also cuts in half the risks of coronary heart disease within the first year of quitting. Five to 15 years following the final cigarette, the threat of stroke declines to the incidence seen in non-smokers.
By contrast, continuing to smoke proves deadly in many people.
Regular exposure of the lungs to the tar in cigarette smoke often leads to emphysema, a disease that literally causes suffocation over time, according to Cedars-Sinai Medical Center. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also reports that smoking causes about 90 percent of deaths by lung cancer in men and about 80 percent of such cases in women.
Methods of Quitting
Crucial within the first 15 days after quitting cigarettes is avoiding a relapse into the habit. Chewing sugarless gum or munching on vegetables are methods recommended by several stop-smoking support groups, including the American Cancer Society. Nicotine gum or patches deliver gradually lower doses of the drug over time, helping keep the "ex" in ex-smokers, especially within the crucial first couple of weeks.