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Heart Disease: How To Reduce The Risk

What You Should Know About Quitting The Cigarette Habit

Thursday, March 29, 2012 - 21:57

Contributing Author: Guy Slowik FRCS

Of all the known modifiable risk factors for coronary heart disease, cigarette smoking is the most significant. If current smoking patterns continue, more than 24 million people in the United States may die a premature death due to heart disease brought on by smoking, according to the American Heart Association.

Still, it's never too late to quit smoking, even if you've smoked all your life. Your risk for heart disease drops dramatically the moment you put down your last cigarette. After a few years, your heart disease risk is the same as that of a nonsmoker, although your risk for developing cancer drops more slowly.

How does smoking increase your risk for heart disease?

How you can quit smoking

A program to help you quit smoking

Staying smoke-free

How Does Smoking Increase Your Risk For Heart Disease?

Smoking increases the risk of coronary heart disease by accelerating blockage of the arteries. Cigarette smoke contains more than 3,000 chemicals, many of which are poisonous. Two of the most dangerous chemicals in cigarette smoke are carbon monoxide, a gas also found in car exhaust, and nicotine, a powerful insecticide.

The body reacts to these toxins by producing an excess of unstable particles that bind with other molecules, called oxygen-free radicals. Inside the arteries, free radicals react with low-density lipoproteins (LDL), and a spongy cholesterol layer builds up on arterial walls. Eventually, this spongy cholesterol layer hardens into plaques.

Smoking also increases your risk for coronary heart disease over the short-term:

  • With each puff, the nicotine in cigarettes speeds up the heart and constricts (narrows) the arteries, increasing the strain on your heart.
  • The carbon monoxide in cigarettes robs the blood of up to 15 percent of its oxygen. This is especially serious considering the supply of oxygen may already be low because of partial blockages in the arteries.

Need To Know:

  • Smoking cigarettes is especially dangerous for individuals who also have high blood pressure or high blood cholesterol levels.
  • Women who smoke and take birth control pills are 10 times more likely to die of a heart attack than women who do neither.
  • Even if you don't smoke, spending time in a smoky environment can increase your risk for heart disease and other smoking-related diseases.

Nice To Know:

Q: Do other forms of tobacco increase the risk for coronary heart disease?

A: Pipes and cigars are less likely than cigarettes to increase the risk of CHD, provided you don't inhale. But ex-cigarette smokers almost always do inhale. Further, pipes and cigars still increase the risk of cancer, as does snuff or chewing tobacco. You'll be better off if you give up tobacco completely.

How You Can Quit Smoking

Your own determination is the most important ingredient for kicking the smoking habit. Set a quit date and tell yourself that smoking after that date is not an option. Resolution may be enough for some people to quit, but others may be more seriously addicted to nicotine. Nicotine gum or patches can help to blunt withdrawal symptoms such as irritability, digestive upset, light-headedness, and sleep disturbances.

Need To Know:

The answers to two questions may indicate your level of addiction to cigarettes:

  • Do you smoke within 20 minutes of waking up?
  • Do you smoke even when you have a cold?

If you answered "yes" to either of these questions and have tried quitting before unsuccessfully, then consider asking your physician for the patches or gum-but use them strictly in accordance with the instructions. And don't think of them as magic-they can supplement a quitting program, not replace it.

Nice To Know:

It's easier to quit smoking today than it was 10 years ago for several reasons:

  • When you quit smoking, you're joining the mainstream, since only about one-fourth of Americans adults now smoke.
  • Many more public places and work sites now prohibit smoking.
  • New evidence about the harmful effects of second-hand smoke on others, especially children, provides a powerful incentive to quit smoking.
  • Aids such as nicotine gum and skin patches can help certain people quit smoking when used in the context of a broader quitting program.

How-To Information:

A program to help you quit smoking

If you are not the kind of person who can simply quit smoking cold turkey, you may benefit from a more formal quitting program. Many people find it helpful to join classes such as those run by the American Cancer Society or the American Lung Association.

Other people prefer to quit smoking on their own. If you are one of these people, here is a sample program that can help you stop smoking:

First, set a date to quit smoking.

The week before you quit:

  • Make a firm commitment to yourself to stop smoking.
  • Write down the three main reasons that you want to quit smoking.
  • Make a note of the time and circumstances every time you smoke for a two-day period (for example, 8 am-driving to work, 8:45-with coffee). To help yourself remember to write the notes, wrap a piece of paper around your cigarette pack with rubber bands.
  • Prepare a first-aid package to help you through hard times when you first quit smoking. This should include things to keep your hands busy (a deck of cards, puzzles, paper clips, or knitting) and things to keep your mouth busy (toothpicks, chewing gum, hard candy, raw vegetable sticks, sunflower seeds, low-fat cookies, or bread sticks).

The day before you quit smoking:

  • Study your two-day record to see when you smoke most often. Then plan how you will cope with situations or times when you normally would have smoked. For example, if you normally smoke while driving to work, take the bus instead. If you normally smoke while having coffee at your desk, go for a short walk instead.
  • Clear the house of all cigarettes.

On the day you quit smoking, when you get the urge to smoke:

  • Reach for a stick of chewing gum, carrot and celery sticks, or small hard candies or mints.
  • Keep your hands occupied. Try knitting, crocheting, or woodworking.
  • Move to a different chair or room.
  • Breathe deeply.
  • Squirt the back of your throat with a breath freshener.
  • Take a one-minute walk.
  • Look at your watch and time the urge to smoke (it usually won't last more than a minute or so).
  • Avoid alcohol, which can derail all your good intentions.
  • Avoid any cues that remind you of cigarettes.

Remember that the most important tool in your armory is your determination. You have quit smoking, and the long-term benefits will far outweigh the rough times you may have to put up with for the first week or so after quitting.

Staying Smoke-Free

After you have quit smoking, the urge to smoke gets progressively weaker, but you still need to stay on your guard. You might be taken by surprise with an urge to smoke you didn't expect, especially during times of stress, when you are drinking alcohol, or when you are around other smokers.

When you believe you are no longer dependent on cigarettes, don't be misled into thinking you can try a puff or two-you could easily fall back into the cigarette habit. Don't ever try a cigarette again.

If you do find yourself smoking again:

  • Don't let a minor slip sabotage your progress. Keep thinking of yourself as a non-smoker.
  • Re-start your quitting program. What works for you and what doesn't? What situations pose a high risk for you?
  • Don't be hard on yourself-we're all human. Many people need to make two or three serious attempts before they are able to quit smoking for good.

Nice To Know:

Q: Will I gain weight if I quit smoking?

A: Not everyone gains weight when they quit smoking. Some people tend to put on a few extra pounds (the average is about six pounds). The weight gain may be because of a slight slow-down in how fast your body burns calories, or it may be because people tend to eat more simply because food tastes better. If you do put on a few pounds, don't worry about the small weight gain. It's healthier to gain a little weight than to continue smoking, and you can deal with the weight after you have the smoking conquered.


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