How to Quit Smoking: A Complete Guide to Your Options

Kristin Hall, FNP
Medically reviewed by Kristin Hall, FNP Written by Our Editorial Team Last updated 9/07/2020

Thanks to decades of public education and awareness campaigns, the vast majority of people understand the health risks of smoking.

Tobacco use, whether from cigarettes or other tobacco products, is the most common cause of preventable death in the United States. 

Despite this, data from 2018 showed that nearly 14 percent of American adults still smoke cigarettes — in total, more than 34 million people across the country. 

If you’re a smoker and want to quit, you’re making the right decision. 

Quitting smoking provides both immediate and long-term health benefits, ranging from improved heart function to a measurably lower risk of developing deadly diseases such as lung cancer. 

But quitting smoking isn’t easy. Luckily, with the right approach, many American adults have been able to successfully quit smoking for the long term. 

Below, we’ve listed some of the benefits of quitting, from improvements to your health to lifestyle and financial advantages you’ll experience as a non-smoker.

We’ve also dug into some of the science behind nicotine addiction to help you understand why quitting smoking is such a difficult challenge, as well as the steps you can take to give yourself the best chance of quitting successfully. 

Finally, we’ve explained how you can successfully quit smoking for good, from going cold turkey to making use of nicotine replacement therapy (NRT) products, smoking cessation medications and options such as psychological and behavioral therapy. 

Why Quit Smoking?

Quitting smoking offers numerous advantages in both the short and long term. According to the American Cancer Society, you’ll notice the following health benefits after quitting:

  • Reduced blood pressure and heart rate. Your heart rate and blood pressure will begin to drop within 20 minutes of your last cigarette. Healthy blood pressure has a variety of benefits, from reducing your risk of heart issues to supporting better organ health.
  • Lower carbon monoxide levels in your blood. Carbon monoxide reduces your body’s ability to supply oxygen to essential organs. Your blood carbon monoxide level will drop to the normal range within 12 hours of your last cigarette.
  • Better circulation and lung function. With stronger, better-functioning lungs, you’ll find it easier to be active and won’t feel out of breath so easily. For most people, circulation and lung function improves within two weeks to three months of quitting smoking.
  • Less coughing and shortness of breath. One to nine months after quitting, your lungs will be better able to clean themselves and fight infections. You’ll start to cough less and won’t feel short of breath like you did when you were a smoker.
  • Lower risk of mouth, throat, esophagus, lung and bladder cancer. Five years after your last cigarette, your risk of developing mouth, throat, esophagus or bladder cancer is cut in half.

    Ten years after your last cigarette, your risk of dying from lung cancer will be about half that of an active smoker. You’ll also have a reduced risk of developing cancer in your larynx (voice box) or pancreas.
  • Reduced risk of stroke and coronary heart disease. Two to five years after you smoke your last cigarette, you’ll have the same stroke risk as a non-smoker. Fifteen years after you stop smoking, your risk of coronary heart disease will be the same as that of a non-smoker.
  • Longer life expectancy. If you quit smoking successfully before the age of 40, your risk of dying from a smoking-related illness goes down by around 90 percent, resulting in a longer overall life expectancy.

Beyond your health, quitting smoking also has countless other benefits. 

You’ll have an improved sense of taste and smell, meaning food and drinks will taste better. 

You’ll smell better, with none of the tobacco odor that can cling to your hair, nails and clothes.

And you’ll also spend significantly less money. According to the Tobacco-Free Life Organization, the cost of smoking for 50 years can range from under $100,000 in less expensive states to almost $250,000 in states with costly cigarette taxes such as New York. 

You can find out for yourself how much money you’ll save from quitting smoking by using this calculator.

Why Quitting is Difficult

Quitting smoking isn’t easy — in fact, many ex-smokers claim that quitting was the hardest thing they’ve ever done

Despite this, millions of people have been able to quit successfully not just in the short term, but for the rest of their lives.

There are several reasons why quitting smoking is difficult, ranging from the effects of nicotine in tobacco products like cigarettes, to the role smoking can play in your social and personal lives. 

Nicotine Withdrawal

The nicotine in tobacco is highly addictive — according to some reports, as addictive as heroin or cocaine.

Whenever you smoke a cigarette, nicotine is absorbed through the lining of your lungs and transported into your bloodstream and, shortly after, to your brain. 

This starts a complex chemical reaction that stimulates the release of certain neurotransmitters, including dopamine. This is why you’ll often feel extra pleasure, energy and focus after smoking a cigarette.

When you quit smoking, your body experiences withdrawal from nicotine. You may find it harder to focus, or have cravings for cigarettes. We’ve explained this process in detail further down the page, as well as what you can do to deal with the symptoms of nicotine withdrawal. 

Smoking Triggers

Many people feel the need to smoke after being exposed to triggers — certain activities, people or emotions that they associate with smoking. When you experience one of your triggers, you might feel a strong urge to start smoking again. 

According to Smokefree.gov, most smoking triggers fit into one of four categories — withdrawal, emotional, pattern or social. 

Withdrawal triggers are primarily sensory — things like smelling cigarette smoke, seeing others smoking, remembering the taste of tobacco smoke or handling cigarettes, a lighter or any other type of item you associate with smoking.

Emotional triggers are feelings that make you want to smoke. You might feel tempted to smoke when you feel stressed, lonely, anxious or bored. Alternatively, positive emotions like happiness or satisfaction might make you feel like lighting up a cigarette.

Pattern triggers are activities that you associate with smoking. You might experience a pattern trigger when you drink alcohol or coffee, take a break from work, watch TV or a movie, finish a meal or have sex.

Finally, social triggers are events that make you feel like smoking. Common social triggers that may make you want to smoke include spending time with friends who smoke, going to a bar or other social venue, attending a concert or celebrating a special occasion.

Identifying your triggers and taking steps to manage or avoid them is a key part of successfully quitting — a topic we’ve covered in more detail below.

How to Quit Smoking: Your Options

There’s no perfect, one-size-fits-all way to quit smoking for everyone. However, some methods of quitting smoking tend to be more successful than others, and using certain tools or tactics to quit may help to increase your likelihood of success.

Below, we’ve listed all of the options that are available if you want to quit smoking, as well as the most recent science and data behind how each option works.

Make a Quit Plan

One of the most important steps in quitting smoking is creating a quit plan — a plan that outlines when you’ll quit smoking (your quit date) and how you’ll keep yourself motivated to avoid using tobacco products after your quit date. 

While preparing a quit plan doesn’t guarantee success, it gives you a blueprint that you can use to stay motivated and move yourself towards a smoke-free future.

Smokefree.gov, an anti-smoking initiative by the National Cancer Institute (NCI), lists six steps that you can use to put together a quit plan that’s personalized to your life, smoking habits and key motivations for quitting (as well as a helpful quit plan builder that you can use online):

  • Set your quit date. This is the day you’ll quit smoking. If you’re using smoking cessation medication (a topic we’ve covered below), you might need to start taking your medication before this date.
  • Calculate how much you’ll save. While saving money isn’t the only benefit of quitting smoking, you can save quite a lot if you smoke often. Multiply the number of packs you smoke weekly by the cost of one pack to work out how much you’ll save per week.
  • Write down your reasons for quitting. From a healthier, longer life, to setting a better example for your family or just to prove you can do it, write down your reasons for quitting. They’ll help keep you focused and motivated, especially when you’re in a tough spot.
  • Identify and write down your smoking triggers. Make a list of your emotional, pattern or social smoking triggers. You’ll want to plan ahead for dealing with these, as there’s a real chance that they’ll test your self-control while you’re trying to quit.
  • Prepare a list of techniques for dealing with cravings. These could be going outside to exercise, talking to a friend, spending time in an environment that doesn’t allow you to smoke or using another technique to distract you from nicotine cravings.
  • Choose other tools and medications to help you quit. Many smokers find it easier to quit with the use of smoking cessation medications. We’ve listed several medications for quitting smoking below.

Nicotine Replacement Therapy (NRT)

One of the most challenging aspects of quitting smoking is overcoming cravings for nicotine — the stimulant found in tobacco that makes cigarettes so addictive.

When you quit smoking, your body suddenly loses its supply of nicotine. As a result, you may feel extreme cravings for nicotine after you quit. You may also feel irritable, sad or struggle to fall asleep at a normal time. Some people compare the withdrawal to having mild flu-like symptoms.

Nicotine replacement therapy, or NRT, involves using non-tobacco products to provide your body with smaller amounts of nicotine while you quit smoking. 

Nicotine replacement products such as patches, lozenges or gum supply your body with small amounts of nicotine, helping you avoid cravings and stay away from cigarettes after you’ve decided to quit.

Numerous large-scale studies have found that using nicotine replacement therapy significant increases your chance of successfully quitting smoking.

For example, one scientific review involving 136 clinical trials and 64,640 people found that all forms of nicotine replacement therapy were effective at helping people quit smoking, with a 50 percent to 60 percent higher rate of success in people who used NRT.

Another scientific review, this time containing data from 63 trials, found that people who used a combination of NRT medicines were more likely to successfully quit than those who only used one form of nicotine replacement therapy.

Nicotine replacement therapy medications come in a variety of forms, from patches to lozenges, gums and more. Most of these are available over the counter, although some — such as inhalers and nasal sprays — will require a prescription from your healthcare provider. 

Although nicotine replacement therapy increases your likelihood of quitting successfully, it isn’t magic. Quitting is still hard, even with NRT, meaning you’ll still need to do things like develop a quitting plan and, in some cases, make use of other, non-nicotine smoking cessation aids.

Want to learn more about nicotine replacement therapy for quitting? Smokefree.gov’s guide to using NRT and the American Cancer Society’s detailed guide to NRT for quitting tobacco go into more detail on how NRT works and how you can use NRT products to help you quit. 

Non-Nicotine Smoking Cessation Medications 

Not all smoking cessation medications contain nicotine. Other medications, such as bupropion (an antidepressant sold under various brand names including Zyban®) and varenicline (Chantix®) can also help to control nicotine withdrawal and make the process of quitting smoking easier.

Although both of these medications are used to treat nicotine withdrawal, they’re each slightly different.

Bupropion (Zyban)

Bupropion is an antidepressant that’s also useful for other conditions, such as seasonal affective disorder. 

In the form Zyban, it is effective as a smoking cessation aid. For smoking, it is thought to work by changing the levels of neurotransmitters in your brain, including neurotransmitters that are affected by nicotine and associated with common withdrawal symptoms. 

Although the precise mechanism through which bupropion works as a smoking cessation aid isn’t fully known, experts think that it may mimic the effects of nicotine on norepinephrine and dopamine — two neurotransmitters that are also affected by nicotine.

This may help to lower the cravings you feel for nicotine and make you feel less interested in smoking cigarettes again after quitting. We’ve explained this process in more detail in our full guide to bupropion

Studies support the use of bupropion as a smoking cessation aid. 

In one study, researchers found that people who used bupropion were more likely to successfully quit in both the short term and some were still smoke-free after one year following their target quit date.

Other studies, including clinical trials of Zyban, a popular brand of bupropion marketed specifically as a smoking cessation aid, found that bupropion significantly increased the percentage of former smokers that successfully quit. 

In one clinical trial, people who used bupropion at a daily dose of 300mg were more than two times as likely to successfully achieve a four-week quit than those who quit smoking without using any medication (36 percent vs. just 17 percent). 

In short, bupropion works well as a smoking cessation aid and may make the process of quitting easier for you. 

As a prescription medication, you’ll need to talk to a healthcare professional before you can use bupropion. 

We offer a generic version of bupropion for smoking cessation online, following an evaluation with an independent physician who will determine if a prescription is appropriate.

Varenicline (Chantix)

Varenicline, sold as Chantix, is another type of non-nicotine smoking cessation aid. 

It works by blocking the effects of nicotine on your brain, reducing the intensity of cravings and withdrawal symptoms that are common in people trying to quit smoking.

Like bupropion, studies show that varenicline works well as a medication for people that want to quit smoking. In clinical trials, people who used varenicline were more likely to quit smoking over the course of several weeks and remain tobacco-free over the long term.

A study from 2016 published in BMJ Open also found that varenicline worked well as a smoking cessation medication, roughly doubling the quit rate of smokers compared to no treatment.

Varenicline is also a prescription medication that you’ll need to discuss with your healthcare provider. We’ve compared it to bupropion (Zyban) in more detail here, looking at everything from effectiveness to side effects and more.

Quit Cold Turkey

Some people quit by gradually reducing their cigarette consumption (for example, going from a full pack of cigarettes per day to 15, 10 and, gradually, even less). Others make the decision to quit smoking more suddenly — a method referred to as quitting “cold turkey.”

Quitting smoking cold turkey means stopping smoking all at once and quitting without the use of any medications or NRT products. 

Doing this can require an incredible amount of willpower. If you’re a regular smoker, you’ll likely still experience cravings for nicotine. These may be severe, especially if you opt not to use any nicotine replacement therapy products or smoking cessation medications.

While this approach is challenging, it’s a method that people have used successfully to quit smoking over the years. Although it may not be the easiest way to quit, it is supported by some scientific evidence.

For example, a 2016 study found that people who quit cold turkey were slightly more likely to remain abstinent from smoking after four weeks than those who reduced their cigarette usage gradually. 

However, that’s not to say there aren’t other easier and effective ways to stop.

Research shows that NRT increases quitting success by 50 percent to 70 percent compared to no treatment.

Now, this doesn’t mean that quitting smoking cold turkey doesn’t ever work long term. If you’re a smoker and think that quitting smoking cold turkey is the best option for you, it might be. 

A lot of people have quit this way, with many staying away from tobacco for the long-term. 

With this said, most scientific data shows that using NRT and/or smoking cessation aids such as bupropion (Zyban) or varenicline (Chantix) will increase your chance of quitting smoking and avoiding relapse.

Others Tools for Quitting Smoking

Beyond preparing a quit plan and using medication, there are numerous other tools that you can use to increase your likelihood of quitting successfully:

  • Call your state quitline. You can contact your state quitline on 1-800-QUIT-NOW for personalized counseling to help you quit smoking. This service is free to use and can help you with information, advice and referrals to healthcare providers.
  • Use the National Cancer Institute’s online quit smoking chat support. The National Cancer Institute offers online chat support from 9AM to 9PM, Monday to Friday, allowing you to access free information on quitting smoking.
  • Use Smokefree.gov’s free text messaging program. Smokefree.gov offers a range of free text messaging programs to help you remain motivated and on track after you make the decision to quit. Special programs are available for moms, teens and veterans. 

In Conclusion

There’s no right or wrong way to quit smoking. However, research shows that smokers who quit tend to be more successful when they make use of treatments such as smoking cessation aids and NRT.

If you’re interested in quitting, try using one or several of the options outlined above to increase your chance of giving up smoking for good. You can also talk to a healthcare provider online to learn more about using smoking cessation aids to help you quit successfully. 

This article is for informational purposes only and does not constitute medical advice. The information contained herein is not a substitute for and should never be relied upon for professional medical advice. Always talk to your doctor about the risks and benefits of any treatment.