Article updated and reviewed by Larry A. Weinrauch, MD, Assistant Professor of Medicine, Harvard Medical School. Editorial review provided by VeriMed Healthcare Network on July 22, 2005.
Quitting smoking can have a profound, positive impact on a person's quality of life.
Data from large prospective studies have shown that cigarette-smoking men have a 70 percent higher overall death rate than nonsmokers. The excess mortality of female smokers has been somewhat less than that of male smokers, but is increasing. Patients who smoke within the week prior to surgery have triple the number of complications from the surgery suffered by patients with the same smoking history who have stopped for a week. Patients who do not stop smoking after a heart attack are four times as likely to die within a year as smokers who do stop.
The younger one is at onset of smoking, the greater the number of cigarettes smoked, the number of years smoking, and the depth of inhalation, the greater the damage to the body from cigarettes. Stopping smoking does not reverse all of the damage done by cigarettes. Cessation of smoking is, however, associated with a decrease in excess mortality.
Inhaled smoke depresses the sweeper cells that clean our lungs of debris like tars and other pollutants. This debris causes scarring of the lung tissue. Lungs scarred by long-term smoking will not fully recover from stopping cigarettes, but further damage will not be done. As the sweeper cells are no longer suppressed, they are able to clean the lungs again. The result is a cough, bringing up some of the debris (sputum). As brownish sputum comes up, the lungs are cleaning and healing themselves. This process generally resolves over a few weeks and coughing decreases. respiratory infections are likely to become less severe and last for shorter periods of time once smoking is stopped.
The risk of heart attacks and strokes decreases quickly after stopping smoking. Those with peripheral vascular disease (blockages in the blood vessels to the head, arms, and legs) may notice an increased ability to walk or exercise that occurs relatively quickly after stopping smoking cigarettes.
Permanent damage to the lungs (emphysema), eyes (cataracts), and skin (wrinkles) does not go away, but further damage in these areas does not occur if cigarette exposure is discontinued permanently. It is anticipated that risk of tobacco-related cancer will also decrease with smoking cessation.