Of all the things you can die from, smoking ranks at the top of the list as far as preventable deaths go, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The agency's findings show that smoking-related deaths are responsible for about one in five deaths every year. There is some good news here, though, because the number of people who smoke cigarettes is on the decline.
In fact, between 2005 and 2016, the number of adult cigarette smokers in the US declined by 5.4%. Consuming nicotine, a common ingredient found in cigarettes, and smoking, in general, can have severe impacts on a person's body. But what happens to a person's body when he or she decides to kick the habit?
Dr. Sanjay Sethi, professor and chief of the University of Buffalo's Division of Pulmonary, Critical Care and Sleep Medicine, told INSIDER that the cardiac benefits begin right away.
"Smoking has a lot of adverse effects on the body. In terms of some of the risks, heart attacks, and cardiac complications of smoking, those go down soon after quitting. Some of them start right away because the oxygen delivery gets better and the inflammation in your body goes down," said Sethi, who is also the assistant vice president for Health Sciences in the Department of Medicine at the Jacobs School of Medicine & Biomedical Sciences at the University of Buffalo. "The cardiac side effects will decline quite rapidly."
According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, smoking is the cause of more than 80% of lung cancer deaths. The agency also found that cigarettes contain more than 70 harmful cancer-causing chemicals. When you stop smoking, your chances of getting lung cancer goes down.
"Your risk for lung cancer goes down after you quit smoking, but it takes almost 15 years," said Sethi. "Even then, it never goes back to that of a nonsmoker, but the risk does go down."
Many people who smoke cigarettes will develop a sharp, deep cough commonly known as a smoker's cough. According to Sethi, this can take a couple of weeks before it starts to get better.
"If you've already developed emphysema and bronchitis, what we call COPD, some of the symptoms of it will get better," said Sethi. "Generally, what happens as you develop lung disease from smoking you get sputum. People tend to just call it smoker's cough, but it's actually bronchitis. It is brought from the inflammation and an increase in mucus production in the airways as a result of smoke in the area. That starts to decline in a couple of weeks people will have less coughing sputum."
As a result, Sethi said a person will cough less, have a reduced amount of mucus, and therefore will be able to breathe better.
Additionally, Sethi added, "When you look at smokers with COPD, cancer, cardiovascular and lung disease are the three major concerns we have. There is currently no medication, no treatment that can block these detrimental effects of tobacco smoke."
Even after a person quits smoking, some problems will likely remain, per Sethi.
"If there has been any structural damage to the body, especially relevant to the lungs, that definitely can stay and even the inflammation can take some time to get better. It may never go back to baseline," said Sethi. "It's a mixed bag. The acute effects of smoking will go away, but the chronic effects and structural changes in the body may get better or they may not go away. Regardless, there are a still a lot of benefits to quitting."
Additionally, Sethi adds, "The problem is, that if a person has developed changes in the airways like emphysema, or the airways became so narrow and fibrous that they are no longer there, that, of course, will not come back. Still, they could have residual shortness of breath and cough and sputum from those permanent changes."
The ability of the lungs to handle infections is comprised by smoking, according to Sethi. When you quit, your lungs will be less likely to come down with a disease.
"Your lungs will be less prone to infections and pneumonia, but again depending on the stage where they are at, a lot of the problems will stay and you can still experience a lot of lung dysfunction from there," said Sethi. "It's important to quit at any time. The earlier you quit, then you have a larger benefit because the permanent changes haven't happened."
According to a study conducted by researchers in San Francisco, nicotine, a predominant ingredient found in cigarettes, is addicting. When a person stops smoking cigarettes, he or she may experience withdrawals as a result of not consuming nicotine.
"There is addiction aspect to the nicotine. Nicotine exits the body quickly. This is why people have withdrawals because of nicotine," said Sethi. "Your body is used to the nicotine and when you withdraw the nicotine you feel sluggish, tired, that's the additive aspect the body asking for the stimulation."
Nicotine is a stimulus that increases your heart rate, according to Sethi. Once you stop smoking cigarettes, your pulse will slow down and maintain a normal speed.
"The acute effects will go away. The cardiac benefits happen fairly rapidly because some of that is driven by the inflammation and the stimulation from the nicotine. Those tend to go away rather quickly."
When a person quits smoking, their body might crave cigarettes as they go through nicotine withdrawal. They might also crave the act of smoking as a daily ritual.
Sethi said there's also the habituation aspect associated with smoking which can make it especially hard to quit. "That's why we always tell people to seek help if they can," he said.
If you smoked for an extended period of time and then quit, your chance of developing certain cancers goes down. For example, if you have quit 10 years, your risk of getting lung cancer will be less than if you quit five years ago. The further away you get from smoking, the lower your risk becomes, according to Sethi.
"The risk of lung cancer and other cancers like bladder cancer, esophagus cancer — those risks take many years to decline, but the risks keep going down," said Sethi. " Ultimately, it will plateau and it will still be higher as compared to a nonsmoker. But, compared to what it would've been and what it was when someone was actually smoking, it's a big change."