When you quit smoking, you can gain health benefits — like a drop in blood pressure and heart rate — in as little as 20 minutes.
One year after you quit smoking, your risk of coronary heart disease is 50% less than that of a smoker.
Fifteen years after you quit smoking, your risk of dying from heart disease or a heart attack is equal to that of someone who has never smoked.
Nearly one in five deaths in the US are due to smoking cigarettes, and it's no wonder, as smoking cigarettes harms nearly every organ in the body. Fortunately, anyone who wants to quit doesn't have to wait long to start reaping the benefits — the body's healing process begins just 20 minutes after their last cigarette.
"It doesn't really matter how long you have smoked," says Rashelle B. Hayes, PhD, an associate professor of psychiatry and licensed clinical health psychologist at Virginia Commonwealth University who specializes in tobacco dependence. "The length of smoking plays a role in how addicted you are... but once you remove cigarettes, or however you're getting nicotine, these benefits start to happen."
Here is a timeline of what happens when you quit smoking:
Around 20 minutes after your final cigarette, your blood pressure and heart rate drop back down to a normal level.
A few hours later, peripheral circulation — or the flow of blood throughout the body — begins to improve.
Inhaling cigarette smoke constricts blood vessels and restricts blood flow to the hands and feet, causing a decrease in temperature and feeling, according to Hayes. Feet and hands may begin to warm up as circulation improves mere hours after quitting.
Twelve hours after your last cigarette, your levels of carbon monoxide — an odorless, colorless toxic gas found in cigarettes — drop back to a normal range.
Carbon monoxide decreases the amount of prevents oxygen in the bloodstream that is able to reach the heart, lungs, brain, and other vital organs. Additionally, increased levels of carbon monoxide from cigarettes can cause headaches, dizziness, and nausea.
This is also when symptoms of nicotine withdrawal begin to set in. These include:
Feelings of irritability
Lack of concentration
After one day of being smoke-free, your risk of a heart attack decreases. That's due to a combination of improved blood circulation, pulse, and blood pressure, which all help the heart function optimally.
However, coughing fits might increase around this time as the body works to clear out extra mucus from the lungs.
Two days after quitting, your sense of taste and smell begin to improve as nerve endings regrow in the nose and mouth.
Cravings and withdrawal symptoms intensify during this time as nicotine levels decrease in the body.
After 72 hours, lung function begins to improve as inflammation decreases. Bronchial tubes, the structures that let air in and out of the lungs, also begin to relax.
Cilia will also start to regrow. These tiny hair-like structures in the lungs help clear airways by whisking away mucus and bacteria. While cigarette smoke damages and hinders their ability to function, they are quick to regrow once you quit.
Nicotine cravings typically begin to decrease after one week without cigarettes and continue to taper out over the following weeks. Coughing will decrease as mucus production drops and cilia continue to heal.
After one month, lung functioning increases by up to 30%, and you may feel it's easier to exercise or walk for long distances, Hayes says. You almost no longer experience nicotine cravings or coughing fits.
Lung capacity continues to improve. You may notice you are no longer short of breath and have more energy, Hayes says.
One year later, your risk of coronary heart disease is now 50% less than that of a smoker. Former smokers might notice they are sick less and can fight colds more quickly thanks to regrown cilia helping sweep infections away.
The risk of lung disease is cut in half 10 years after you quit smoking.
Tobacco smoke thickens blood and narrows arteries, both of which put smokers at a heightened risk for blood clots and strokes. After a decade of being nicotine-free, these effects are reversed as your arteries widen and heal, and your risk of stroke also significantly decreases.
The bottom line
While smoking can cause serious and life-threatening damage to your body, it doesn't take long for it to heal itself once you quit smoking. Besides the obvious physical benefits — like improved lung functioning and a decreased risk of fatal heart attacks, lung diseases, or cancer — people who quit smoking are likely to experience an improvement in their mental health.
"There are so many benefits that happen even within the first hour of quitting," Dr. Hayes says. "Stress will improve, mental health may improve…there are so many other things that are going to add to the physical healing process."
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