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Side Effects of Quitting Smoking - What Happens to Your Body?

Lela Bryan has been training people how to quit smoking since she quit smoking in 1978. Her program focuses on gradual behavioral changes.

what-happens-to-your-body-when-you-quit-smoking-with-cold-turkey--chantix-or-zyban

The Side Effects of Quitting Smoking

So you’ve finally quit smoking. You thought life would immediately be better and your health would certainly improve—but not only do you not feel better, you feel worse than you did before. Now you’re wondering how long these side effects and symptoms are going to last.

Knowledge is power with nicotine addiction: If you know ahead of time about the physical and emotional changes your body will undergo, it will give you an advantage and make it easier to follow through with your commitment to stop.

Knowing how long the side effects may last—and what you can do to prevent or alleviate them—will give you the information, resources, and confidence you need to quit smoking for good. The information you find below may save you the time and expense of doctor and/or emergency room visits, not to mention unnecessary medical tests.

What Causes Some People to Have More Severe Side Effects?

There are three main factors that affect the severity of side effects when you quit smoking:

  1. The strength of level of nicotine in your cigarettes or patch, gum lozenges, or e-cigarettes.
  2. How long you take to detoxify or lower your level of nicotine affects your the body and mind's ability to adjust.
  3. How long you work at changing your routines, behaviors, and habits while you are still smoking. It takes 21-42 days to change a habit.

In the chart below, I'm going to compare the severity of side effects of a smoker who smokes a pack a day of Marlboro cigarettes with a level of nicotine in each cigarette that is 1.1 mg of nicotine. The method of quitting is the main factor that determines the severity and duration of the side effects.

Cessation Method and Side Effect Severity

MethodNicotine Level at QuittingDays To Lower NicotineDays to Change BehaviorSeverity of Side Effects

Nicotine Solutions

1 mg nicotine

35 days

35 days

Low

Nicotine Patch

0.7 mg nicotine (lowest level)

30 days

30 days

Medium

Nicotine Lozenges

0.7 mg nicotine

30 days

30 days

Medium

Nicotine Gum

0.7 mg nicotine

30 days

30 days

Medium

Nicotine Nasal Spray

0.7 mg nicotine

30 days

30 days

Severe

Chantix (USA) Champix (outside USA)

1.1 mg nicotine x 20 = 22 mg nicotine

84 days

84 days

Medium to Severe

Allen Carr Book

1.1 mg nicotine x 20 = 22 mg nicotine

21 days

21 days

Medium to Severe

Wellbutrin / Zyban

1.1 mg nicotine x 20 = 22 mg nicotine

14 days

14 days

Severe

Hypnosis

1.1 mg nicotine x 20 = 22 mg nicotine

0 days

0 days

Severe

Acupuncture

1.1 mg nicotine x 20 = 22 mg nicotine

0 days

0 days

Severe

Cold Turkey

1.1 mg nicotine x 20 = 22 mg nicotine

0 days

0 days

Severe

what-happens-to-your-body-when-you-quit-smoking-with-cold-turkey--chantix-or-zyban

Nicotine Withdrawal: The Basics

Nicotine is a powerfully addictive drug. Depending on how long the smoker has smoked, the body will undergo varying degrees of withdrawal. No matter which method you use, withdrawal will have to happen. As long as any nicotine remains in the bloodstream, the body will keep expecting more.

When will withdrawal begin? The amount of nicotine in your bloodstream will be reduced by half every two hours after quitting.

After you quit smoking, nicotine is in the the body for just three days. The third day after you have quit, all you are left with are thoughts, routines, and behaviors.

The symptoms of recovery can last up to one or two years depending on the method that you used to quit, what level of nicotine you were at when you quit, how long you took to taper off of the nicotine, and if you changed your behaviors and routines in the process of quitting.

Smoking affects the body in monumental ways. Not everyone experiences the same symptoms. Below are some of the most common complaints.

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Read More From Youmemindbody

Digestion Side Effects: Duration and Treatment

  • Acid Indigestion/Heartburn: If you had acid indigestion before you quit, it will get a bit worse during withdrawal, and then it may go away. If you never had heartburn, this symptom can last from three weeks to three months. Try Tums or DGL (deglycyrrhizinated licorice), which can both help with acid reflux. Another name for acid reflux is called Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease, or GERD, which is a digestive disorder that affects the lower esophageal sphincter.

Dealing With Heartburn and Acid Indigestion When Quitting Smoking

Gas or Flatulence

  • Gas or Flatulence: This may last several weeks. Try to avoid eating gas-producing foods like beans, cabbage, or cauliflower. You can also try Beano.

Quit Smoking and Dealing With Gas

Diarrhea

  • Diarrhea: This can last a few days while the body adjusts to the new changes. Try any over-the-counter remedy.

Quitting Smoking and Dealing With Diarrhea

Nausea

  • Nausea: You may experience flu-like symptoms that last a week or so. Drinking lots of water or carbonated beverages should help.

Dealing With Nausea When You Quit Smoking

Constipation

  • Constipation: This may last several weeks. Cigarettes act as both a diuretic and a laxative in the body so when you take nicotine away, you may get constipated. You can use an over-the-counter remedy or make a homemade laxative, which is gentler on the body.

Dealing With Constipation When Quitting Smoking

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Skin Changes: Duration and Treatment

You would think that your skin would start to improve when you quit smoking, but no! It will improve eventually, but not right away.

  • Skin Blemishes: Your body is getting rid of toxins, and you may get acne, blemishes, or a rash after you quit. These will last about a month, and then your skin will begin to look better than it did before.
  • Hives: This reaction can be due to nerves from quitting cold turkey or the quick detoxification of nicotine from the body. It should go away in a week or so.
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Respiratory Side Effects: Duration and Treatment

  • Sinus Congestion: This is caused by a clearing out of the sinuses. It feels almost as if someone has turned on a little water hose in your head. This symptom may last up to two months. Take an over-the-counter medication until the dripping stops or use a neti pot to help clear things out.
  • Coughing/Throat-Clearing: This is due to a cleaning-out of the reactivated cilia in the lungs. Your body is clearing out the debris, tar, and phlegm. We can't get a vacuum down into the lungs, so coughing up the debris is a good thing. This may last from a few days to several months.
  • Phlegm: This is also due to reactivated cilia. It can last a couple of months.
  • Hoarseness: The throat are getting some tender new tissue, almost like when a baby is teething. The tissue in the throat is regenerating, a process that may last several months. Use lozenges or whatever you would use for a sore throat. Hot tea with lemon and honey can help.
  • Gasping for breath: The feeling like you can't get enough breath doesn't go away immediately after quitting. You keep trying to take deep breaths, but it feels like you can't get enough air. This will last about a month before you begin breathing normally again. You have been so used to deep breathing with smoke that you need to give yourself a little time to adjust.
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Circulation Issues: Duration and Treatment

  • Dizziness: The dizziness is due to increased circulation of oxygen to the brain, and it should only last a few days until your brain gets used to it. Give your body time to readjust.
  • Stiffness/Leg Pains: This almost feels like those growing pains you had as a kid and is a sign of improved circulation. Remember, you are changing at a cellular and muscular level. Take a hot bath, get a massage, rub on some tiger balm, or just put your legs up to rest. Give yourself a break!
  • Tingly Fingers and Toes: This is also caused by the improved circulation and may last a few days to a couple of weeks.
  • Swelling, Bloating, and Tight Waistband: This is due to fluid retention. But still, help your body flush out the toxins by drinking a lot of water and cutting down on sodium. People tend to gain three to seven pounds of temporary water weight when they first quit smoking. For you men, this is the closest you will ever come to experiencing PMS!

How To Avoid Gaining Weight When You Quit Smoking

Afraid of Weight Gain?

Aside from a temporary gain in water weight, some people are afraid of gaining weight after they quit smoking. If that's you, then pump up your metabolism, cut out the sweets or other foods you use to occupy your mouth, and find other ways to keep yourself busy.


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Sleep Changes: Duration and Treatment

  • Insomnia: After you quit smoking, you don't go into such a deep sleep as you did when you smoked. It almost feels like you have been up all night. You tend to go into a lighter sleep state of rapid eye movement (REM) more often, usually every 90 minutes. Many new non-smokers are not used to this lighter sleep and feel like they're not sleeping well. Your body will get used to the new sleep cycle eventually but until then, you might consider a sleep aid. Calms Forte, which I have personally used and recommended to others, is calming and non-addictive.
  • Dreams: When you quit smoking, sometimes you might experience vivid dreams, maybe even nightmares. Having dreams or even nightmares is a very good sign because it means that you are working out your problems rather than smoking them.
  • Vivid Dreams with Zyban, Wellbutrin, or Chantix: Although is typical to have very vivid dreams when you quit smoking, I have heard that the dreams that you get from taking these drugs are more "over-the-top" and a lot more dramatic than the dreams that you may have otherwise.

Trouble Sleeping With the Nicotine Patch?

Nicotine stresses the heart and makes it beat 10,000 more beats a day. This can affect your sleep patterns. You may be on too high of a dosage.

Contrary to what the patch manufacturers or doctors may tell you, you need to calculate the nicotine level of the cigarettes you were smoking to know what level of patch you need to be on, and then you may need to make adjustments.

There are three strengths of nicotine patches:

  • 21 mg (patch manufacturers and doctors will ask how many packs you smoke a day: If you smoke a pack a day, they will put you on the 21 mg patch)
  • 14 mg (if you smoke half a pack a day, they recommend the 14 mg patch)
  • 7 mg (for those who smoke less than half a pack a day)

Does it matter what brand you smoked? Yes. It depends on the total nicotine level you used to use, not on how many cigarettes you smoked. Because every brand of cigarette contains a different amount of nicotine, these generalizations might not be accurate in your case. If you're getting too much nicotine, you may have trouble sleeping.

For example, if you used to smoke a pack of Carlton's, that would be 20 x .1 = 2 mg of nicotine, so you should go on the lowest patch (7 mg) and even that may be too high. Or if you used to smoke a half a pack of American Spirits Ultra Lights, that would be 10 x 1.79 mg of nicotine = almost 18 mg total, and you should probably start out on the 14 or the 21 mg patch.

A lethal dose of nicotine is 50-80 mg, and this is why you are warned not to smoke when you are on the patch: That much nicotine is very hard on the heart and could even kill you.

Note: Pregnant women should not take any drugs to stop smoking.

Fatigue, Sleepiness, and Drowsiness: Duration and Treatment

Nicotine is a vasoconstrictor, constricting your blood vessels and stressing out your heart. As a smoker, your heart had to work harder, making your heart beat 10,000 more times a day.

When you stop smoking, your heart rate slows down, thus slowing down your metabolism. When you are not getting that punch of nicotine, you may feel tired, sleepy, and lethargic. You might feel run down, almost as if you have a cold—in fact, some people refer to this feeling as the "smokers' flu" or "quitters' flu." Don't worry, this is only temporary and will only last a few weeks. After that, you will have more energy than when you smoked!

But sometimes it takes longer to get your energy back. Your body remembers running on those shots of nicotine and getting those boosts of energy. When you quit, your body needs to adjust to its natural rhythm and sometimes it can feel like you are more tired than ever. Listen to your body, get rest, and this too shall pass.

Treatment: Take cat naps, go to bed earlier, and drink fruit juice and water. If you have to drive or run heavy machinery, you can drink another cup of coffee or get some lozenges with caffeine in them to help keep you awake and safe.

Remember: Fatigue is the one trigger for smoking, so it is important to get your rest.

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Emotional Side Effects: Duration and Treatment

Irritability is partially caused by fluid retention, and there are two things you can do: Drink as much water as you possibly can and cut down on foods that are high in sodium. Foods that are high in sodium are soups, pickles, packaged or highly processed foods, or any food on which you can see the salt. Salt makes you retain water, and water retention makes you cranky.

Another cause of anger and irritability is that you're having to deal with issues rather than escaping to smoke them, instead. You will have to learn other ways of dealing with your emotions. You'll also need to teach people how they are going to treat you. In the past if you quit smoking they said, "Oh, you were nicer as a smoker." Now, you have to explain that you are going to handle life in a different way rather than smoke for it. Trust me, eventually it will all smooth out.

If you don't know how to deal with your emotions, you'll have to start looking around for answers that resonate for you. Talking to someone who understands, reading a book, or finding other ways to express, release, or redirect your feelings is key now. I really liked a book called Getting in touch with your inner bitch by Elizabeth Hilts. (Sorry guys, there is no male counterpart.)

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Is Quitting More Difficult for Men or Women?

A new study published by the Yale University School of Medicine suggests why women tend to find it harder to quit smoking than men. Why? According to the study, women's brains respond differently to nicotine.

Experts used to believe that when someone smokes, the number of nicotine receptors in the brain (which bind to and reinforce the habit of smoking nicotine) are thought to increase in number. But recent studies show that this is only true for men. While male smokers have a larger number of nicotine receptors than male nonsmokers, women smokers have about the same number of nicotine receptors as female nonsmokers.

This study is important because most treatments involve nicotine-replacement therapies, but these may not work for women. Women may benefit more from other approaches including behavioral therapy, exercise, relaxation techniques, and other non-nicotine-based methods.

For both men and women, however, it takes more than just a pill like Chantix or Zyban to stop smoking. It also takes more than just hypnosis (which is just mental) or acupuncture (which is just physical) to quit. The smoking habit has something to do with nicotine but more to do with habits and with stuffed emotions you've been avoiding. This may be even more true for women.

After 72 hours after quitting, the nicotine is gone. After that, all you are left with are your feelings, habits, and routines. Those are the things that need to be dealt with to quit permanently!

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Sore Mouth and Bleeding Gums: Duration and Treatment

When you smoked, you were literally smoking your gums and throat the way you might smoke a piece of salmon. Your gums and tissues built up a crust. When you quit smoking, that old, hard crust will slough off, and in its place you will get new, fresh tissue—almost like when a baby is teething.

Only about 1 out of 30 people who quit smoking get a sore mouth, gums, or tongue, but if you are that one, your mouth will feel like it is on fire. A student in one of my classes had to have her dentures relined because there was that much of a change in her gums from quitting smoking.

This symptom may last as long as eight weeks. In order to relieve it, you can try a soothing rinse called Life Brand Oral Wound Cleanser, which is made in Canada (this is a generic replacement for a discontinued brand I used to recommend, called Amosan).

Other Side Effects

  • Itchiness: If you are doing a lot of scratching, it is probably just caused by increased circulation, and it will only last a few weeks.
  • Depression: Depression is a common side effect of stopping smoking, in the short and long term. It may feel like grief or the way you might feel if you lost a loved one. They say that quitters go through a period of mourning in the early stages of withdrawal. If it continues, take an herbal drug remedy called Sulfonil by Thorne. You need more than pills to quit smoking—you need to start dealing with the underlying causes of your emotions—but a medication or herb can help. Since depression is also caused by water retention, cut down on salt and processed foods for a few months, start to do a little bit more exercise, and drink a lot more water.
  • Headache: Many quitters experience headaches during withdrawal.
  • Excitement: Your emotions are all over the board. Give yourself some time to smooth out.
  • Hot Flashes: I had hot flashes when I quit. I would have smoked in the shower if I could have kept the cigarette lit. Both men and women experience hormone changes when they quit nicotine.

Did You Say Hot Flashes?

When you quit, you may experience hot flashes: intense surges of heat that make you sweat and turn your cheeks red. They will only last a few weeks, and you can use a natural progesterone cream to help: Rub a 1/4 tsp. on a fatty part of your body in the morning and evening.

I recommend a natural, over-the-counter progesterone cream called ProGest, made by Emerita, because both men and women can use it. (It is not hormone replacement therapy, or HRT.)

Note for men: Don't worry, you won't grow breasts if you use this cream! If you have been a smoker, natural progesterone cream will also help with osteoporosis. Smoking is one of the main causes of osteoporosis.

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What about you?

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and does not substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, and/or dietary advice from a licensed health professional. Drugs, supplements, and natural remedies may have dangerous side effects. If pregnant or nursing, consult with a qualified provider on an individual basis. Seek immediate help if you are experiencing a medical emergency.

Comments

Claire on January 03, 2020:

Thank you. This is a really positive, no nonsense article. I am 60 years old and have smoked for over 30 years. I have, like most people tried to stop many times. However, it has always felt like i was raging a war against myself and i always surrendered. I realised my head was telling me to stop, be sensibl (I had chest pains etc) but my body and the habit always won over. I read and listened to articles about the power of the mind over the body. Simply, it has worked. I am a non smoker. I have not spent a minute fighting the urge to have a cigarette. It's not a battle, its your choice and only you can make it. Bon courage.

Bud on October 23, 2019:

Im 51 and had a heart attack about a month ago. Smoked 1/2 a pack to a pack a day for 20 years. The night of my heart attack was the night i smoked my last cigarette. Quit cold turkey. For about a week now, been having congestion and coughing up phlegm. Its been annoying and disturbing my sleep so i hope it ends soon. It does seem like its tapering off.

brad on August 29, 2019:

stopped smoking 7 days now on nicotine patch from 21mg now down to 14 mg having back and chest pain

alyssa on August 28, 2019:

day 28. still have really bad days, i really cry for no reason, and i dont care anymore about anything, super depressed

HEJ on July 28, 2019:

been smoking 38 years,,,,took 6 months to quit .... gained 60 lbs.... it has been 1 1/2 years now, smoke free.... oops , tell a lie,,,, my brother laid out a bunch of cigarettes when I came over one day,,, and I grabbed one and lit up.... whoo... It hurt my throat so bad I thought I was going to pass out....

I had pains, in my feet , arms , legs, bloating,,, still bloated,,,I am just now experiencing, extreme sweating, and phlegm for no reason. I did not have any phlegm earlier,,,, and was wondering when it was all gonna come up!! so it has been over a year,,,,, weird!!!.... my sillia must have been really beat down,,, and just starting to grow back. ???? who knows,,, anyone else have the same?

Christal on June 26, 2019:

35 year Marlboro Red smoker. Have briefly stopped before, never all the way. Now 10 days smoke free, cold turkey. Having a surgery and needed to gain weight, so that’s helpful. Worst day was 3... worst problems after day 3 have been heartburn and leg aches. Not sure if leg aches are more related to weight gain.

Bill Carson. on June 20, 2019:

Night sweats. I'm 59 so maybe it's normal.

Philip on March 23, 2019:

Stopped smoking on 11.January 19. Which is about 2.5 months ago .ive developed a rash all over my body and face which burns and itchy it comes and goes . My legs get red hot especially at night .i struggle to breath every day .and under my eyes gets sore .i went docs they gave me 7 days antibiotics and some cream for rash and in haler for breathing. Antibiotics and cream have done absolutely nothing . And still struggling to breath without inhaler . FEEL CRAP

Nenad Petrovski on March 16, 2019:

Hi There,

Age 35, smoker 20 years, quit cold turkey first time in my life 27 days ago. No other side effects except stomach acid / heartburn almost daily since i quit smoking. When this stops any idea?

john on December 14, 2018:

it has only been 1 wk this time. gas has been the only problem this time. (cold turkey) went to little cigars from cigarettes and stopping seems a little easier right now. maybe this is the last time. can't wait for the weight gain. dieted beforehand and lost 30 lbs.

Sathish Chandrasekaran on September 27, 2018:

Brilliant article. Thanks for detailing a lot of things here. Really helped me to understand and I really keep visiting this again and again to keep my brain informed.

On a littler note, in the article, it was mentioned that nicotine receptors in male brain are more and there is no change in female brain as far as the no of receptors is concerned. Could it be because most women doesn't know how to smoke properly, they just drag the smoke and blow it before it touches tongue? :P

Carol Herald on August 14, 2018:

xxxx

Pradeep Kumar mod on August 09, 2018:

hi Lela I had quitted smoking 6months ago but my left side burning constantly (sometimes right side) like someone burn candle in my chest also left arm hurts but from 3 days condition getting so worse what should I do please reply me...plz..

Pradeep Kumar on August 07, 2018:

I had quitted smoking 6months ago but still my left side chest mainly (sometimes right side also for short time of period)burning like someone burn candle on my chest constantly and also sometimes stomach hurting and the left hand and back side pain sometimes .I already done x-ray CBC urine test thiaride test all are normal.it is normal?

Ducksquack on August 04, 2018:

I quit 3 days ago! I wanted to make 72 hours before posting here. One day I told myself enough is enough, puffed my last smoke and haven’t smoked since. These side effects aren’t to much of a bother but my mouth does seem to go dry often, I have always told myself I’m stronger then the addiction and have the ability to stop. I knew cold turkey was the only method for me I just hope I can now make it to 21-42 days. It seems like I want to reward myself with a smoke now. All your stories are motivational and I hope they help others.

Carol Herald on August 03, 2018:

I quit in March 2018 so 4 months smoke free and so glad to have come across this page - I have never had so many aches and pains in my life! Swelling in my feet, ankles, legs, hands. - water tablets, elevating the feet when possible doesn't seem to be clearing it up. Blood tests, ECG and chest x-ray all came back clear. Anyone know how long these side effects will last?

Carol Herald on August 02, 2018:

As other people have mentioned I am so glad to have found this site. I am now 4 months smoke free and still got water retention, joint pain, body aches... it would be nice to know how long these feelings will last!

I have been taking a 'water tablet' now for the past 2 months, drinking lots of water, and also trying to up the walking but nothing seems to be working at the moment.

Blood tests, ECG, chest xray have all been clear (which is a good thing!).

I have never had so many aches and pains in my life!!!

Brittany on July 07, 2018:

I am always bloated. Does not matter if I eat or I dont eat. Idk how much longer I can deal with it.

Kelly on June 18, 2018:

Burning in my throat and lungs!

Mary on May 29, 2018:

I quit April 4th, 2018. My biggest issue is swelling in my calves and feet. Never before in my life have they ever gotten this big and hurting. My pinky toe is even swollen. They throb and hurt. When I'm sitting in my recliner I have them elevated on a pillow and that doesn't seem to be helping either. I drink plenty of water also. I guess I will have to wait and see if it goes away on its own. That's what I've been told. Good luck to you all! :)

Kathleen S. on May 18, 2018:

Night sweats

Emerald on April 16, 2018:

I gave up 3 month ago and in the last two weeks get palpitations ranging from two, three times a day to over twenty

Lisa on April 05, 2018:

I'm 4 months in and glad I found this page. I was starting to worry about these side affects as well. I attempted to quit twice before and made it a year each time. Something traumatic happened and I started again. Both times I never experienced these side affects. I was ready to go to the doctor until I read the symptoms in the article above. So, now knowing that these are part of it and that it could last awhile...I can accept it. But no wonder people go back to smoking. They don't have the information needed to continue on this path or maybe a computer to research it like we do. Thank you for this.

Poz_2011 on March 31, 2018:

I choose to stop smoking because my CD4 count won't go up to at least higher than 209 & I have been under ART for more than 4 years now and was recommended by my Hiv doctor to try to stop smoking and see if after 6months my CD4 will go fairly higher. I have not been smoking for more than 3 weeks now, however for the past week I have been getting rashes/bumps/acne on my face -- hoping to will just be temporary. Looking forward to a healthier lifestyle.

Butch Rudshagen on March 13, 2018: