Lela Bryan has been training people how to quit smoking since she quit smoking in 1978. Her program focuses on gradual behavioral changes.
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.
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 3 things that cause side effects when you quit smoking:
- The strength of nicotine in your cigarettes at the time that you stop smoking.
- How long you take to detoxify off of nicotine affects your body and mind's ability to adjust.
- How long you work at changing your routines, behaviors, and habits while you are still smoking. (It takes 21 to 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.
Nicotine Withdrawal: The Basics
Nicotine is a powerfully addictive drug. The body and mind need at least 21 to 37 days to change routines & mindset and adjust to changes in the body. If you quit cold turkey, you will have more severe side effects with your mind and body.
The symptoms of recovery can last up to a year or sometimes longer, depending on the method that you used to quit.
Side effects vary depending on what level of nicotine you were at when you quit, how long you took to detoxify off of the nicotine, and if you changed your behaviors and routines in the process of quitting. Not everyone experiences the same symptoms.
Below are some of the most common side effects.
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.
Read More From Youmemindbody
Quit Smoking and Dealing With Gas
- 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: 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: 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
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.
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.
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!
Afraid of Weight Gain?
Let the habit die of neglect! Don’t substitute anything for the habit like food, candy, gum or even non-caloric things like chewing on pencils. Increase your water intake and exercise!
How To Avoid Gaining Weight When You Quit Smoking
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.
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.)
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.