Whether you've recently quit smoking or are considering the possibility, what may get you through withdrawal or the fear of it is what many call the quit smoking timeline — what you'll experience from minutes after you put down that pack to years down the road. Better breathing, a reduced risk of cancer and heart disease, and a longer, more active life are just some of the numerous benefits you have to look forward to.

Harmful Effects of Smoking

Before you embark on your quit smoking timeline, you may want to acquaint yourself with some of the disadvantages of continuing to smoke. Tobacco smoke is harmful to smokers and the non-smokers they come in contact with. At least 250 of the more than 7,000 chemicals contained in smoke are known to be harmful. According to the National Cancer Institute, at least 69 of them can cause cancer.

Smoking is a leading cause of cancer and cancer deaths, and it also causes heart disease, stroke, aortic aneurysm, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, asthma, hip fractures and cataracts. In the United States it is the number one cause of preventable, premature deaths.

Minutes, Hours, Days and Weeks After Quitting

The benefits of stopping smoking are felt almost as soon as you lay down that last cigarette. Within a few minutes your heart rate and blood pressure, which have been speeded up by smoking, begin to return to normal.

Within a few hours, the levels of carbon monoxide in your bloodstream begin to subside, which allows your blood to carry oxygen to your cells more efficiently.

In a few weeks, your circulation improves, you produce less phlegm and stop coughing or wheezing as often as you did when you were a smoker.

Within a few months, the cilia, those tiny hairy structures that move mucus out of the lungs, start to regain their normal functioning, more efficiently cleaning the lungs and helping fight off infection. In addition, your sense of smell is enhanced and food tastes better. (You also smell better and have more money in your pocket, since you no longer spend your cash on cigarettes — benefits that are surely worth noting.)

Quit Smoking Timeline Landmarks: One Year and Beyond

Once your quit smoking timeline has reached one year, you are well on your way to recovery. Your risk of coronary heart disease has been reduced to half of that of a continuing smoker, according to the 2010 U.S. Surgeon General’s Report.

Within five years of quitting, your risk of cancer of the mouth, throat, esophagus, and bladder are half of what they were when you were smoking. If you are a woman, your risk of cervical cancer has returned to that of a non-smoker. Your risk of stroke decreases to that of a non-smoker within two to five years.

Ten years down the road, your risk of dying from lung cancer has fallen to half of that of a person who still smokes, and your risk of cancer of the larynx and pancreas also decreases. In 15 years you have reached the point that your risk of heart disease is the same as that of a non-smoker.

Does it Matter How Long I’ve Smoked Before I Quit?

The earlier you stop smoking, the better, but quitting the habit will improve your health at any age, according to the National Cancer Institute. If you stop by age 30, you will reduce your chance of dying prematurely from smoking-related diseases by more than 90 percent. If you quit at 50, you reduce that same risk by 50 percent, compared to those who continue to smoke.

In 2008, the Journal of the American Medical Association published an analysis of the Nurse's Health Study. The study began in 1976 and followed 121,700 female registered nurses in the United States, aged 30 to 55. The research looked at the relationship between smoking and mortality among never smokers, current smokers and former smokers.

The overall conclusions were that women who quit smoking see significant health benefits within five years of stopping, but it can take 20 years or more for their risk of death to descend to the level of those who never smoked. Women who still smoked were 20 times more likely to die of lung cancer than non-smokers, with former smokers about five times as likely to die from it.

The mortality risk among current smokers was higher for those who began the habit at age 17 or younger compared to those who started smoking at age 26 or after. Women who quit smoking reduced their risk of death by 13 percent within five years, compared to never-smokers. After 20 years their risk was same as that of never-smokers.

By Betty Holt


American Cancer Society. Study Better Defines Risks of Smoking, Benefits of Quitting for Women. Available at: http://www.cancer.org/Cancer/news/News/study-better-defines-risks-of-smoking-benefits-of-quitting-for-women Accessed on: May 26, 2011.

American Cancer Society. When Smokers Quit -- What Are the Benefits Over Time? http://www.cancer.org/Healthy/StayAwayfromTobacco/GuidetoQuittingSmoking/guide-to-quitting-smoking-benefits Accessed on May 26, 2011.

National Cancer Institute. Harms of Smoking and Health Benefits of Quitting. Available at: http://www.cancer.gov/cancertopics/factsheet/Tobacco/cessation Accessed on: May 26, 2011.

Publication Review By: the Editorial Staff at HealthCommunities.com

Published: 16 Jun 2011

Last Modified: 19 Feb 2015