The biggest single thing a smoker can do to improve their health is to quit. In fact, in any given year, more than half of all smokers make at least one attempt to quit, and it is one of the most common New Year’s resolutions. Many people take this step about a month earlier—the Great American Smokeout on the third Thursday of November. Today, tens of thousands of Americans are smoking their last cigarette. Since 1977, millions of Americans have taken the challenge to not light up for 24 hours, and many of them never did again.
In fact, 24 hours is enough to start to see some improvement. Health benefits actually begin within 20 minutes, and after 12 hours without a cigarette, most of the immediate physical effects have dissipated. The 24-hour period of the challenge roughly coincides with the time it takes to reach the peak of mental distress as well—24 hours after a person’s last cigarette, the anxiety is at or past it’s highest level, and it will only improve from that point on.
Even long-term effects of smoking generally begin to reverse themselves over time. Nicotine usually completely clears the body after 72 hours, and the cravings start to reduce in frequency and duration. After 10 days, most former smokers have no more than two episodes per day. Quitting-related anxiety and irritability go away entirely after less than four weeks. The lungs begin to recover in as little as a month. All in all, while some health effects are permanent, most are completely cleared up within about a decade of quitting.
There are a number of resources available to help people quit smoking. There are options besides quitting cold turkey—substitutes and alternative nicotine delivery systems such as patches can help quitters ease off and help reduce cravings. Prescription medications can also help with cravings by helping to get the brain used to not having nicotine. Other things that can help people quit are substitute activities, to help break the habit of having a cigarette in the hand at certain times.
Support groups can also help—life improvement projects can be easier with accountability. Even writing down the intention to quit smoking privately can be a motivator.