Smoking remains the foremost cause of preventable disease and death in the U.S. According to the Centers for Disease Control, more than 16 million Americans are living with a condition caused by smoking.
Individuals who have smoked heavily can benefit greatly from quitting. As a tobacco treatment specialist, I often receive questions about the health effects of smoking, screening, and ways to quit. Here are some of the most common questions about smoking cessation.
What are the health effects of smoking?
Smoking impacts almost every organ in the body. It increases blood pressure, bone density loss and risk of heart disease, and it weakens the immune system. Symptoms include but are not limited to frequent coughing, shortness of breath, hearing loss, blindness, and tingling in the hands and feet. According to reports by the surgeon general, approximately 90% of lung cancer deaths can be attributed to smoking.
When do smokers need lung cancer screening?
Currently, the United States Preventative Services Task Force recommends yearly screening with a low-dose computed tomography (or a low-dose CT scan) for adults 50-80 years of age who have a 20-pack-per-year history and currently smoke or have quit within the past 15 years.
What happens when smokers quit?
Within 20 minutes of quitting, blood pressure and heart rate begin to drop to a normal level. At 12 hours, the body’s carbon monoxide levels return to healthy levels. Within one year, the risk of a heart attack decreases to half that of a smoker. At 15 years, the risk of a heart attack is back to that of a non-smoker.
Why is it difficult to quit?
The main addictive substance in tobacco products is nicotine. As the body consumes nicotine, there is a release of various neurotransmitters in the brain, including dopamine. This brain chemical brings about a feeling of pleasure and as people continue to smoke, the brain becomes used to this feeling and begins craving it.
Are there treatment options to help with quitting?
There are medications such as nicotine replacement therapies like over-the-counter Nicotine gum, nicotine patches and nicotine lozenges – which can help with cravings and withdrawal. Others such as Varenicline (Chantix) and Buproprion (Wellbutrin) are prescription(s). Counseling and support groups are also beneficial.
What should be expected when visiting a tobacco treatment specialist?
Upon initial consultation, patients will receive smoking cessation information and answers to any questions they might have. Treatment specialists will evaluate tobacco use and related factors that may trigger or influence usage. A detailed plan for treatment and quitting will be created, and pharmacotherapy is often started before or on the quit date.
One to two-week follow-up visits (e.g., telemedicine encounters or in-person office visits) will be advised to offer support, monitor for adverse pharmacologic effects and emphasize adherence to medication(s).
How can behavioral counseling help?
Studies have shown multimodality treatment — a combination of behavioral support and pharmacologic therapy — produces higher smoking quit rates than either treatment alone. There are free resources, such as the telephone quit line at 1-800-QUIT-NOW, which can provide patients with useful information, counseling, and referrals to cessation resources.
To schedule an appointment with the Baylor St. Luke’s Tobacco Cessation Program, please call 713-798-6376 or request an appointment online.
-By Subin Valayil, tobacco treatment specialist and instructor in the Michael E. DeBakey Department of Surgery at Baylor College of Medicine. Valayil is also a physician assistant in the Division of General Thoracic Surgery at Baylor.