When you're quitting smoking, finding the right motivation can greatly improve your chances of success. Whether that means learning more about the various health risks associated with smoking, the effect smoking can have on those around you, or exactly how much it costs you to keep up the habit. Now is the time to find that motivation to quit – and stay quit.

On this page, we’re going to look at why people smoke and why quitting smoking is hard. We’ll look at what smoking does to your body and then find out the various health effects of quitting smoking. We’ll also talk about habits, helping you understand what makes you feel like smoking so you can work on avoiding those triggers and change your practices over time.


What smoking does to your body

What’s in a cigarette

Cigarettes contain more than 7,000 harmful chemicals, and some are really nasty. The same kind of chemicals you’d find in places like your tool shed, under the bonnet of your car, or in cleaning products under your sink. One thing’s for sure; they don’t belong in your body. Check out what’s in a cigarette. You might be surprised.

Take a look at what you’re putting in your body to inspire you to quit for good. Remember, every time you take a puff of a cigarette, these harmful ingredients damage your body.

Chemical Other places the chemical is used or found
Tar Commonly used to pave roads you drive on
Arsenic Found in rat poison
Benzene Used to create rubber cement
Formaldehyde Used to preserve dead bodies
Carbon monoxide Released in car exhaust fumes
Ammonia Found in some household cleaning products
Naphthalene Main chemical in some mothballs
Cadmium Found in some battery acids
Acetone Found in some nail polish remover
Acetic acid An ingredient in hair dye
Butane Used as fuel for lighters
Hexamine Contained in BBQ lighter fluid
Lead Major component in your car battery
Methanol Used as fuel for space rockets
Nicotine Used as an insecticide to kill bugs
Toluene Found in house paint

The chemicals that mostly contribute to smoking-related diseases are tar, nicotine and carbon monoxide. However, the other harmful pollutants in tobacco smoke can also contribute.

After you breathe in these chemicals, many enter your bloodstream through the lung walls and are pumped around your body.

As soon as you quit smoking, your body starts to heal itself. Read about repairing your body to see how you can reverse the effects of smoking.

What happens when you smoke?

When you smoke, harmful chemicals enter your lungs and then spread through your body. Once in your bloodstream, the chemicals can go everywhere your blood goes, causing harm to every part of your body. They reach your brain, heart and other organs in just 10 seconds from when you first inhale.

Even if you don’t inhale, you'll still absorb chemicals through the lining of your mouth, and from there, into your bloodstream.

How does nicotine addiction work?

So, why do you keep smoking, knowing that it’s causing you harm? Along with all those other chemicals, it’s the nicotine in cigarettes that keeps you smoking them. Nicotine is highly addictive. It works by stimulating reward centres in your brain, releasing dopamine. This creates temporary feelings of happiness or calm, gives you more energy and helps you concentrate.

The problem is these effects don’t last long. Between cigarettes, nicotine levels in your body fade, leading your brain to crave more dopamine. The longer you've been smoking, the more dopamine you need to feel good. This leads you to become dependent on nicotine, and without it, you'll have withdrawal symptoms.

As you stop smoking, you may find it difficult to concentrate or feel anxious, irritable, restless or nervous. This nicotine dependence, combined with nicotine withdrawal, makes you want to smoke more – creating a cycle that’s hard to break free from. In other words, you're addicted. It helps if you use nicotine replacement products or medication when quitting.

What smoking does to your body

By smoking, you reduce your quality of life and the number of years you can expect to live. You may not feel many of the negative health effects straight away, but you're putting yourself at risk of developing smoking-related diseases.

Up to two-thirds of long-term smokers die of smoking-related disease and have their life cut short, on average, by about 10 years, compared to non-smokers.

  • Nicotine narrows your veins and arteries - this slows your blood flow, reduces oxygen to your feet and hands, and damages your heart by forcing it to work harder.
  • Tar coats your lungs, much like soot in a chimney.
  • Carbon monoxide deprives your heart of the oxygen it needs to pump blood around your body, which eventually results in your airways swelling up and letting less air into your lungs.
  • Ammonia and formaldehyde aggravate your eyes, nose and throat.
  • Phenols kill the hair-like cells in your airways, which means they can no longer clean the lining of your airways to protect them against infections.
  • Tiny particles in tobacco smoke irritate your throat and lungs, making you produce more mucus and damaging lung tissue.
  • Cancer-causing chemicals make your cells grow abnormally, which can result in cancer cells.

Medical issues commonly associated with smoking include:

  • cancer
  • heart disease and stroke
  • diabetes
  • chronic respiratory conditions
  • dental problems
  • loss of hearing and vision
  • fertility problems
  • osteoporosis
  • infections caused by a weakened immune system.

Evidence suggests smoking also has a negative impact on mental health. Some studies show that smoking is associated with increased rates of depression, anxiety, panic attacks, schizophrenia and suicide attempts.


Habit and routines

As well as the effects of addiction, some habits can also make it hard to quit smoking. Perhaps you usually smoke when you have a cup of tea or coffee. When you quit, your brain remembers that habit, creating a craving for a cigarette.

Identifying these habits or triggers can help you manage them by finding alternative activities to those you link with smoking. You could also change your routine or find a distraction.

Usual habits Coping strategies
When you wake up Have a shower and plan the day ahead.
With coffee Change your drink type or take the time to experience its full flavour. Consume your drink in a new location.
When driving Listen to your favourite music. Make your car smoke-free and remove cigarettes from sight.
After work Go for a walk with friends.
After dinner Chew gum or call a friend.
When watching TV Fiddle with a stress ball.
Just before bed Have a warm drink or watch a funny video.
With alcohol Avoid alcohol as much as possible in the first few weeks. Have a non-alcoholic beverage—hold it in the hand you usually hold your cigarette.
As a reward Buy a copy of your favourite magazine and enjoy reading and flipping through it.
When you’re with another smoker Hold a water bottle in your hand and have regular sips.
When working on your computer at home Reorganise the room or put your computer in another room. Take regular sips of water.

Other triggers

Understanding what makes you smoke can help you avoid it when you quit. As well as your habits, you may find your feelings or emotions are connected to smoking. You may reach for a cigarette for comfort when you’re sad or angry or for something to do when you’re bored or wanting to cover up uncomfortable feelings.

Certain social situations may also be a trigger. Going to a party or social gathering, going to the pub, or having friends over may become difficult situations when you first quit. Your brain creates cravings as a result of remembering you have smoked in those situations before. You may also be surrounded by others who are smoking.


Make a quit diary

Creating a quit diary can help you better manage habits and triggers. To do this, each time you have a cigarette or experience a craving, note down:

  • the date and time
  • what you’re doing
  • what you’re feeling
  • how strong the craving is.

You can use this diary to identify your triggers and habits. This will help you find ways to work around them.

What quitting can do for you

The effects of smoking may seem overwhelming. You can turn things around by quitting smoking. You might be surprised just how quickly things start to change.

  • After 12 hours, almost all the nicotine will be out of your system and most by-products will be gone within 5 days.
  • After 24 hours, the level of carbon monoxide in your blood will have dropped considerably, allowing your body to take in and use oxygen more efficiently.
  • After 2 days, your sense of smell and taste will start to return.
  • After 2 months, blood flow to your hands and feet will have improved.
  • After 1 year, your risk of heart disease will have dropped significantly.
  • After 10 years, your risk of lung cancer will have halved.

See the health benefits

Learn how the body repairs

Last updated: January 2023