5 Things former smokers should know  

Once you quit smoking, these 5 things former smokers should know can help you heal faster and lower your risk of smoking-related illness even more.  

So you’ve quit smoking. That’s great! Whether you just kicked the habit or it’s been a while, your body and lungs are already working to repair the damage from smoking. And there are a few things former smokers should know.

Within 20 minutes of taking your last puff, your blood pressure and heart rate begin to drop. A few days after quitting, the carbon monoxide level in your blood returns to normal. Within a few months, your blood flow improves and your lung function increases. Coughing and shortness of breath decrease. And the cilia in your lungs start to regain normal function. (Cilia are tiny hairlike structures that move mucus out of the lungs.) 

The benefits go on for years beyond that. A decade after quitting, your risk of several cancers is cut in half, including: 

  • Lung  
  • Mouth 
  • Throat 
  • Voice box (larynx)  

And 15 years after quitting, your risk of coronary heart disease is close to that of someone who doesn’t smoke. 

That’s a lot of great news. But you’re still at a higher risk of lung cancer and other respiratory diseases than someone who never smoked. So it’s important to be proactive about taking care of your lung health, says Patricia Folan, RN. Folan is the director of Northwell Health’s Center for Tobacco Control in Lake Success, New York. Here are 5 things former smokers should know to protect their health.  

1. You may need yearly lung scans. 

The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force changed its lung cancer screening guidelines in 2021. It now advises annual screening in adults ages 50 to 80 who have a 20 pack-year smoking history. (That’s equal to a pack a day for 20 years.) 

“Before 2021, the guidelines recommended screening for people with a 30 pack-year history. With the change to a 20 pack-year history, this means that hopefully many more people will get detected and treated earlier,” says Folan.  

Screening is done with a low-dose CT scan. It’s a special kind of x-ray linked to a computer. It gives off very low doses of radiation. The scan makes a series of pictures of areas inside the body that your doctor can inspect. Studies show that screening reduces the chances of dying of lung cancer by up to 20% in high-risk people. 

Keeping up with your screenings and making doctor appointments is much easier with help from a digital health management app such as Wellframe. Many health plans offer Wellframe for free. Ask if yours does today.

2. Eating the right diet can help prevent further lung damage. 

“A healthy diet won’t undo the damage from smoking. But it will help keep lungs healthy moving forward,” says Folan. “We always have a nutritionist come and speak to our quit-smoking support group.” Folan recommends an anti-inflammatory diet rich in: 

  • Fruits 
  • Green leafy veggies 
  • Fatty fish (such as salmon) 
  • Nuts  

Several studies have found a link between this sort of eating pattern and a lower risk of lung cancer in current or former smokers.  

3. Exercise is extra important for you.  

The good news is that once you quit — and stay quit — keeping active gets easier. “We had an employee who, before she stopped smoking, was overweight and had no stamina,” says Folan. “Several months later, she’d lost 35 pounds and was participating in all of the office walking challenges. That’s something she’d never been able to do before.”  

Exercise also helps you kick the habit long term. Research shows that even short bursts of movement reduce the urge to smoke. Working out also lowers your appetite. That can help stop the weight gain most people have when they quit smoking. “Exercise also boosts your mood, which will help prevent relapses,” Folan adds.  

4. You are more vulnerable to secondhand smoke. 

Secondhand smoke is a known health hazard. But the risks are greater in people who used to smoke. A 2020 study, for example, looked at former smokers who continued to be exposed to secondhand smoke. It found that they have a higher rate of heart disease than those who steered clear of secondhand smoke.  

“We know there’s already existing damage to their hearts and lungs from past smoking,” Folan says. That increases their vulnerability. Yet people who used to smoke are often hesitant to ask others not to light up around them, Folan adds. It’s important to speak up and reduce your contact with smoke and other toxins.   

5. Getting vaccinated against COVID-19 can offer you key protection. 

If you used to smoke, you’re more at risk of getting severely ill from COVID-19. “The COVID-19 virus affects the respiratory tract. And former smokers already have compromised lungs,” says Folan. “COVID-19 vaccines are especially important for former smokers.”  

That’s not the only vaccine people who’ve quit smoking should think about. Folan notes that they should make sure they’re up to date on both the flu and pneumococcal vaccines. Research shows that both current and former smokers are at greater risk of dying from the flu than people who never smoked.  

Here’s the bottom line. 

Remember, you’ve already quit smoking: The worst part is behind you. But don’t stop there. Keep the above facts in mind and take the right action. It can help you make the most of all your hard work.   

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