If your last smoke was at least a few weeks ago, you can take comfort in knowing that the worst is probably behind you.
"Most of the nicotine is cleared out of your body within about two weeks, so you'll have fewer withdrawal symptoms," says Richard Hurt, MD, professor of medicine at the Mayo Clinic College of Medicine and director of its nicotine Dependence Center. However, you'll still have to find ways to fight your cravings. Cravings are short but they can be intense. The longer you're smoke-free, the less powerful and frequent they'll become. "I took up knitting, and any time I wanted a cigarette, I would knit a few rows," says Felicia Foster, of Austin, who quit last spring when she got pregnant. "I made a baby blanket, and all those hours I spent knitting represent all the cigarettes I didn't smoke."
Experts consider the period from six months to five years after your last puff to be the "maintenance phase," during which your confidence will increase and you'll be less tempted to smoke. While you may not have to concentrate as much to prevent a relapse, you should always be on guard for high-risk situations, particularly when you're feeling stressed. It's important to have a plan for what you'll do if you're tempted. "After a day of gardening and yard work when my son was with my ex-husband, the old me would sit on the patio with a beer and a smoke," says Kriste Goad, of Nashville, who quit last June. "The new Kriste says, 'I've come too far to backtrack now!' and I make myself a cup of tea."
If you've been using a nicotine replacement therapy or a non-nicotine prescription, think about how and when you'll wean yourself off it. It's fine if you're not ready to take that last step, says Dr. Hurt, because staying on the medication is still much healthier than smoking (just keep your doctor in the loop). Ethan Teicher, a 39-year-old dad of three in Forest Hills, New York -- who quit four years ago when his physician told him that his lung capacity was decades older than he was -- continued chewing nicotine-replacement gum for a year after his last cigarette.
Once you've quit, don't take even one puff -- when you wake up those nicotine receptors in your brain, they won't easily go back to sleep. However, if you do slip up and sneak a smoke, don't berate yourself. "It's crucial not to use this as an excuse to abandon your efforts. Just put it behind you, the same way a dieter who eats a few cookies one afternoon can have a salad for dinner and get back on track," says Cheryl Healton, DrPH, president of the American Legacy Foundation. Think about the situation that led you to lapse, and brainstorm about better ways to handle it next time. If you start smoking regularly again, just set another quit date and give it up again. All your hard work is worth it! "Initially, I quit because I wanted to be around a long time for my children," says Teicher. "But now I know that I also did it for me. I have more energy and look better than ever. No cigarette ever made me feel this terrific."
How soon after your last cigarette will you be healthier? Check out this inspiring time line.
Time: 20 minutes
Result: Your body starts ridding itself of the stimulant nicotine, lowering your blood pressure and pulse rate to healthier levels.
Time: 12 hours
Result: Blood levels of toxic carbon monoxide drop to normal.
Time: 1 to 9 months
Result: The strength of your lungs continually improves, and you'll experience less coughing and shortness of breath.
Time: 1 year
Result: Your increased risk of heart disease is cut by more than half.
Time: 10 years
Result: Your odds of getting lung cancer are about half those of a smoker.
Coping with Weight Worries
There's only one potential downside to quitting: You may put on a few pounds. Smoking is indeed an appetite suppressant, and it keeps your hands and mouth busy so you don't nosh as much. Plus, when you're fighting the urge to light up, let's face it: Chocolate-chip cookies are a powerful distraction. Instead, focus on these stay-slim strategies.
Stock up on low-cal choices.
Buy fruit, crunchy vegetables (cut them up so they're ready to grab), low-fat yogurt, fat-free cheese, fruit pops, and sugarless gum.
Breastfeed if you've just had a baby.
Not only is it the healthiest feeding option, but it's also a natural calorie furnace.
Exercise as much as possible.
Every little bit helps: biking with your children, pushing the stroller around the mall, and running up and down your stairs after the kids go to bed. Think about how fabulous it feels not to be so easily winded anymore. Even walking for 30 minutes will reduce your withdrawal symptoms.
Don't obsess about the scale.
If you need a sweet treat every so often, have one. Once you've gotten past the hard task of quitting, you can make getting in shape more of a priority.
Drink plenty of water.
Plain or flavored, sparkling or flat, drinking lots of H2O will help you feel full.
Diana Castillo San Antonio, Texas
Kids: Bruno, 8, and Marco, 7
"I no longer spend all day thinking about smoking. I actually worry that I'm more vulnerable now than when I first quit because my guard is down and I might be tempted to take just one drag ... but I know that I do not want to smoke again! There have been challenging times when I could have used a cigarette, but I have been learning how to be an adult without smoking. Now I'm focusing on losing the 15 pounds I put on -- I've lost seven so far."
Sandy Baugh Huntsville, Alabama
Kids: Alex, 10, and Justin, 7
"I had one slipup, but it made me feel sicker than I have ever felt about smoking before. My advice to moms is stick with it because it is so worth it! I couldn't have quit without changing my habits beforehand, using nicotine replacement for the full 12 weeks (in my past quit attempts, I stopped early to save money), and reading over and over again all the info I could find about the dangers of smoking. I've gained a little weight, but I know that I can concentrate on losing it now because I'm no longer consumed with talking myself into not smoking!"
Amy Meyer Marion, Iowa
Kids: Andrew, 1 year
"I hadn't been using any medication, and unfortunately, I started smoking again. My grandmother passed away, and things were very stressful. However, I've officially quit smoking again with the help of free nicotine patches that I got through Iowa's quitline. Quitting is a learning process, and I'm more prepared this time. Working out and eating better helps motivate me, and my husband's encouragement really helps me. I look at my little boy, and I want to quit for myself and for him."
The Best Thing About Being an Ex
Need more inspiration? These parents who've quit share their triumphs and the thoughts that help keep them smoke-free.
"My husband's mom smoked when he was little, and he helped me quit. Now our 3-year-old won't be teased for smelling like smoke the way his dad was when he was a child."
Amanda Woodhead; Nashville, Tennessee
"When I was a smoker, I found that everything tasted dull, so I used to put tons of spices and Tabasco sauce on all of my food. Now I love the fact that I can actually taste flavors that I didn't even know existed."
Kim Jester; Menifee, California
"I'm a runner, and once, after a night of smoking, I felt like my lungs were going to explode. Since quitting, I can feel my lungs getting stronger every day."
Kriste Goad; Nashville, Tennessee
"I feel like I'm a good role model for my children, and I'm letting them know that even if you make a mistake -- as I did by taking up smoking in my late teens -- it's never too late for you to undo it."
Maureen Upchurch; Greensboro, North Carolina
"Being pregnant finally motivated me to quit. In fact, the first time I heard that little heartbeat at seven weeks, I realized that I couldn't continue smoking. It's no longer just about me -- there's someone else involved."
Felicia Foster; Austin, Texas
Originally published in the April 2009 issue of Parents magazine.