When It Comes to Smoking, Quitters Win
How UT Health Austin can help you kick your smoking habit and bring you closer to your health goals
Reviewed by: Miriam Braun, MSN, RN, CCRN-K, CPPS, CPHQ; Mikaela Frissell, LCSW; and Claire Harrison, MD
Written by: Lauren Schneider
Making personal health decisions can be challenging. Whether choosing a healthier diet plan or deciding to undergo a medical procedure, you may find yourself sorting through seemingly contradictory information when trying to determine what is best for you.
When it comes to smoking, the decision to quit is undeniably linked to significant health benefits. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), quitting smoking can add years to your life expectancy by reducing your risk for cardiovascular disease, various forms of cancer, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).
“Smoking damages practically every organ in the body and is the leading cause of preventable death in the United States,” says Claire Harrison, MD, an internal medicine specialist in UT Health Austin’s Primary Care Clinic. “Each year, smoking is responsible for one in five deaths nationwide.”
Understanding the Health Effects of Smoking
Smoking wreaks havoc on the respiratory system. Tobacco smoke can paralyze and damage cilia, the tiny hair cells in the airway that protect the lungs from mucus and debris. This often results in a persistent condition known as a “smoker’s cough.”
As cigarette smoke enters your lungs, it causes inflammation in the airways and lungs and reduces the elasticity of fibers in lung tissues, including small air sacs called alveoli where the exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide takes place. This often results in bronchitis and emphysema—two forms of COPD.
Over time, COPD can cause serious breathing problems and other fatal chronic health issues. Individuals who smoke cigarettes are 13 times more likely to die from COPD, 25 times more likely to develop lung cancer, and 4 times more likely to experience a heart attack or stroke than non-smokers.
“Smoking damages blood vessels and can make them grow thicker and narrower,” explains Dr. Harrison. “This causes your heart to beat faster and your blood pressure to rise. It can also contribute to blood clot formation and aggravate other cardiovascular conditions, such as diabetes.”
Conditions associated with smoking may include:
- Autoimmune conditions, such as rheumatoid arthritis
- Bladder cancer
- Cervical cancer
- Gastrointestinal cancers, including colon, esophageal, liver, pancreatic, rectal, and stomach cancer
- Loss of bone health
- Vascular dementia
Many of the negative health effects associated with smoking are linked to the 250 known harmful chemicals in tobacco smoke, which include carbon monoxide and hydrogen cyanide. Even non-inhaled exposure, as in cigar or pipe smoking, can be harmful, and smoke-free tobacco products, such as chewing or dipping tobacco, are also linked to increased risk of certain cancers.
While alternative nicotine products, such as e-cigarettes, may seem like a safe alternative, nicotine from any source can be detrimental to your health. In addition to the chemical’s highly addictive properties, nicotine is believed to contribute to the vascular damage caused by smoking and vaping.
“Some vaping products expose users to even more nicotine than traditional cigarettes,” warns Dr. Harrison. “In addition to nicotine, e-cigarette vapor contains other possibly harmful substances, such as heavy metals, carcinogens, volatile organic compounds (VOCs), and diacetyl, a chemical linked to lung disease.”
Conquering the Habit With a Team at Your Side
Acknowledging the potential health benefits of not smoking may be easy, but breaking the habit is no small task. UT Health Austin is committed to supporting individuals throughout their journey to a smoke-free lifestyle. At each intake appointment, patients are screened for nicotine use, and support is built into the individualized treatment plans for those expressing a desire to quit.
Some patients may seek assistance in overcoming a smoking habit to manage pre-existing conditions, such as diabetes, while others may want to prevent potential health issues in the future. Patients are also advised to quit smoking in the weeks leading up to and after certain medical procedures to reduce the risk of complications during the procedure and throughout the recovery process.
“If a patient is a current smoker with the desire to quit, their provider will be notified and can prescribe medication or counseling to help the patient,” explains Miriam Braun MSN, RN, CCRN-K, CPPS, CPHQ, who serves as the Nurse Manager for Clinical Quality, Patient Safety, and Infection Control.
Learn more about UT Health Austin’s commitment to maintaining the highest standard of patient safety.
<br>Treatment options for those who desire to quit smoking include:
- Prescription drugs (e.g., buproprion and varenicline): Medications that do not contain nicotine and help reduce withdrawal symptoms and cravings associated with nicotine
- Nicotine replacement therapy products: Products (e.g., gum, inhalers, lozenges, nasal sprays, or patches) that contain a controlled amount of nicotine to help manage nicotine withdrawal symptoms and cravings
In addition to prescription drugs or nicotine replacement therapy products, a visit with a social worker can help you address the behavioral patterns underlying your smoking habit. “Patients who combine a medication-based approach with behavior-focused solutions to change their habits and establish social support are more successful in the long run,” notes Mikaela Frissell, LCSW, a licensed clinical social worker in UT Health Austin’s Musculoskeletal Institute and member of UT Health Austin’s Integrated Behavioral Health care team.
“UT Health Austin patients seeking behavioral support during their journey to quit smoking can request a referral to a social worker,” continues Frissell. “Our social workers specialize in interventions that empower patients within the healthcare setting, and helping patients quit smoking is one of the many ways a social worker can prepare them for the best treatment outcomes.”
<br>Keeping Your Eyes on the Prize
The CDC estimates that while fewer than 10% of adult cigarette smokers successfully quit each year, more than 60% of people who have ever smoked cigarettes have quit. “Although quitting smoking may seem daunting, the fear of failure often poses a larger obstacle than the process itself,” says Frissell. “Patients are often so worried that they won’t be able to avoid smoking in the long term that it doesn’t seem worthwhile to try at all.”
As with any challenging feat, it can be useful to remember what your victory means for you and your loved ones. “By quitting smoking, you help not only yourself, but also the members of your household who would otherwise be exposed to secondhand smoke,” notes Braun.
“Create and celebrate small victories,” adds Frissell. “You do not have to make a huge overhaul in your lifestyle overnight in order to reap the health benefits. And remember, when you feel ready to take this important step toward a healthier lifestyle, your UT Health Austin care team is here to help.”