What Former Smokers Should Know

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Snuffed out your last cigarette years ago? Great! You did something wonderful for your health by quitting.

But you should know that you can’t put smoking out of your mind for good. You might remain at an elevated risk of lung disease and other issues.

“I don’t think there’s really ever a time where I discount any smoking history, even if it was a brief period 40 years ago,” says Stacey Miller, MD, a pulmonologist with Baptist Health Medical Group. Although such usage would be considered remote, it would still be worth considering.

Before you say, “Why bother quitting, then?” know this: The body can heal in remarkable ways, and quitting smoking brings your risk of illness down substantially.

Consider this:

  • Carbon monoxide levels in your blood, which rise with smoking, fall within 12 to 18 hours of the last cigarette.
  • Tar left in the lungs by smoke will clear out in weeks or months, depending on the person.
  • Within a few months of quitting, former smokers will experience a rebound of lung function. Coughs and shortness of breath should decrease one to nine months after quitting, Dr. Miller says.
  • A year after quitting, the risk of heart disease is half that of a smoker’s.
  • Within five years of quitting, a former smoker’s stroke risk has fallen to that of a nonsmoker. Declines in lung function, a normal part of aging, return to the same rate as a nonsmoker.
  • Ten years after quitting, the lung cancer death rate for former smokers is half that of those still smoking. At the same time, the risk of cancers of the mouth, throat, bladder, kidney, and pancreas also falls.
  • At 15 years, the risk of heart disease returns to that of someone who has never smoked.

“The lung cancer risk does continue to decline,” Dr. Miller says, “but it never really zeroes out just because of the carcinogenic effects within the lungs.”

Former smokers should be aware of their bodies and report any changes to their doctors.

“While there are recommendations against screening adults without symptoms for chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder (COPD), smokers with even mild respiratory symptoms, such as shortness of breath or even cough, should have a baseline pulmonary function test to assess for early COPD,” Dr. Miller says.

More alarming symptoms include coughing up blood, chest pain, and unexplained weight loss, Dr. Miller says. Those should be checked out promptly because they could indicate serious health conditions such as infections or cancer.

And for former smokers who have lost lung function, Dr. Miller has words of encouragement: With rehabilitation, exercise and the right medications, you can get back to doing the things you enjoy.

“Even people with COPD can lead a fulfilling life,” she says. “Oftentimes they can come off some of their medication because they’ve turned things around for themselves.”

Years of smoking can increase your chances of getting lung cancer. Find out your potential risk with a free online assessment.

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