Kelly Anne Spratt, D.O., Director of Women's Cardiovascular Health at the University of Pennsylvania Presbyterian Medical Center, answers your questions.
Q. I have been smoking cigarettes since I was 12 years old. I am 37 now and I am having trouble with my breathing and I cough all the time. My mother smoked for several years and now she has asthma, emphysema, and bronchitis. I don't want to end up like that. I have tried many times to quit but I can't do it. Do you have any suggestions that may help me?
A. Congratulations -- you have taken the very first step toward success -- you WANT to quit. Many people try to quit for all the wrong reasons, usually because their mother, husband, or boyfriend wants them to do so. But YOU want to quit and have a medical reason to do so now. The good news is that you have some of the health benefits of quitting almost immediately, since studies show you are less likely to have the blood clots that cause heart attacks almost 24 hours after stopping smoking. Longer-term benefits occur within a month and then by 10 years, it is as if you never smoked as far as lung cancer is concerned.
Several agents to help you quit are available. Nicotine patches combined with a group program have a much higher success rate than trying to go it alone. The patches are available without prescription and release small amounts of nicotine into your system over a six- to eight-week period of time so that you do not experience severe nicotine withdrawal symptoms. In addition, the prescription medication Zyban definitely cuts down on the cravings for cigarettes.
Begin by setting a target date and stick to it -- perhaps New Year's Day, or your birthday -- and plan activities to take the place of your habit such as exercise or deep breathing techniques. Enlist the help of a friend that you can call when you have a "nicotine fit" so she can encourage you to keep going. With the money you save, treat yourself to something special (not food) so you feel rewarded for your efforts. Some people find a benefit to acupuncture; if this helps, give it a try. Get rid of all the reminders of smoking, such as ashtrays. Wash or dry clean coats or suits that may have the stench of cigarettes in them, so you are not reminded of the smell. Avoid restaurants that do not have a nonsmoking section. All of your efforts will definitely pay off, as you will reduce your risk of heart and lung disease, cancer, and osteoporosis.