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Smoking: Kicking the Habit

Nobody wakes up one morning and suddenly decides to be a smoker. Smoking is a habit picked up from others who smoke. It's a social disease. Individuals do it in imitation of somebody they respect who smokes, like parents or teachers, or they do it because their high school or college friends smoke and they want to fit in.

But once you put a cigarette in your mouth, you are exposed (not to mention that you are exposing everyone around you, as well) to the effects of nicotine, which is one of the most highly addictive drugs available today. And the more you smoke, the greater is your urge to smoke, and the more addicted you become.

The smoking habit will wreak havoc throughout the decades of your life because once you start to smoke, its deleterious effects spiral out of control, much like credit card debt. Smoking is associated not only with all kinds of cancer, from oral cancer to cervical cancer, but also with heart disease, which is the leading cause of death in the United States today for both men and women. Since smoking also affects the respiratory system, chronic smokers have a higher incidence of bronchitis (an inflammation of the lining of the tubes that connect the windpipe to the lungs) and emphysema (a chronic lung disease usually caused by exposure to toxic chemicals or tobacco smoke) than those who don't smoke.

And smoking interferes with the immune system as well; that is, smokers are more prone to getting chronic diseases, flu, and viral illnesses than are nonsmokers.

Then there are the secondary effects that smoking has on others. Pregnant women who smoke have smaller-sized babies and have higher rates of premature babies. And children who are exposed to secondhand smoke have higher levels of asthma.

If you are a smoker, there may be no better thing you can do for your health than to quit smoking, and the best time to quit is as a young adult. You may have started smoking in high school or college, but now you are on your own, away from the peer pressures of your schoolmates and the influence of your parents (who may be smokers themselves), and making a new life for yourself. This is the easiest time to kick the habit.

Of course, quitting is easier said than done. As Mark Twain remarked: "Quitting smoking is easy. I've done it a thousand times."

The reason it's so difficult to quit is that it's really a dual challenge, and you are unlikely to succeed in your quest unless you meet both challenges head-on.

The first challenge involves breaking the physical dependency that smoking causes. An absence of nicotine leads to withdrawal symptoms, including anxiety, nervousness, and an overwhelming desire for more nicotine. Very few people can go cold turkey and never pick up another cigarette again. Most people need to be gradually desensitized of their nicotine addiction.

One way to do that is with Nicorette gum or the nicotine patch. These products allow you to alter, over a course of weeks, the amount of nicotine that you ingest, until your body gets used to having no nicotine at all. Acupuncture and hypnosis have also helped people reduce or eliminate the withdrawal symptoms--irritability, depression, and lack of energy--that come from kicking the nicotine habit.

The second challenge for the smoker seeking to quit involves breaking the mental habit that smoking reinforces. The best way to do that is through the same system that got you smoking in the first place, through a peer support system. Just as in overcoming any addiction, breaking the smoking habit requires a support group, which can consist of friends, family, and/or coworkers. But you have to have somebody who is willing to be there for you, to give you the support you need when you are most likely to want to pick up another cigarette.

Quitting should be celebrated at every little step of the way because you'll be seeing the benefits of your efforts in the minutes, days, weeks months, and years after you quit:

--Twenty minutes after you smoke your last cigarette, your heart rate drops.

--Twelve hours later, the carbon monoxide level in your bloodstream returns to normal.

--Two to three weeks after quitting, your circulation improves, and your lungs begin to function normally.

--One year after you quit, the excess risk of coronary heart disease is half that of a smoker.

--In five years' time, your risk of stroke is reduced to that of a nonsmoker.

--In ten years' time, your risk of dying of lung cancer is about half that of a smoker.

--And in 15 years, your risk of coronary heart disease is like that of someone who never smoked.

The long and short of it is, the sooner you quit, the quicker you'll regain your health.

Click here to check out Dr. Manny's book The Check List (Harper Collins, 2007).

Dr. Manny Alvarez is the managing editor of health news at FOXNews.com, and is a regular medical contributor on the FOX News Channel. He is chairman of the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology and Reproductive Science at Hackensack University Medical Center in New Jersey. Additionally, Alvarez is Adjunct Professor of Obstetrics and Gynecology at New York University School of Medicine in New York City.

Dr. Manny Alvarez serves as Fox News Channel's Senior Managing Editor for Health News. Prior to this position, Alvarez was a FNC medical contributor.
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