Is it better to quit smoking cold turkey or gradually?

Cutting down to quit

There’s no safe level of cigarette use – smoking even a small amount can cause damage to your body. This is why there’s very little, if any, health benefit from cutting down the number of cigarettes you smoke, unlike quitting entirely which has proven health benefits. Cutting down can, however, be a good way to get you started on the road to stopping long-term. This is provided that you plan well, set the quit date and see it through to stopping and staying stopped.

Whilst it’s always best to completely quit smoking on a set date, not everyone is ready to stop straight away. Although it’s very important to set a quit date within 6 weeks (even better if earlier), you can ‘cut down to quit’ cigarettes over that period, by reducing the number of cigarettes you smoke every day, every week and fortnight until your quit date.

Cutting down before you quit

Making the decision to gradually cut down before you set your quit date is a great step in the right direction. You could:

  • set goals – think about reducing your cigarettes each day, each week or fortnight
  • continue to reduce the number of cigarettes you smoke as you approach your ‘quit date’
  • use nicotine replacement therapies in the cutting down phase, these help prevent you compensating for fewer cigarettes by taking more and deeper puffs
  • change your habits – go for a walk after dinner instead of having a cigarette

Now you’ve cut right down, stopping completely is just the next short step. If you choose to gradually cut down the number of cigarettes you smoke each day before stopping altogether, you should be careful that:

  • you don’t begin to make up for smoking fewer cigarettes by inhaling deeper and taking more puffs to get the same nicotine effect
  • trying a different approach such as cutting down over stopping completely, may in the long term make it harder for you to stop altogether

Sometimes cutting down can be counterproductive and takes more commitment and discipline than stopping abruptly. You’ll still experience the same withdrawal effects without seeing the financial and health benefits of stopping completely.

Use our cost calculator to see the financial benefits of giving up smoking entirely.

If you still don’t feel ready to quit entirely, you could also consider alternatives to smoking such as switching to an e-cigarette which cuts down your risk of harm.

Quit Your Way Scotland

Quit Your Way Scotland can offer advice and support if you’re looking to cut down gradually before quitting.

Should you quit smoking abruptly or gradually? Here’s what the science says

It takes the average smoker about 30 tries to quit — a discouraging number — and if you’re one of the people who decided to give up smoking for good as part of your New Year’s resolutions, you may not even know where to start.

It’s never easy to give up something that you’ve done for so long, and going about it is easier said than done. To make matters even worse, there’s also the everpresent daunting question: Should you gradually reduce the number of cigarettes, or just quit cold turkey?

Quitting gradually certainly seems more reasonable. After all, when you do a big change, it’s better to ease into it, right? Especially if you’ve been a smoker for many years, the shock won’t be as big and your body will adapt. Seems logical enough.


Well not really, scientists say.

According to a study conducted at the University of Oxford, quitting abruptly yields significantly better results. The study involved almost 700 participants who smoked 15 cigarettes every day and split them into two groups: one that had to gradually reduce the number of cigarettes they smoked every day for two weeks, and one that had to quit cold turkey at the same appointment day.

Surprisingly, even if most participants preferred the idea of quitting gradually, it was the latter group that had the highest success rate: 49%, compared to 39%. Additionally, people who quit cold turkey were able to stay smoke-free for longer.

Even if withdrawal symptoms are more intense when quitting abruptly, scientists explain that this approach is better in the long run because your body gets over the hump faster and you’ll begin to experience the benefits of being nicotine-free sooner. There’s also the fact that when quitting gradually, it’s harder to stick to a schedule and you may be tempted to cheat and go a couple of cigs over the daily limit.


Quitting smoking is still hard work – here’s how you can prepare

As revealing as this study might be, scientists are still far from developing a simple, universal strategy to quit smoking. And that’s because nicotine is highly addictive and many factors come into play when you’re trying to give up: how many cigarettes you smoke every day, for how long you’ve been smoking, lifestyle, peer pressure, overall health, and so on.

Nicotine is highly addictive and abstinence isn’t effortless. Even if quitting cold turkey was deemed more effective, half of the participants in the study were still unable to become smoke-free. Also, the experiment wasn’t based on just rationing cigarettes and sheer power of will. Both groups received behavioral counseling and nicotine replacement solutions such as patches, gum, and mouth spray to support them, so if you’re currently trying to quit smoking, you should know that determination is just one part of the process.

Nicotine replacement therapy remains one of the most recommended tools that smokers can use to control withdrawal symptoms, so before losing your hope, talk to your healthcare provider about the over-the-counter and prescription NRT that can help you.

In addition to nicotine replacement therapy, counseling – whether it’s professional or simply the support of your loved ones – can significantly boost your success chances. Doctors recommend making a plan before attempting to quit smoking. Talking to your family and friends about your goals can increase your commitment and avoiding the social influences that encourage relapse is also recommended.

Other strategies that were proven to work include practicing mindfulness and exercising. In general, substituting a bad habit for a healthier one can keep your mind off things and act as a great coping mechanism. Some people have even managed to quit by joining texting programs that send motivational messages or connect them with experts who send them tips and tricks.

Scientists point out that there is no one-size-fits-all solution when it comes to quitting smoking. Even if cold turkey yielded the best results, some people respond better to gradual smoking – and if that’s your case, you don’t have to change your approach. Drawing the line, any strategy that helps you reduce nicotine intake until it reaches zero can be beneficial. If one strategy worked for one of your smoker friends but didn’t work for you, that doesn’t mean you should give up.

Some people decide to just stop smoking one day. Others are forced by an unexpected medical emergency. Others get into a non-smoker group of friends or join a company that has a strict non-smoking policy. One company in Japan even rewards non-smokers with an extra week of vacation. Whatever your motivation may be, do what works for you.

Ultimately, you can even consider e-cigarettes and use tools like the Yocan vaporizer for a smoother transition. Although e-cigs were not used as a form of nicotine replacement in the study, scientists say that they can be of great help to smokers, as long as they use them as a substitute to normal cigarettes, and not as an addition to them.

If you’re struggling to quit cigarettes because it’s a habit and you’re more used to the gesture of it rather than the substance, e-cigs can work, and statistically, they have helped many smokers reduce their daily dose until they managed to quit.

Lastly, keep in mind that first-time quitting attempts may not always be effective, simply because you don’t know what works for you. Until you figure out the right combination of personal motivation, nicotine replacement solutions, and counseling, you may go through several unsuccessful attempts and that shouldn’t bring you down. As long as you keep trying and you’re committed to switching to a healthier lifestyle, any effort is welcome.

An Online Guide to Nicotine Withdrawal

Updated on June 1st, 2018

An Online Guide to Nicotine Withdrawal

Nicotine is a toxic, oily liquid that is the main ingredient in tobacco leaves. Tobacco is ingested into the body by smoking, chewing, or sniffing; yet the most common way is through smoking cigarettes. Other ways include smoking pipes, chewing tobacco, and nasal tobacco. Nicotine is highly addictive and acts as a stimulant. In the brain, it stimulates the release of dopamine, a neurotransmitter that plays an important role in reward and motivation as well as in mood, sleep, attention, and other areas. Nicotine becomes addictive by controlling the dopamine pathway in the brain, causing it to release dopamine in the presence of nicotine. This create cravings in the brain in response to low levels of nicotine; thus, starting the cycle again. Nicotine affects the body by causing nausea, lowered blood pressure, dizziness, and heart palpitations, along with feelings of alertness, well-being, and other pleasurable feelings. Once the cycle has begun, like other addictions, a person will start to require ever-increasing doses of nicotine to maintain a comfortable level.

  • How Can I Quit Smoking?: Strategies for kicking the habit for good.

Symptoms of Nicotine Withdrawal

When someone attempts to quit using tobacco, they often experience nicotine withdrawal symptoms. The effects are predominantly felt physically, but there can also be emotional, mental, and psychological effects. The physical symptoms of withdrawal include headaches, dizziness, weight gain or increased appetite, tingling in the hands and feet, sweating, decreased heart rate, stomach problems such as cramping and nausea, and cold-like symptoms. Emotional, mental, and psychological symptoms may include anxiety, irritability, anger, insomnia, depression, and mental confusion. The symptoms of withdrawal can often start within just a few hours of nicotine cessation. They typically peak within 1-4 days and can last for 3 or 4 weeks.

  • Nicotine Addiction and Withdrawal: A page from MedlinePlus that discusses nicotine addiction and the symptoms and treatment for it.
  • Nicotine Craving and Withdrawal Symptoms (PDF) – Know the symptoms you might find yourself experiencing while quitting.

Methods of Recovery from Nicotine Addiction

There are many different treatment options when it comes to quitting nicotine. For some people, it is necessary that they quit cold turkey, but other people need the help of medication therapy or other therapies such as hypnosis, acupuncture, and behavioral therapy. Medication therapies work by either providing a nicotine replacement in continually decreasing doses or by stimulating the dopamine pathways in the brain while blocking the nicotine receptors, thus reducing and alleviating common withdrawal symptoms. Hypnosis, acupuncture, and behavioral therapy can help address the stress in a person’s life that may be contributing to their smoking addiction. No matter which therapy is undertaken, it is important for people to develop a plan to manage their quitting progress and how they deal with cravings.

  • American Lung Association: There is perhaps no organization in the world more dedicated to getting smokers to quit than the American Lung Association.
  • Smoking Cessation Medicines (PDF): Know your options and give yourself the best opportunity to succeed when quitting.

Support Groups for Nicotine Withdrawal

When going through an addiction recovery process, it is very important to seek out help from others. Networking with other people going through the withdrawal process or those who have already been through it will give a person moral support to help them overcome the withdrawal symptoms and cravings, tips and tricks that they can use in their own journey, and resources for further therapy if they need it. Nicotine addiction support groups are like many other addiction support groups. The purpose is to provide nonjudgmental advice, information, and support for people trying to quit nicotine. For people who have been addicted to nicotine over the course of many years, it may be necessary to attend a support group for awhile in order to resist the temptation to return to the habit.

  • A Guide to Remaining Smoke Free (PDF): A guide to help you stay smoke free when the cravings return.
  • Helping A Loved One Quit: An article about how support can help loved ones kick their tobacco addictions.
  • Help A Friend Quit Smoking: Some great tips and information on how to provide support and help a friend quit smoking.

Falling Off the Wagon and Getting Back On

Quitting nicotine is not easy. It is important to make a plan and to keep working at it to overcome the addiction. If you fall off the wagon, do not dwell on the mistake, just move on and focus on getting back on track. Just remember the reasons that you wanted to quit in the first place. Think about how much healthier you will be when you are nicotine-free and how it will impact your relationships and finances. Also think about how you got off track. Make a plan to deal with any distractions and situations that could cause you to slip. If you have a complete relapse and return to the nicotine addiction, do not beat yourself up over it. Getting help through a therapy program or support group may be what it takes for you to overcome the addiction for good.

Though challenging, many smokers have used the cold-turkey strategy to quit smoking.

Quitting cold turkey means giving up smoking all at once, without the aid of any nicotine replacement therapy (NRT) products or stop-smoking drugs.

Many ex-smokers have successfully quit this way — you’re most likely to succeed if you smoke fewer than 10 cigarettes a day and take the following steps to prepare.

Because you won’t have the aids of NRT, it’s particularly important that you are mentally ready.

Set a quit date: Pick a date two to four weeks in the future when you plan on quitting. Pick a quiet time of year when you have less on your calendar.

Stress can be a big trigger for smokers, making you reach for a cigarette, so don’t try to quit around the time you have final exams, a big project due at work, or have other major stress-inducing events in your life.

Alternatively, if you’re a social smoker, try to avoid a date around any festivities, like a wedding or class reunion.

Make a list of the benefits of quitting: Maybe you want to improve your health, save money, always said you would quit before a big birthday, or all the above.

Write down the list and keep it in your wallet or store it on your cell phone. Then, when a craving hits down the line, you can refer back to it to help find the strength to stay strong.

Know your habits: Think about the times you are most likely to smoke: is it with your morning cup of coffee, after dinner, out with friends, and/or on your way home from work?

Those times when you habitually reach for a cigarette are likely to be when your cravings are the strongest. Plan ahead and brainstorm a few alternate activities or distractions.

For example, get your coffee at a non-smoking cafe, take a walk after dinner, go to see a movie instead of hitting the bar, or take public transportation or carpool to commute for a while. The more you shake up your regular habits the more you will distract yourself from the desire to smoke.

Anticipate cravings: Nicotine is a powerfully addictive drug, on par with cocaine and heroin, and cravings are going to come.

On the plus side, they generally last no more than five to 10 minutes tops. Do what you can to distract yourself until the cravings passes, checkout what your friends are up to on Facebook, chew a piece of gum, or play a round of Candy Crush.

Know that the signs of nicotine withdrawal are temporary: Quitting cold turkey means you will experience the symptoms of withdrawal more intensely than if you used NRT products.

Fortunately, most withdrawal symptoms peak two to three days after your last cigarette and subside gradually after that. The most common effects of nicotine withdrawal include:

  • Intense craving for nicotine
  • Irritability, anxiety, restlessness, or boredom
  • Depression
  • Trouble sleeping, including bad dreams and nightmares
  • Drowsiness
  • Feeling tense, restless, or frustrated
  • Headaches
  • Increased appetite and weight gain
  • Problems concentrating
  • Dizziness
  • Slower heart rate
  • Constipation or gas
  • Cough, dry mouth, sore throat, and nasal drip

Get your friends and family on board: Chances are, your close friends and family are thrilled that you’re quitting smoking.

Ask them to help distract you from cravings by being available during your trigger moments for quick pep talks; plan activities in smoke-free places like the mall, movie theater and many restaurants, and to be understanding if you experience any irritability.

Join a support group: You may find it easier to quit if you can share your frustrations and success with people who are also in the process of quitting.

Check with your local hospital to see if they offer a program. Or call a national quit-smoking line, such as the American Cancer Society Quitline at 877-YES-QUIT. It offers support over the phone and can help outline different strategies for quitting.

Journal about the positive effects of quitting smoking: Quitting smoking is one of the best things you can do to improve your overall health.

For starters, your lung function improves up to 30 percent in two weeks to three months. Now that you’ve quit, are you noticing that you can walk up a flight of stairs without getting winded or is your complexion starting to brighten? Jot it down.

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