Quitting Smoking: Gradually or Cold Turkey?

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Most smokers already know smoking is bad for their own health and for the people around them. But because nicotine is so addictive, many people find it difficult or even impossible to quit smoking. When you’re ready to stop, you can cut back gradually or quit smoking cold turkey. You can be successful no matter which method you choose, so figure out which way will work best for you and make your plan to quit.

Quitting Smoking Gradually

Gradually stopping smoking is just what it sounds like—cutting back on cigarettes each day until you quit completely. The benefit of gradual cessation is you slowly diminish your addiction to nicotine in an effort to reduce your symptoms of withdrawal gradually. The down side is you might experience withdrawal symptoms for a longer time, even if they are not as severe as quitting cold turkey. Before you attempt to quit, make a plan: Determine how you will gradually reduce the number of cigarettes you smoke each day, a final quit date, and ways to manage your cravings, such as gum or using nicotine patches.

Tips to help you quit smoking gradually:

  • Instead of lighting up first thing in the morning, wait until your smoke break at work.

  • If you smoke in your car, have only one cigarette instead of two.

  • When your quit date arrives, stop completely.

  • If you slip up and have a puff or two, don’t give up. You can get back on track if you stick to your plan.

Quitting Smoking Cold Turkey

Quitting cold turkey doesn’t mean you must stop smoking without a plan in place to ensure your success. It just means you stop immediately on your predetermined quit date and never smoke another cigarette. The benefit of quitting cold turkey is you condense your time frame and don’t prolong your cravings and withdrawal symptoms. The biggest drawback is your withdrawal symptoms might be more extreme than gradually quitting over a period of time. The good news: These symptoms only last a few days up to a couple of weeks. Depending on your view of what “cold turkey” means, you might choose to have nicotine patches or prescription medication to help manage your cravings, or you can forgo those options. Whether you use smoking cessation products or not, you’ll toss all your cigarettes on your quit date and commit to never lighting up again.

Tips to help you quit smoking cold turkey:

  • The day before, throw away everything that reminds you of smoking, such as ashtrays and lighters.

  • Don’t stash away one last pack somewhere “just in case.”

  • Wash your clothes, and clean your car.

  • If you choose to use medications to help you quit, have those ready so you don’t have to run to the store when you have a craving.

So Which Method Works Better?

A recent study found that smokers who quit cold turkey were more successful at remaining smoke-free than those who gradually scaled back on cigarettes for two weeks before their quit date. In the study, both groups had nicotine patches for two weeks prior to their quit date, and they also had counseling after they stopped smoking. After six months, the group that quit smoking cold turkey had a 22% success rate, compared to 15.5% success in the gradual-quit group.

Despite the difference, both smoking cessation methods can be successful, so don’t be discouraged if you would rather try quitting gradually. There is evidence that the desire to quit may matter as much as the cessation method you choose. So if you’re ready to quit, or ready to quit again, make a plan and build your support system to set yourself up for smoke-free success.

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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2019 Sep 18
THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.

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