Maria Wescott* started smoking socially when she was still at school. By her fourth year of university, Wescott was hooked and a regular smoker – until she and her husband started dreaming of having children in 2007.

“I wanted to start my family and I didn’t want to quit only once I fell pregnant,” explains the young Durbanville mother who quit alongside her husband. “I stopped smoking seven years ago and I cannot imagine ever smoking again.”

“I no longer have an addiction that rules my life – I am free,” she told Health-e. “I don’t even allow smoking in our home,”

Quitting smoking helped improve Wescott’s chances of falling pregnant as well as reduced her husband’s odds of experiencing impotence. It also played a part in ensuring her children would be born healthy.

Wescott’s choice to ban smoking in her house may also be sparing her children from illnesses like asthma and ear infections. Kicking her nicotine habit at about the age of 30 also added an extra decade to her life – ten more years that Wescott can spend with her family.

Benefits of quitting kick in almost instantly

Quit smoking right now and within 20 minutes your blood pressure and heart rate, which are elevated as a result of smoking, begin to return to normal. Within 12 hours, levels of carbon monoxide in your blood fall to normal ranges. Between two and 12 weeks after quitting, your circulation and lung function increases.

According to the World Health Organisation, people of all ages – even those who have already developed smoking-related health problems – can benefit from quitting.

Smoking causes many cancers and illnesses. Yet, despite knowing all about the health risks, many smokers are afraid to give up this killer habit.

“I thought that I wouldn’t enjoy my life if I gave smoking up,” Wescott remembers. “Quitting was the most difficult thing I have ever done in my life.”

For many, the dread of giving up cigarettes is intensified by the fear of unavoidable nicotine withdrawal. While everyone who quits smoking should expect some withdrawal symptoms, the severity of symptoms differs for each person. Although symptoms usually decrease after the first five days, they include irritability, tiredness and trouble concentrating.

Quitting – by the book

For Wescott, dealing with the nicotine withdrawal was just the price she had to pay for better health. She found her own way to make the experience more bearable.

“Although you shouldn’t replace your nicotine fix with another, I did rely heavily on coffee to help me through the withdrawal – and lots of psychological motivation,” she remembers. “I kept on telling myself that I shouldn’t feed the nicotine monster and that it would eventually die.”

“I would say I felt a bit isolated and sad, but I could handle it as I really wanted to quit,” she says.

Rather than going cold turkey, Wescott first tried to wean herself off cigarettes with help from the anti-smoking arsenal of drugs.

Initially, she tried Zyban, an antidepressant that stimulates nicotine’s effects in the body and reduces users’ withdrawal symptoms and urges to smoke. Zyban’s side-effects meant Wescott had to stop using the drug after about two weeks.

“I felt very depressed and also aggressive,” explains Wescott, admitting that it took her a while to recover from the experience.

Despite the setback, Wescott was determined to end her addiction to nicotine and ultimately turned to the book, The Easy Way to Stop Smoking, by Allen Carr.

“The book taught me that smoking and nicotine should not be the boss of you,” she remembers. “It taught me that nicotine is not a physical addiction, but a mental addiction.”

Wescott has severed her ties to nicotine and cigarettes, and has already begun to notice an improvement in her health

“I can smell and breathe better, and I have no more heartburn or stomach aches,” she told Health-e. “My skin also looks better and I no longer struggle with sinus problems.”

She may not be able to see or feel it but within a year of quitting, Wescott’s risk of coronary heart disease was already about half that of a smoker. If she continues to steer clear of nicotine, Wescott’s risk of lung cancer as well as cancers of the mouth, throat and cervix will also have decreased in a few years.

After 15 years of being smoke-free, her risk of coronary heart disease will be the same as someone who has never smoked. –Health-e News Service.

*name has been changed