Stop smoking: coping with cravings

If you can control your cravings for a cigarette, you’ll boost your chances of quitting. The most effective ways to tackle cravings are a combination of stop-smoking medicines and behavioural changes.

Every year counts after 35

Fact: if you quit smoking before the age of 35 you're likely to have a full life expectancy. Statistics suggest that every year after 35 that you continue to smoke can take an average of three months off your life

Going cold turkey may be appealing, and works for some, but research suggests that willpower alone isn't the best method to stop smoking.

In fact, only three in every hundred quitters manage to stop smoking permanently this way.

Using nicotine replacement therapy (NRT) and other stop-smoking medicines can double your chances of quitting successfully compared to willpower alone. This is because untreated cravings often result in lapses.

Read more about stop smoking treatments available on the NHS and privately.

According to clinical psychologist and stop-smoking adviser Gay Sutherland, "cravings are without doubt the most important withdrawal symptom to tackle and one of the best predictors of success in quitting smoking is craving control".

Types of cravings

Cravings happen because your body misses its regular hits of nicotine. Sutherland explains that there are two types of craving:

  • The steady and constant background craving for a cigarette. This type of craving decreases in intensity over several weeks after quitting.
  • Sudden bursts of intense desire or urge to smoke. These cravings are often triggered by a cue such as having a few drinks, feeling very happy or sad, having an argument, feeling stressed or even having a cup of coffee. These urges to smoke tend to get less frequent over time, but their intensity can remain strong even after many months of quitting.

Tackling cravings

There are three tried and tested ways to tame cravings:

  • nicotine replacement therapy
  • prescription stop smoking medicines
  • behaviour changes

Nicotine replacement therapy

Nicotine replacement therapy (NRT) gives your body the nicotine it craves without the toxic chemicals that you get in cigarettes, so it doesn't cause cancer. It helps you stop smoking without having unpleasant withdrawal symptoms. NRT won’t give you the same "hit" or pleasure you would expect from a cigarette, but it does help reduce cravings.

NRT is available as gum, patches, lozenges, microtabs, inhalator, nasal spray and mouth spray. It’s important to use the right NRT product for your lifestyle.

Some products, like the patch, release nicotine into your system slowly and steadily, so they’re ideal for relieving background cravings. Others, such as the nasal spray and mouth spray, release nicotine quickly in short bursts, so they’re better suited to sudden intense cravings.

"A good strategy is to use the nicotine patch for background craving relief, and carry with you a fast-working product to prevent or treat breakthrough cravings," says Sutherland.

Discuss with your pharmacist the NRT products that are available over the counter, or talk to your local NHS stop-smoking adviser or your GP about receiving NRT on prescription.

Read more about nicotine replacement therapy.

Stop smoking medicines

The prescription tablets Zyban (bupropion) and Champix (varenicline) are an alternative to NRT in helping you stop smoking. They don’t contain nicotine, but they work on your brain to dampen cravings.

As they take a few days to work fully, you need to start these medicines for a week or two before you stop smoking.

Ask your doctor or a local stop-smoking adviser whether prescription medicines may help you.

Read more about prescription stop-smoking medicines.

Change your behaviour

NRT and stop-smoking medicines can really help curb cravings, but they can’t completely eradicate them. It’s also a good idea to follow these smoking cessation self-help techniques:

Avoid the triggers: try sitting in a different chair to watch TV, and having a shower as soon as you get up, if these are times you usually smoke. If you’ve always had a cigarette with your cup of coffee, switch to tea or orange juice instead. You don’t have to give up coffee forever, just until you’ve broken the association with smoking.

Stay strong: expect your cravings to be at their worst in the first few weeks after quitting. The good news is that they will pass. If you take a step back and start smoking again, don't despair, as it can take a few attempts to quit for good.

Exercise: physical activity may help reduce your nicotine cravings and relieve some withdrawal symptoms. It may also help you reduce stress and keep your weight down. When you have the urge to smoke, do something active instead, like a fast walk, going to the gym or local swimming pool, or gardening.

Find out how to do more exercise.

Be prepared: for cravings at special events like holidays, funerals or weddings. You may have never experienced these before as a non-smoker so you’ll associate them strongly with smoking. Have some fast-acting NRT with you just in case.

Look at more self-help tips to stop smoking.

Delay: When an urge to smoke strikes, remember that although it may be intense, it will be short-lived, and it probably will pass within a few minutes. "Each time you resist a craving, you're one step closer to stopping smoking," says Sutherland.

Now, read what to do if you relapse after quitting smoking.

Page last reviewed: 16/01/2014

Next review due: 16/01/2016


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The 4 comments posted are personal views. Any information they give has not been checked and may not be accurate.

guusebumps said on 10 August 2015

I have quit smoking for about several weeks now. I am just relying on will power alone. To me, the key is a strong motivation, which is strong enough to actually convince you that you will die if you ever smoke again.

My motivation is that I have contracted a type of lung disease, so that if I ever smoke again, I am actually risking my life. No, it's not lung cancer nor pneumonia, but dangerous enough that I actually can die of my disease if I screw up my medication or smoke again.

So if I crave for cigarette, I just remember my disease then the craving would be gone by itself.

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berry40 said on 19 January 2013

that sounds like a good idea i think i might give that a go and see how i do thank you

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CKnox said on 20 October 2011

I stopped smoking 18 months ago and what I found helped me were the nicotine lozenges. I used the NHS quit club which you can find out about at your doctors. Basically you get about 12 weeks or support and prescriptions for patches or whatever suits you. I used the patches for the 12 weeks and then after that I just used the lozenges. I still keep some on me when I feel the urge (which I still do 18 months on). Friends who have stopped for years say they could still reach for a cigarette. I recommend these little lozenges as they taste great (I like the cherry ones) and stop the urge to want a cigarette.

I never thought I would be able to quit but I did. If I can, so can anyone!

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