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.
Going cold turkey may be appealing, and it does work for some, but research suggests that willpower alone isn't the best method to stop smoking. In fact, only three in every hundred smokers manage to stop 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".
Why Cravings Occur
Nicotine is the chemical in cigarettes that creates cravings. Nicotine is an addictive drug that triggers the release of brain chemicals related to pleasure sensations, when you quit smoking the supply of nicotine to the brain receptors is cut off, causing them to adjust, reducing the amounts of nicotine in your body. When your brain recognises the lack of nicotine, it sends signals that it wants more. This is nicotine withdrawal, which causes your cravings.
Types of cravings
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.
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, mouth spray and oral strips. 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 Ms Sutherland.
Discuss with your pharmacist the NRT products that are available over the counter, and talk to your local NHS stop-smoking adviser or GP about receiving NRT on prescription.
Your local stop smoking adviser will also be able to recommend which NRT products would be most suitable to fit your individual lifestyle.
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.
Change your behaviour
NRT and stop-smoking medicines can 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 triggers: there will be times that for you have an especially strong association with smoking - after food, whilst driving, with a coffee, after putting the kids to bed, when chatting to a friend or having an alcoholic drink. Try to identify these triggers and do something different at these times. You don't have to make this change forever, just until you've broken the habitual 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 and the quickest way to achieve this is to commit to the 'not a single drag' rule. When you are ready to stop for good, promise yourself 'I will not have even a single drag on a cigarette' and if you feel like smoking then remember 'not a single drag' and the feeling will pass.
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 - going to the gym or local swimming pool are good, as is a little gentle exercise like a short walk or something useful like doing the housework or gardening.
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.
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 Ms Sutherland.
Now, you might want to read what to do if you relapse after quitting smoking.