When a person decides to stop smoking, it’s clear that using medication will increase the likelihood of becoming an ex-smoker. I’m frequently asked about how long they should continue to use the medication after quitting.
The tendency for most people is to only use medication for the minimum amount of time that they feel they need it. They may stop smoking for a few weeks and decide that things are going so well that they will either taper or completely stop using medications sooner than is recommended. Unfortunately, this is not the most effective way to use these medications. In fact, in most instances longer is better. For example, a recent review found that taking nicotine replacement medication for 4-6 months is more effective than taking it for 6 weeks.
I remember a patient who was smoking 40 cigarettes per day. He left with a plan to use a nicotine patch for at least two months, and other medications as needed. He returned for a follow-up session one week after his quit date and starting the patch, and proudly stated that he was no longer using the patch, but he had begun smoking ‘a few’ after he stopped using the patch.
It’s important to keep our eyes on the big picture. Even though many of us prefer to use as little medication for as short a time as possible, tobacco is what carries the largest health risk, and using medications as directed can help us quit tobacco and stay quit.
Rather than it being easy to quit and not needing the medication, focus on the fact that the medication works well and assists you in your efforts to stop smoking.
Dr. Richard D. Hurt is an internationally recognized expert on tobacco dependence. A native of Murray, Kentucky, he joined Mayo Clinic in 1976 and is now a Professor of Medicine at its College of Medicine. In 1988, he founded the Mayo Clinic Nicotine Dependence Center and since then its staff has treated more than 50,000 patients for tobacco dependence. Send your questions directly to Dr. Hurt at AskTheExpert@becomeanex.org