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Why you should quit smoking before having surgery

Smoking can be detrimental to health in ways that go beyond disease. One example: it affects how the body handles surgery. For this reason, some doctors are even refusing to operate on smokers to help prevent complications.

While not all doctors go that far, others ask patients to stop, or at least reduce smoking cigarettes before and after a surgical procedure. The request makes sense, because quitting even one or two days before surgery—and staying smoke-free afterward—reduces the risk of some complications and helps the body heal better and faster post-operation.

Why is it that smoking and surgery don’t mix? We turned to the experts behind BecomeAnEX®, a digital quit-smoking program by Truth Initiative® and developed in collaboration with Mayo Clinic, for answers to three common questions about smoking and surgery.

How does smoking affect people having surgery?

In recent years, research has shown that compared to nonsmokers, smokers have a higher chance of surgery-related complications like heart attack, stroke, shock and death. Smoking decreases blood flow making surgical wounds less likely to close, less likely to heal well and more likely to become infected. Smoking also weakens the immune system, which increases the chance of infection after surgery.

Smokers are more likely than nonsmokers to experience specific complications from all types of surgeries. For example:

  • Orthopedic (bone or joint) surgery: bones can take longer to heal.
  • Plastic surgery: higher chance of scarring.
  • Breast reconstruction surgery: more likely to lose implants.
  • Spinal fusion surgery: higher chance of infection and bone fracture.

Even secondhand smoke is a problem when it comes to surgery. For example, children have more complications after surgery if their parents smoke around them.

How does quitting smoking help with surgical outcomes?

One research study looked at patients having coronary bypass surgery to examine the impact that smoking has after surgery. Smokers had more than twice as many heart and lung complications than patients who didn’t smoke. Patients who had stopped smoking for just one month before surgery had no more complications than patients who had never smoked.

The conclusion of the study is simple: quitting cigarettes before surgery makes a huge difference. Patients can expect fewer complications if they stop smoking three to four weeks before other types of surgeries too, but even quitting a day or two before any surgery can make a tremendous difference.

Just within a day or two after stopping, the body can bring more oxygen to cells and blood flow improves, making it easier for healing. Three to six weeks after stopping, the body’s defenses against bacterial infection improve.

How can I quit smoking if I am scheduled for surgery?

Many people have used an upcoming surgery as a reason to quit, even if just a day or two before the procedure. The date of a surgery can be used as motivation to set a quit date, which is the first step of a successful plan to quit smoking. That’s where BecomeAnEX comes in.

Once a quit date is set, there are lots of ways to go about quitting, like talking to a medical expert, using medications and getting social support from family members, friends or the BecomeAnEX Community. Using the best science-based methods, like those offered on EX, improves chances of success and quitting for good.

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