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Nicotine is a highly addictive chemical found in the tobacco plant. The addiction is physical, meaning habitual users come to crave the chemical, and also mental, meaning users consciously desire nicotine’s effects. Nicotine addiction is also behavioral. People become dependent on actions involved with using tobacco. They also become accustomed to using tobacco in certain situations, such as after meals or when under stress.
Nicotine is primarily consumed by inhaling the smoke of tobacco cigarettes. Other ways to smoke tobacco include pipes and cigars. Smokeless tobacco is inhaled through the nose as a powder or held in the mouth.
Tobacco is dangerous. According to one study, smoking-related diseases are responsible for about 435,000 deaths per year in the United States. That’s about 1 in every 5 deaths in the United States. Stopping smoking, no matter how long you have smoked, can greatly benefit your health.
Nicotine creates pleasant feelings in the body and mind. When you use tobacco, your brain releases neurotransmitters such dopamine, the feel-good chemical. This creates a brief feeling of contentment and pleasure.
But besides nicotine, tobacco cigarettes and smokeless tobacco contain many cancer-causing agents and other harmful chemicals. The nearly 4,000 chemicals found in tobacco have physical, mental, and psychological effects. Using tobacco leads to grave health complications, including:
Secondhand smoke also increases the risk of lung cancer and heart disease among people close to smokers. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, children living in homes with secondhand smoke are more likely to have:
Smoking cigarettes or using other tobacco products causes nicotine addiction. Nicotine is very addictive, so even infrequent use can lead to dependence.
It’s possible for smoking cessation products, such as nicotine gum, lozenges, or patches, to cause nicotine addiction. However, the risk is low. This is because the amount of nicotine in these products is lower and delivered more slowly than the nicotine in tobacco.
Anyone who uses tobacco is at risk of developing an addiction. The best way to prevent an addiction is to avoid tobacco.
Some factors may increase the risk of addiction. For example, people with a family history of nicotine addiction and people who grow up in homes with tobacco users are more likely to start smoking and develop an addiction.
Also, people who start smoking when they are young are more likely to smoke into adulthood. One study notes that 80% of smokers began smoking by age 18 years. Starting smoking young tends to increase dependence later on in life. It’s less common for adults to start smoking or develop an addiction, according to the American Society of Addiction Medicine.
People who abuse alcohol or drugs or who have a mental illness also have an increased risk of nicotine dependence.
Signs of nicotine addiction include:
To diagnose a nicotine addiction, your doctor will discuss your current usage and health history. He or she will determine the degree of your dependence and suggest treatment options.
People who want to seek treatment for addiction will need to commit to stopping.
The physical part of the addiction can be challenging to deal with. To be successful, the person must work to change behaviors and routines. There are many treatment options for nicotine addiction, including prescription medication, nicotine replacement therapy, and support groups.
Some medications can help you quit smoking. They work to lessen cravings. One option is nicotine replacement therapy via patches, gums, lozenges, nasal sprays, or inhalers. These options provide nicotine without the other chemicals found in tobacco. They allow you to defeat the addiction in a slow and methodical manner.
Non-nicotine options include antidepressants. These work to increase dopamine production to improve your mood.
Whether you choose an in-person support group or a virtual one, support groups can teach you coping skills, help you work through your addiction, and offer you fellowship with other people facing the same challenges as you.
Treatment for nicotine addiction focuses largely on medications and taking the time to work through withdrawal symptoms and learn coping skills. Try these suggestions to make your transition away from nicotine easier:
Other solutions that can help you overcome your addiction include:
However, the safety and efficacy of each option is mostly unknown.
Addicted tobacco users who stop using nicotine products will face withdrawal. Effects of nicotine withdrawal include irritability, anxiety, and physical symptoms, such as headaches and fatigue.
The first week will be the worst for withdrawal symptoms, but each passing day will get easier. Even when withdrawal symptoms have subsided, though, sudden cravings are common. Learning discipline is vital for these situations.
People who use nicotine products are at a greatly increased risk of respiratory diseases, cancers (especially lung cancer), stroke, and heart disease. Regardless of how long you’ve smoked, you can minimize your risk of health problems by stopping.
Written by: Amber Erickson Gabbey
Medically reviewed on: May 17, 2017: University of Illinois-Chicago, College of Medicine
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