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Nicotine Withdrawal

What Is Nicotine Withdrawal?

Nicotine is a drug found in tobacco, which makes smoking addictive. Nicotine can have a wide range of effects on the brain, including:

  • boosting mood
  • reducing depression
  • reducing irritability
  • enhancing concentration and short-term memory
  • producing a sense of well-being
  • reducing appetite

Nicotine can be as addictive as other drugs, including alcohol, cocaine, and morphine.

In addition to nicotine, tobacco is thought to contain about 70 cancer-causing chemicals (carcinogens). These chemicals can result in the development of smoking-related diseases such as lung cancer, heart disease, and stroke. In an effort to prevent these diseases, millions of smokers attempt to quit each year. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 68.8 percent of smokers say they want to quit completely.

Nicotine withdrawal makes it more difficult to quit. Withdrawal is the set of distressing physical symptoms that occur when you stop using an addictive substance.

What Are the Symptoms of Nicotine Withdrawal?

The symptoms of nicotine withdrawal can begin within 30 minutes of your last use of tobacco. Symptoms will depend on your level of addiction. Factors such as how long you used tobacco and how much tobacco you use on a daily basis will impact the severity of your symptoms.

Symptoms of nicotine withdrawal include:

Symptoms of nicotine withdrawal typically peak within two to three days. The symptoms often go away by two weeks. Some people may experience nicotine withdrawal for several months.

How Is Nicotine Withdrawal Treated?

If you decide to quit smoking, contact your doctor to discuss ways to manage your withdrawal symptoms. They may be able to provide you with access to prescription medication or information about support groups in your community.

Several different treatment options are available for nicotine withdrawal. Over-the-counter nicotine replacement medications such as nicotine gum and skin patches, or prescription nicotine replacement methods such as inhalers and nasal sprays, can help reduce symptoms by slowly decreasing the amount of nicotine in your body.

Treatment may also include the use of non-nicotine prescription medications such as Zyban or Chantix.

If you’re trying to quit smoking, you may benefit from the help of others who are trying to quit. Joining a smoking cessation program or a support group may increase your chances of success.

What Complications Are Associated with Nicotine Withdrawal?

Nicotine withdrawal is not a life-threatening condition. However, you may notice some physical or mood changes once you quit smoking. Some people gain weight as a result of stopping smoking. Talk to your primary care provider if you have concerns about this issue. They may be able to help you identify strategies to manage your weight.

Some people may also experience mental health issues. Patients who have had episodes of depression in the past may experience a relapse. This may also occur for people who have had bipolar disorder or other substance abuse problems. Depression associated with nicotine withdrawal is often temporary and subsides with time. Depression is a treatable condition, but it can be life-threatening if it’s left untreated. If you have a history of depression, talk to your doctor about ways to manage your symptoms during smoking cessation.

What Is the Long-Term Outlook?

Overcoming nicotine withdrawal is often the most difficult part of quitting smoking. Many people have to try more than once to quit. The more you try to quit, the more likely you will be to succeed.

Unfortunately, there are many situations in your daily life that may trigger your desire to smoke. These situations can intensify symptoms of nicotine withdrawal. Triggers include:

  • being around other smokers
  • being in a car
  • feeling stressed
  • drinking coffee or tea
  • drinking alcohol
  • feeling bored
  • talking on the phone

Identify your triggers and try to avoid them if you can. In general, the symptoms of nicotine withdrawal pass quickly. Most symptoms pass within a week.

Once the symptoms of withdrawal stop, you may still experience long-term cravings for tobacco. Curbing these cravings will be important for long-term success. Many people can manage cravings by avoiding triggers, engaging in moderate physical activity, and practicing deep breathing exercises. Another helpful tip is to substitute carrots, gum, or hard candy for cigarettes, as this can curb the psychological need to smoke.

Content licensed from:

Written by: Darla Burke
Medically reviewed on: Nov 11, 2015: Timothy J. Legg, Ph.D., CARN-AP

This feature is for informational purposes only and should not be used to replace the care and information received from your health care provider. Please consult a health care professional with any health concerns you may have.
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