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What Is Nicotine Withdrawal Syndrome?

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“I was like a bear with a sore head - even the dog stayed out of my way - but after a couple of weeks the dog was back at my side and I knew I was over the worst”

There are a number of symptoms which are commonly reported by people giving up smoking with such consistency that they are referred to as the “Nicotine Withdrawal Syndrome”. We know that they are caused by the absence of the drug, nicotine, because they are relieved by giving the person nicotine in another form (e.g. via nicotine replacement therapy). When a person stops taking nicotine, the amount of the drug in the body drops by half roughly every two hours. This means that it takes about 24 hours for all the nicotine to be gone from the body, and for withdrawal symptoms to reach their peak.

“It was like a bereavement, I’d lost my constant companion for the past 20 years. After about 6 weeks I realised I’d beaten my worst enemy rather than lost a best friend”

The main withdrawal symptoms are irritability, restlessness, depression, anxiety, difficulty concentrating, poor sleep, hunger and craving for tobacco. Professor John Hughes of the University of Vermont has studied this phenomenon extensively. One of his studies examined over 600 people giving up smoking without any help. He found that about half of them reported a significant increase in at least four of these symptoms within two days of quitting, but after 30 days most were finding it much easier and less than one in five were still suffering from an increase in four symptoms.

Clearly every smoker does not experience an increase in all these symptoms when they quit. It is also clear that most withdrawal symptoms return to normal within a month. A couple of months after quitting, most ex-smokers actually feel that their mood is better than while they were smoking (i.e. fewer unpleasant symptoms).

If you are feeling really irritable during the first couple of weeks after quitting and are starting to wonder if it is worth all the hassle (or your family and work colleagues are!), it is important to remember that you are not going to feel like that forever, and that within a few weeks your mood and concentration should be back to normal.
After a few more weeks your mood will probably be better than when you were smoking. It isn't clear why mood should improve to be better than while smoking. Perhaps it is so stressful to be a nicotine addict nowadays that it feels relatively stress-free in the long run to not have to be chasing that next nicotine "fix".
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About the Author


MA, MAppSci, PhD

Dr. Jonathan Foulds is an expert in the field of tobacco addiction.

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