Nicotine is a highly addictive chemical found in the tobacco plant. The addiction is physical, in that habitual users come to crave the chemical. It is also mental, in that users consciously desire nicotine’s effects. 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.
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.
Smoking or chewing tobacco is very dangerous. It causes many deadly health conditions. According to the Illinois Institute for Addiction Recovery, smoking is responsible for about one in every six deaths in the U.S. (IIAR). Stopping smoking, no matter how long you have smoked, can greatly benefit your health.
The nearly 4,000 chemicals found in tobacco have physical, mental, and psychological effects. 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 tobacco cigarettes and smokeless tobacco contain many cancer-causing agents and other harmful chemicals. Using tobacco leads to grave health complications, including:
- lung cancer
- chronic bronchitis
- cancer, especially in the respiratory system
- heart disease
- eye issues like cataracts or macular degeneration
- miscarriage or pregnancy complications
- weakened immune system
- cold, flu, or respiratory infections
- loss of sense of taste or smell
- gum disease and dental issues
- the appearance of premature aging
- yellowing of teeth, nails, and skin
Secondhand smoke also increases the risk of lung cancer and heart disease among people close to smokers.
Children living in homes with secondhand smoke are more likely to have SIDS, asthma, respiratory or ear infections, and other illnesses (CDC).
Smoking cigarettes or using other tobacco products causes nicotine addiction. Nicotine is very addictive, so even infrequent use can lead to dependence.
Anyone who uses tobacco is at risk for developing an addiction. The best way to prevent an addiction is to avoid tobacco.
Some factors may increase the risk of addiction. 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. People who start smoking when they are young are more likely to smoke into adulthood. It’s less common for adults to start smoking or develop an addiction (American Society of Addiction Medicine, 2013).
Also, people who abuse alcohol or drugs or those with a mental illness have an increased risk of nicotine dependence.
Signs of nicotine addiction include:
- an inability to stop
- withdrawal symptoms when nicotine use stops
- a desire to keep smoking even when health complications arise
- an impact on the user’s life
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.
There are many treatment options for nicotine addiction, including medication, therapy, and support groups. The physical part of the addiction can be very challenging to deal with. To be successful, the patient must work to change behaviors and routines.
Some medications can be used to help you quit smoking. They work to lessen cravings. One option is nicotine-replacement therapy via patches, gums, lozenges, nasal sprays, or inhalers. These things provide nicotine without the other chemicals. This allows you to defeat the addiction in a slow and methodic manner.
Non-nicotine options include antidepressants that work to increase dopamine production in order to improve mood.
Whether you choose an in-person support group or a virtual one, there are many groups that can teach you coping skills, help you work through your addiction, and offer you the support of fellowship with other people facing the same challenges you are.
Treatment for nicotine addiction focuses on medications and time. It takes time to work through withdrawal symptoms and learn coping skills. Other suggestions include getting regular exercise, choosing snacks that keep your mouth and hands busy, removing all tobacco products from your home and car, avoiding situations that could trigger a relapse, choosing healthy meals, and setting realistic expectations about your treatment. Set small goals and reward yourself for meeting those goals.
Other solutions that can help overcome your addiction include hypnosis, acupuncture, and herbs, although the safety and efficacy of each is mostly unknown.
Addicted tobacco users who attempt to stop using nicotine products will undergo 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 and each passing day will get easier. Even when withdrawal symptoms have subsided, sudden cravings are common. Learning discipline is vital for these situations.
People who use nicotine products are at a greatly increased risk for respiratory diseases, cancers (primarily lung cancer), stroke, and heart disease.
Regardless of how long you’ve smoked, you can minimize your risk of health problems by stopping.