Nicotine Withdrawal

Written by Darla Burke | Published on August 20, 2012
Medically Reviewed by George Krucik, MD

What is Nicotine Withdrawal?

Nicotine is the drug that makes tobacco 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.

Although nicotine can have positive effects on the brain, tobacco also contains more than 19 cancer-causing chemicals (carcinogens). These toxins 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 (CDC, 2011).

Smoking cessation is often made more difficult by nicotine withdrawal, or 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 after your last use of tobacco. Symptoms will depend on your level of addiction. Factors such as how long you have used tobacco and how much tobacco you use on a daily basis will impact the severity of your symptoms. Symptoms of nicotine withdrawal can include:

  • intense cravings for nicotine
  • tingling in the hands and feet
  • sweating
  • nausea and/or intestinal cramping
  • headaches
  • coughing, sore throat
  • insomnia
  • difficulty concentrating
  • anxiety
  • irritability
  • depression
  • weight gain

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 (NCBI, 2011).

How Is Nicotine Withdrawal Treated?

If you decide to quit smoking, contact your doctor to discuss ways to manage your withdrawal symptoms. Your doctor 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 supplements including 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 Chantix.

If you are trying to quit smoking, you may also 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 Health 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. If you have concerns about this issue talk to your doctor. He or she may be able to help you identify strategies to manage your weight.

Some people may also experience mental health issues. Patients that have had episodes of depression in the past may experience a relapse. This may also occur for people that have had bipolar disorder or other substance abuse problems in the past. 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 is 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 for Patients that Develop Nicotine Withdrawal?

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 and include:

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

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. Curing these cravings will be important for long-term success. Most people can manage cravings by:

  • avoiding triggers
  • practicing deep breathing exercises
  • substituting cigarettes with chewing carrots, gum, or hard candy, as this may curb the psychological need to smoke
  • doing moderate physical activity, such as brisk walking
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