The drug nicotine, commonly associated with tobacco, is what makes smoking addictive. It can have a wide range of effects on the brain, such as:
- boosting mood
- reducing depression
- reducing irritability
- enhancing concentration and short-term memory
- producing a sense of well-being
- reducing appetite
In an effort to prevent these diseases, millions of smokers attempt to quit each year. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 68 percent of smokers say they want to quit completely, as of 2015.
Nicotine withdrawal makes it more difficult to quit. Read on to learn how to manage the symptoms that occur when you stop using this addictive substance.
The symptoms of nicotine withdrawal can begin within 30 minutes of your last use of tobacco and 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 for smokers include:
- intense cravings for nicotine
- tingling in the hands and feet
- nausea and abdominal cramping
- constipation and gas
- sore throat
- difficulty concentrating
- weight gain
Symptoms of withdrawal for people who use chewing tobacco are quite similar. They include:
- depressed mood
- trouble sleeping
- difficulty concentrating
- feeling restless and jumpy
- increased hunger or weight gain
- slower heart rate
Symptoms of nicotine withdrawal typically peak within two to three days.
Your cravings are caused by nicotine receptors in the brain. These receptors are increased in response to your previous nicotine use. The receptors will make you want to continue smoking. Ignoring those receptors leads to the withdrawal symptoms.
However, as you ignore them, they begin to disappear. Withdrawal symptoms often go away in two to four weeks. Some people may experience nicotine withdrawal for several months. Learn more about what happens in the hours, days, and years after you quit smoking.
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. They include:
- Over-the-counter (OTC) nicotine replacement medications. Examples include nicotine gum and skin patches.
- Prescription nicotine replacement methods. Examples include inhalers and nasal sprays.
These can help reduce symptoms by slowly decreasing the amount of nicotine in your body.
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Treatment may also include the use of non-nicotine prescription medications, such as bupropion (Zyban) or varenicline (Chantix).
Nicotine replacement therapy (NRT) products are helpful, but they aren’t a cure-all. Most people still experience some withdrawal symptoms. If you have an emotional connection to smoking, NRT can’t take that away.
Pros and cons of NRT
Some common side effects of popular NRT products include:
- trouble sleeping
However, most studies have shown that the side effects outweigh the benefits of using NRT. Many insurance plans cover its use.
While some people have experienced heart attacks while using a nicotine patch and smoking at the same time, the increase in blood pressure comes from the increased nicotine from both sources and not from the patch itself. Therefore, when the patch is used correctly, it isn’t likely to increase blood pressure.
If you do notice an increase in blood pressure, talk to your doctor to make sure you’re taking the right dose.
Quitting cold turkey
NRT is meant for people who smoke more than 10 cigarettes a day. If you smoke 10 or fewer cigarettes per day, you may want to quit “cold turkey.” This is quitting without the use of nicotine replacements. Your withdrawal symptoms will be stronger, but a plan can help get you through the rough patch. The following tips may help you quit successfully:
- Choose a specific date to stop smoking. This will ideally be when you don’t have too much on your calendar.
- Make a list of your personal reasons for quitting.
- Remind yourself that the withdrawal symptoms are only temporary.
- Reach out to friends and family for support.
- Join a support group.
If you’re trying to quit smoking, you may benefit from the help of others who are trying to quit as well. Joining a smoking cessation program or a support group may increase your chances of success.
Nicotine withdrawal isn’t a life-threatening condition. However, you may notice some physical or mood changes once you quit smoking.
Increased appetite and weight gain
When you stop smoking, your taste buds and sense of smell will return to normal. While this is a positive side effect, you may notice that you crave food more often than you did before you began smoking. Additionally, some people begin to crave foods high in fat and sugar, even if they didn’t crave these things before smoking.
The following tips can help you manage cravings and minimize weight gain:
- Practice the “four Ds”: Delay your cravings for a few minutes, drink a glass of water, distract yourself with something else, or practice deep breathing.
- Choose healthy snack food, such as carrots, raw nuts, or low-fat yogurt.
- Keep your hands and mouth busy with a toothpick or straw.
- Eat more slowly. Enjoy the flavors of your food.
- Avoid distractions while eating, such as watching TV. Be mindful of when you’re hungry and when you’re just bored.
- Exercise. Even a walk around the block can help you manage your weight.
Talk to your primary care provider if you have concerns about your weight. They may be able to help you identify helpful strategies.
Mental health changes
Some people may also experience mental health issues. People who’ve had episodes of depression in the past may experience a relapse. This may also occur for people who’ve had bipolar disorder or other substance use disorders.
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.
Whether you quit cold turkey or use NRT, you’ll experience some nicotine withdrawal. There’s no way to avoid this process, but you can get through it. Here are some ways to combat common withdrawal symptoms.
Dry mouth and sore throat
Drink plenty of water, chew sugar-free gum, or suck on sugar-free candy.
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Turn off or put away electronic devices one to two hours before bedtime. Create a bedtime ritual, such as reading, taking a shower or warm bath, or listening to soothing music. Drink a glass of herbal tea or warm milk, and avoid caffeine or heavy meals before bed. Get more tips on natural ways to sleep better.
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Take frequent breaks. Try not to overdo it. Make to-do lists, and give yourself plenty of time to complete tasks.
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’ll succeed.
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. Finding ways to relax can curb cravings as well, such as:
- Listen to music.
- Participate in a hobby.
- Take a walk.
- Talk with friends and family.
Another helpful tip is to substitute carrots, gum, or hard candy for cigarettes. These can curb the psychological need to smoke.
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