Unlike most of the other psychoactive substances discussed on this site, nicotine, the psychoactive ingredient in tobacco cigarettes, does not cause a dramatic enough alteration in mental status that those under the drug’s influence are too impaired to carry out their usual day to day activities. However, the mild stimulant still comes with the risk of life-threatening and life-altering addiction. 

In fact, nicotine, is thought to be one of the most addictive substances period, second only to opioids and cocaine. 50 million Americans are thought to be hooked on the substance, which increases the risks of conditions including but not limited to cancer, heart disease, stroke, lung diseases, diabetes, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. According to the CDC, these and other smoking related illnesses are thought to be responsible for more than 480, 000 deaths a year, which adds up to about 1 in five American deaths per year. 

Yet despite the well-documented health risks of smoking, 13.7 percent of all American adults continue to smoke regularly, and even many of those who make attempts to quit are found to have a relatively low success rate of only 7 percent.

This may in part be due to the unpleasant withdrawal symptoms that arise when someone who is addicted to nicotine stop using.  However, 59 percent of adults who ever smoked have quit, and even many smokers who relapse after a first attempt at quitting will be able to quit on a subsequent attempt, so conquering this addiction is far from impossible. To learn more about what to expect from nicotine withdrawal, take a look at the list of symptoms below. 

Symptoms Of Nicotine Withdrawal

While nicotine withdrawal is not physically dangerous, like withdrawal from some psychoactive substances like alcohol and benzodiazepines, it’s certainly no picnic either. 

Quitting nicotine can result in flu-like symptoms, including fatigue, headaches, coughing, sweating, gastrointestinal distress, tingling extremities, and sore throat. It can also cause mental symptoms, like brain fog and trouble concentrating, anxiety, depression, and irritability. 

The duration of these symptoms will depend on how long and how heavily you smoked as well as your individual chemistry, but most of the strongest physical symptoms should dissipate within 2 weeks, with days three through five typically the most unpleasant. However, mental symptoms could be slower to diminish, possibly lasting a few weeks or longer. 

You should also expect to experience intense cravings for nicotine during your withdrawal, and while these should diminish as time goes on as well, they can also be triggered by people, places, and things that remind you of smoking cigarettes. 

It’s also worth noting that many people who smoke experience increased appetite after quitting, as the smoker seeks another way to satisfy their oral fixation as their brain tries to find a new “fix” to release reward chemicals not that cigarettes are off the table. Thus, it is not uncommon for a smoker in the process of quitting to gain five to ten pounds as a result. To avoid this, quitters can try to chew sugar free gum instead of snacking, or to munch on healthy low-calorie snacks like celery and carrots rather than on high-calorie junk food.

How To Manage Nicotine Withdrawal 

Since it is actually the other carcinogens in cigarettes that account for most of the health risks of smoking, your healthcare provider might recommend nicotine replacement therapy to help lessen the impact of withdrawal and increase your chances of quitting smoking successfully if you are a heavy smoker—generally, if you are in the habit of smoking more than ten cigarettes per day. 

Nicotine replacement products include gum, sprays, patches, and lozenges, and while you should not use these products without consulting your healthcare provider, they generally result in only mild side effects. However, the fact that they can raise blood pressure means that there could be a risk of a dangerous blood pressure related heart attack if someone smokes in addition to using a nicotine replacement product, so don’t give them a go unless you’re serious about quitting. Occasionally, other medications like Chantix or Zyban may also be prescribed to aid in smoking cessation.

While these products will certainly help address the physical component of nicotine addiction, you may still have a very deep mental addiction to break. Doing so could include altering any habits you associate with smoking and planning how you will avoid triggers and finding alternate coping mechanisms you can use instead of reaching for a cigarette. Counseling may help you through this process, as could attending support groups and leaning on your support system.

You could try making a list of friends to call if you are having trouble resisting a craving or fun, distracting activities that you can engage in by yourself when you are struggling. Exercise may be a particularly good choice because, along with releasing endorphins and giving you something physical to do besides smoke, it can help offset any extra calories you may have been consuming as you deal with your nicotine cravings.

The longer you keep away from cigarettes, the lower your risk will be for all of the catastrophic health consequences smoking can bring. To learn more about nicotine withdrawal and about quitting smoking, feel free to check out this comprehensive guide from the CDC, which will direct you to dedicated text and phone lines, inspirational success stories, support resources, and more. And for information about addiction to and withdrawal from other drugs, feel free to call us any time at (833) 489-5577.

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