Nicotine is the addictive substance found in tobacco products, such as cigarettes and cigars. It is a drug that can affect a person's brain function.
Once the body adapts to regular nicotine intake, people find giving up smoking difficult because of the uncomfortable symptoms of nicotine withdrawal.
Withdrawal symptoms usually peak after 1–3 days and then decrease over a period of 3–4 weeks. After this time, the body has expelled most of the nicotine, and the withdrawal effects are mainly psychological.
Understanding nicotine withdrawal symptoms can help people to manage while they quit smoking. This article will discuss nicotine withdrawal, including its symptoms and tips on how to cope with them.
What is nicotine withdrawal?
Nicotine has a number of different effects on a person's body.
When someone uses a nicotine product, such as a cigarette, they absorb the nicotine through the lining of their nose, mouth, and lungs. From these locations, it enters the bloodstream.
When nicotine reaches the brain, it activates areas concerned with feelings of pleasure and reward and boosts levels of a chemical called dopamine.
Nicotine also affects areas in the brain related to:
- heart rate
When people use nicotine for an extended period, it leads to changes in the balance of chemical messengers in their brain.
When a person stops using nicotine quickly, they disrupt this chemical balance and experience physical and psychological side effects, such as cravings and low mood.
Experts describe this disruption of brain chemicals as nicotine addiction, and it is part of the reason why people find it so difficult to reduce or quit smoking.
Symptoms of nicotine withdrawal
The symptoms of nicotine withdrawal are both physical and psychological.
The physical side effects only last for a few days while the nicotine leaves the body, but the psychological side effects can continue for much longer.
Though it may feel unpleasant, nicotine withdrawal has no health dangers related to it.
The psychological symptoms of nicotine withdrawal include:
- a strong desire or craving for nicotine
- irritability or frustration
- low mood
- difficulty concentrating
- mood swings
People may also experience the following physical symptoms of nicotine withdrawal:
- difficulty sleeping
- waking at night
- increased appetite
- abdominal cramps
- digestive issues, including constipation
- difficulty concentrating
Timeline of nicotine withdrawal
Each person has a different experience of nicotine withdrawal.
Some people may feel the physical side effects more strongly than others. Some will experience mild symptoms for a few days, whereas others may have intense cravings and symptoms that last several weeks.
Withdrawal symptoms set in between 4 and 24 hours after a person smokes their last cigarette. The symptoms peak around day 3 of quitting and then gradually subside over the following 3 to 4 weeks.
For some, the cravings can last longer than other symptoms, and familiar places, people, or situations where someone used to smoke can trigger them.
Two hours after the last cigarette, the body will have already removed around half of the nicotine. The levels of nicotine continue to drop for the next few days until it no longer affects the body.
Alongside the withdrawal symptoms, people will also begin to notice positive changes. These can be improvements in their sense of smell and taste, less coughing, and easier breathing, particularly when exercising.
Treating nicotine withdrawal
Quitting nicotine can be difficult because the addiction is both physical and psychological. Many people benefit from various kinds of support during the period of nicotine withdrawal.
Treatments for nicotine withdrawal include:
Nicotine replacement therapy
Nicotine replacement therapy (NRT) is where a person stops using tobacco and uses one of the following substances that contain smaller amounts of nicotine instead:
- chewing gum
- skin patches
- nasal or mouth sprays
There is no research to suggest that one method is more effective than another. Combining different types of NRT could have a stronger effect than a single method alone.
Research has found that using NRT can increase the chance of quitting by 50 to 60 percent. At this point, an individual can gradually reduce the dosage of nicotine until no further treatment is needed.
NRT is a common and successful treatment for nicotine withdrawal. However, many people will still experience certain withdrawal symptoms, which may be stronger in some individuals than others.
While side effects of NRT are possible, the withdrawal symptoms from nicotine without NRT can often be worse. Possible side effects of NRT include: