Nicotine Addiction and Withdrawal

Most people who smoke or use other tobacco products know that they should quit. Quitting may seem too hard—even impossible, yet it can be done. Millions of ex-tobacco users have worked hard to quit and are now reaping the financial and health benefits of living tobacco-free.

Quitting tobacco is a process, and many former smokers and other tobacco users have had to try, try, and try again before quitting successfully. Others have quit "cold turkey." There's no one sure way to quit that works for everyone—but there are a lot of different methods to quit and to begin enjoying a tobacco-free life.

Nicotine—a naturally occurring chemical found in tobacco plants—is what makes quitting so hard. Nicotine is a highly addictive drug that has powerful effects on the brain and the body. All tobacco products (e.g., cigarettes, cigars, pipe tobacco, smokeless tobacco [chew or spit tobacco]) contain nicotine.

Nicotine works fast—in seconds. For cigarette smokers, the chemical is absorbed through the lungs and reaches the brain within 10 seconds of inhaling.

Although cigar and pipe smokers do not inhale smoke, nicotine is also quickly absorbed through the linings of the mouth and nose. Smokeless tobacco users absorb nicotine through the lining of the mouth.

In general, when nicotine enters the body, it creates both a calming and a stimulating reaction. Epinephrine (adrenalin) is then released, which increases heart rate, breathing rate, and blood pressure. Nicotine also stimulates the release of dopamine, a chemical that creates feelings of pleasure.

People who become addicted to nicotine soon develop tolerance, which means more nicotine is needed to produce the same "pleasurable" effects. This increases the likelihood that they will continue smoking or using other tobacco products, and greatly increases the risk for developing serious health problems.

Nicotine's power to addict is what makes it so hard to quit. When people stop using tobacco products, they experience withdrawal.

Nicotine withdrawal, which can last for a few days to a month or more, may include the following:

  • Cravings
  • Difficulty concentrating or paying attention
  • Increased appetite
  • Irritability
  • Sleep difficulties

However, the good news is that there are many treatments and methods to reduce or eliminate withdrawal symptoms. Quite simply, the more you know about tobacco, the better prepared you'll be to quit successfully. Support from professionals, as well as from friends and family, is very important.

Publication Review By: Karen Larson, M.D., Stanley J. Swierzewski, III, M.D.

Published: 14 Jul 2006

Last Modified: 01 Oct 2015