An Overview of Nicotine Withdrawal

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In This Article

Nicotine withdrawal can cause a host of physical and psychological symptoms that leave new ex-smokers feeling both physically ill and mentally stressed and anxious.

Knowledge about what to expect when you quit smoking and a plan to manage the ups and downs will help you better endure this phase of smoking cessation successfully.

What Is Nicotine Withdrawal?

Nicotine is an extremely addictive drug. When inhaled or ingested, nicotine bonds with receptors in our brains that trigger the release of dopamine, a feel-good hormone that is thought to be closely tied to the addictive process.

Your body will react to the absence of nicotine and so will your mind, so don't worry if you feel bad and can't stop thinking about smoking. The discomforts are normal and temporary. 

The key word is temporary. It won't feel temporary while you're in the midst of it, but nicotine withdrawal will pass as long as you don't smoke.

Symptoms

It is common for new ex-smokers in the throes of nicotine withdrawal to think that quitting smoking is to blame for their pain. The truth is that smoking (and the nicotine addiction that followed it) is why you're feeling so bad right now.

If you smoke, you'll be back to going through nicotine withdrawal every time you need a cigarette. If you stick with your quit, this will be the last time you have to experience nicotine withdrawal.

Cigarettes contain upwards of 7,000 chemicals, and many of them affect the way we feel on a day-to-day basis. Smokers tend to discount some of the physical reactions they have to smoking because they come on gradually over the years. 

For instance, that headache you have three or four days a week might be stress, or it could be the carbon monoxide you're inhaling numerous times a day. The burning, itchy eyes you seem to experience most nights might be a reaction to the formaldehyde in the cigarette smoke, not eye fatigue.

Simply put, just about any new discomfort you have after stubbing out your last cigarette could be related to nicotine withdrawal. 

Once you stop smoking, you can also expect that your mind will twist itself into knots trying to convince you to smoke. This is called "junkie thinking," and it will subside over time if you put yourself on "ignore" and don't light up.

The following list contains the most commonly reported symptoms of nicotine withdrawal. 

  • Anxiety and restlessness
  • Appetite and weight gain
  • Cough
  • Crankiness
  • Cravings to smoke
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Dry mouth
  • Fatigue
  • Headache
  • Insomnia
  • Irritability
  • Postnasal drip
  • Quitter's flu
  • Sore throat
  • Sore tongue and/or gums
  • Tightness in the chest

Check with your doctor if you're concerned about a physical reaction you're having to smoking cessation, or if nicotine withdrawal symptoms persist or worsen.

How Long Does Nicotine Withdrawal Last?

If you quit smoking cold turkey, the majority of the nicotine in your body will be eliminated during the first day, though the exact timing varies from person to person. Cotinine, a major metabolite of nicotine, is detectable in the blood, saliva, and urine for a number of days longer.

If you use a nicotine replacement therapy (NRT), you will taper off of nicotine during the course of the prescribed therapy. This eases the symptoms of nicotine withdrawal considerably. Just be careful to follow the directions for the NRT of your choice carefully, as recommended by the manufacturer or your doctor. 

If you use a non-nicotine quit aid like Chantix (varenicline) or Zyban (bupropion), you might be able to avoid the symptoms of nicotine withdrawal completely. These prescription quit aids are not for everyone, however, so discuss their pros and cons with your doctor if you're interested in trying one of them.

Signs of Nicotine Overdose

Overusing nicotine replacement therapies can lead to nicotine overdose. If you experience the following symptoms, call 911 or poison control immediately:

  • Diarrhea
  • Headaches
  • Irregular or rapid heartbeat
  • Rapid breathing
  • Seizures
  • Sudden changes in blood pressure
  • Tremors
  • Weakness

Coping

There is no avoiding this part of smoking cessation; the nicotine has to leave your body. That said, it doesn't take long in the grand scheme of things. In addition to quit aids that can ease or even eliminate the discomforts, there are a number of steps you can take to make nicotine withdrawal more tolerable. 

Eat a Well-Balanced Diet

Eating a balanced, healthy diet will help fuel your body as it recuperates from cigarette use. Good fuel in equals good energy out. New ex-smokers often crave all of the wrong foods, including sweet and salty snacks, in an effort to dampen the desire to smoke. Many people probably gravitate to these foods as a replacement for smoking because, like cigarettes, they trigger the release of dopamine in our brains.

If you fill up on too much junk, though, it will negatively affect how you feel physically and psychologically. You may start to gain weight, as well, so do your best to eat right.

Since some of the chemicals in cigarettes can deplete our bodies of essential vitamins, it's also smart to consider adding a multivitamin to your daily regimen.

Exercise

As with food and nicotine, exercise also causes our brains to release dopamine. Get out for a walk, or head to the gym to sweat out some of the angst of nicotine withdrawal. It will improve your mindset and your physical well-being.

Drink Water

Good hydration is always important, but even more so while you're going through nicotine withdrawal. Your body is releasing toxins, and water will help flush them out. Drinking a tall glass of water when you crave nicotine can also help break the thought. 

Breathe

In those first days of smoking cessation, it can feel as though your day is one long craving to smoke. The truth is that most urges to smoke last three to five minutes. Rather than tensing up when a smoking urge hits, try some deep breathing. It will help you ride out the craving in a more relaxed way. 

Get More Rest

Fatigue is common during nicotine withdrawal. If you're tired and can manage it during the day, take a nap. At the end of the day, go to bed a little earlier than usual.

On the other hand, if you find yourself suddenly suffering from quit-related insomnia (also common), try taking a long walk several hours before bed to get your body ready for sleep.

Distract Yourself

Create a short list of ways to pull yourself out of a smoking urge or negative thought pattern that you can employ at a moment's notice (water and breathing are good additions). Change what you're doing abruptly and your mind will also shift away from the downward spiral it's on.

Connect With Online Support

Whether you join in or just read, visit a smoking cessation support forum for a shot of encouragement to continue staying smoke-free when you're feeling down.

Give Yourself Time

Successfully navigating nicotine withdrawal is a necessary step in healing from nicotine addiction, but there's more to it. You've gotten the physical monkey of nicotine off of your back, and now you need to reprogram the mental associations you have with smoking. This part of recovery takes a bit more time, but it's also not as intense as nicotine withdrawal, so take heart. 

It's really just a matter of living your life one day at a time without a cigarette in hand. You will learn to react to situations that trigger smoking urges without lighting up. Once you do, your mind registers the change, and it's easier the next time around.

Give yourself the benefit of a full year smoke-free and you'll be well on your way to a life where not smoking is natural and comfortable. 

A Word From Verywell

Nicotine withdrawal is intense and difficult for most people, but it is also temporary. Keep your perspective and your eye on the prize and remind yourself that easier days are ahead. If you do your best, one day at a time, you'll soon reap the many benefits of a healthier, smoke-free life.

If you or a loved one are struggling with substance use or addiction, contact the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) National Helpline at 1-800-662-4357 for information on support and treatment facilities in your area. 

For more mental health resources, see our National Helpline Database.

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