How Long Does Withdrawal From Nicotine Last?

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One of the biggest fears for people who want to quit smoking is going through nicotine withdrawal. The withdrawal process can be unpleasant and people often experience symptoms such as irritability, cravings, and weight gain.

With the right tools in place, you can overcome these symptoms and make your next attempt at quitting a success.

Overview

Nicotine withdrawal is a normal physical and emotional reaction to rapidly quitting, or significantly reducing, your nicotine intake. It usually happens when you drastically reduce or stop smoking after you've been ingesting nicotine every day for at least several weeks.

Your body and brain adapt to the nicotine you take in on a regular basis through smoking, chewing tobacco, or using a nicotine patch, gum or other nicotine replacement therapy (NRT). Your body learns to expect a certain amount of nicotine each day and reacts with unpleasant symptoms if this does not happen.

Your daily intake of nicotine also becomes part of how you manage your emotions and affects both how you relax and how you keep yourself alert. When nicotine is suddenly absent, you tend to get nicotine withdrawal symptoms.

About half of all smokers report experiencing at least four withdrawal symptoms when they quit, studies show. 

Signs & Symptoms

People usually have several of these symptoms at once, making nicotine withdrawal quite unpleasant. If you prepare yourself and find ways to address them, you will increase your chance of success.

Nicotine Cravings

Most people who are withdrawing from nicotine experience strong urges to smoke. These urges are known as cravings, and they are common among people withdrawing from many addictive substances.

Depression

People often feel sad, depressed, or have a low mood during nicotine withdrawal, which is sometimes known as a dysphoric or depressed mood. It is important to remember that some changes in mood are normal during nicotine withdrawal, and they don't necessarily indicate that anything is wrong. Not only is there a good physiological reason for mood changes, but you are also processing the loss of an activity you enjoyed, and which helped you cope with low mood.

Many people feel some grief at losing the pleasure they felt from smoking. This is a natural part of the process of overcoming your addiction to nicotine. It will eventually turn to feelings of acceptance and then liberation from the drug.

Irritability

This mood change can range from feeling irritable or frustrated to feeling angry. Ideally, while you're in the throes of nicotine withdrawal, you should try to give yourself plenty of space from others, as you may end up treating them in ways they don't appreciate or deserve.

Anxiety and Restlessness

The anxiety you feel during nicotine withdrawal can range from feeling on edge to feeling fearful, or even panicky, at the thought of facing the future without the calming effects of nicotine. This state of anxiety is heightened during nicotine withdrawal for people who are sensitive to anxiety in general.

Difficulty Concentrating

Like most stimulants, in the short term, nicotine can help with mental focus. In contrast, when you're experiencing nicotine withdrawal, you might find it difficult to concentrate without the stimulating effects of the drug.

However, much of this symptom is subjective. You still have the ability to concentrate, but just feel less able to. Your sense of focus will return once your body re-establishes its homeostasis.

Sleep Problems

Difficulty sleeping, also known as insomnia, is quite common during nicotine withdrawal. Daytime exercise, particularly outdoor exercise that exposes you to sunlight, can help you feel more relaxed and sleepy at bedtime.

Appetite and Weight Gain

Nicotine can be an appetite suppressant and smoking also interferes with your senses of taste and smell, so some people use smoking as a snack substitute and as a way to try and control their weight.

One of the most rewarding aspects of quitting smoking can be rediscovering the joy of food. As long as this food is healthy and eaten in moderation, there should be no problem.

How Long Does Nicotine Withdrawal Last?

Even without medication, withdrawal symptoms typically last between a week and a month. The first week after you stop is the worst, and after that, the intensity of the symptoms tends to drop over the next month. The period of withdrawal depends on various factors such as how long and how heavily you've been smoking.

Coping & Relief

The good news is that there is much you can do to reduce cravings and manage common withdrawal symptoms. Even without medication, withdrawal symptoms and other problems subside over time.

Exercise

Exercise is a quick and easy way to boost your mood, as long as you don't overdo it by developing a substitute exercise addiction. Engage in physical activity such as taking a walk or engaging in other exercises such as jogging or swimming.

Manage Cravings

Many people find distraction can take their minds off cravings until they subside, since cravings usually only last for a few minutes, even if they're intense. Others find cravings cause them to relapse again and again.

If this happens to you, talk to your doctor about Nicotine Replacement Therapies (NRTs). It may take longer to quit this way, but you may have a better chance of success.

Avoid Triggers

Try to stay away from people and situations that you know will provoke your anger during this time. Over time, you'll feel less irritable, and you may even be better able to cope with annoyances than you did before you quit. For now, give yourself and others as much time and space as possible.

Relieve Stress

If you know you tend to get anxious under stress, especially if you're prone to panic attacks, try to avoid stressful situations while you're quitting nicotine. This will reduce the likelihood of your anxiety escalating.

Try to ease the pressure: don't quit smoking when you have an exam coming up, at tax time, or during any other time which requires a lot of mental focus under pressure. Instead, do it at a time when you're under less pressure to concentrate.

Yoga, mindfulness, meditation and relaxation exercises can all help with reducing the anxiety you feel during nicotine withdrawal.

Eat Healthy

It's all too easy to fall into the trap of comfort eating in response to cravings and increased appetite, and you may end up gaining weight or even developing a substitute food addiction. Avoiding overeating is key to preventing these pitfalls.

Find Distractions

It is quite normal for cravings to subside, but to still pop up occasionally months, or even years, after quitting. The trick to maintaining a smoke-free lifestyle is to distract yourself quickly and not give in to the craving. Every relapse starts with a single puff, so be sure to have a substitute activity to deal with any situation when you might have smoked—to manage stress, to celebrate, to help you focus. That way, you won't be tempted to smoke again.

Warnings

Occasionally, withdrawal symptoms can go on for longer. If this happens, see your doctor. Sometimes, what seems to be the stubborn symptoms of nicotine withdrawal can be related to another condition. Remind yourself that these feelings are temporary.

You should be careful to only use nicotine replacement therapies as recommended. Overusing these replacements can lead to nicotine overdose.

If you experience any symptoms of nicotine overdose such as rapid breathing, seizures, headaches, diarrhea, irregular or rapid heartbeat, weakness, tremors, or sudden changes in blood pressure, call poison control immediately and contact emergency services for help.

Long-Term Treatment

Long-term treatment may include the extended use of nicotine replacement therapies. Research has shown that nicotine patches, for example, can be effective in maintaining smoking abstinence beyond the standard eight weeks of treatment. However, evidence suggests there may be little benefit in using these treatments beyond 24 weeks.

Behavioral treatments such as cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) may also be helpful. CBT works to change the underlying thought patterns and behaviors that contribute to smoking. Replacing these maladaptive patterns with healthier ones can improve the chances of long-term smoking abstinence.

Resources

Withdrawal can be difficult, but there are resources that can help.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention provide free quitting smoking plans, educational materials, and information on local resources.

The American Lung Association also offers information and programs designed to help people quit smoking.

You can also visit Smokefree.gov, a website from the National Cancer Institute’s (NCI) Tobacco Control Research Branch, and use the Step-by-Step Quit Guide to learn about other tips for managing cravings. They also offer smoking cessation apps and texting programs that can also help you stay on track.

A Word From Verywell

Coping with nicotine withdrawal is often one of the hardest parts of quitting smoking. Fortunately, there are things you can do to manage your symptoms and nicotine replacement therapies can reduce your symptoms and improve your long-term outlook. Identify the triggers that make you want to smoke, find ways to manage your cravings, and don't be afraid to reach out to your doctor for advice and further assistance.

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