Nicotine Withdrawal Symptoms — Detailed Process

Recognizing the Symptoms
Nicotine is a highly addictive stimulant derived from tobacco and most commonly found in cigarettes, cigars, and the increasingly more popular electronic cigarettes. Nicotine is linked to more than 7 million deaths per year worldwide. In addition, the average life expectancy of a smoker is about 10 years shorter than usual.

Due to its highly addictive nature, nicotine dependence has been compared to that of alcohol, cocaine, and even heroin. Because of this, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that nicotine withdrawal symptoms can get pretty overwhelming. It’s possible to deal with them effectively, but first, let’s get some background insight into them.

Why It Happens

Nicotine reaches the brain in around 8 seconds, at which point it influences dopamine receptors and certain neurotransmitters connected to essential bodily functions such as breathing, heart rate, alertness, etc.

The nicotine “hit,” as it’s commonly referred to, is caused by the sudden release of dopamine – a pleasure hormone. The brain connects the feelings of joy with nicotine intake, and since the hits don’t last long, receptors crave them as soon as the effect wears down.

Only one cigarette has approximately 10 puffs, which is equal to 10 nicotine hits. The more a person smokes, the more the brain gets addicted to it.

Unfortunately, individuals can develop nicotine addiction in a concise amount of time and after smoking just a few cigarettes. Receptors always seek nicotine in order to get activated, and when they don’t receive it, withdrawal symptoms occur. To deal with these symptoms easier, it’s important to recognize them as they begin to onset.

Dealing With the Symptoms

Recognizing the Symptoms

Depending on how they impact your overall quality of life, these symptoms can have either physical or mental effects – sometimes even both. Studies have shown that almost all smokers suffer from at least four different symptoms when they decide to quit. Although they’re slightly different from person to person and have varying levels of severity, there is some common ground between them.

Nicotine Cravings

One of the most common side effects, cravings begin to take place as soon as a couple of hours after your last nicotine hit. They can either occur spontaneously or be caused by a trigger event. It’s hard to tell exactly what these events are for each specific person, but they usually happen due to the connection that your brain has made between them and the nicotine hits. Fortunately, cravings usually only last from 5-10 minutes.


Regular cough after you’ve quit smoking is a sign that your body is healing itself. The tiny hairs on your lungs, which have the task of removing mucus, become active once again. Even though it’s temporary, your respiratory system could take up to a year to fully recover. The cough is usually accompanied by a sore throat and shortness of breath, but these symptoms don’t last as long.

Mood Swings/Anxiety

Nicotine Withdrawal Symptoms
When you stop all nicotine intake, the brain receptors have to adapt to the lesser amount of stimuli and lower dopamine release. This adaptation process causes an imbalance of the central nervous system, which results in increased irritability, anxiety, and mood swings. You could find yourself angry for no reason – this is normal, but it shouldn’t last too long.

Increased Appetite

Dopamine has another vital role – to reduce hunger – which is why you’ll gain a sudden urge to eat a lot more once you stop smoking. Additionally, nicotine reduces the release of insulin – a hormone used to remove excess blood sugar. Higher levels of blood sugar suppress the appetite, and once you stop smoking, that level goes down significantly. Because of this, you’ll especially crave sugary foods with high amount of carbs.

Inability to Concentrate

Mental fogginess is one of the most annoying side effects to deal with. It’s characterized by the inability to keep a thought for longer than a few seconds, as well as having a hard time to focus on a specific task. It’s often compared to the feeling of being hungover, except that it lasts longer. This effect is further amplified if you’re sleep deprived, stressed out, or battling constant cravings.

Some of the other common withdrawal effects are constipation, fever, headaches, emotional instability, depression, fatigue, and insomnia.


Hours/Days After Quitting

The first of nicotine withdrawal symptoms, cravings, can occur anywhere between the first few hours and a couple of days. Your body gets rid of a bit over half of the nicotine due to its relatively short half-life. The effects wear off, your heart rate stabilizes, and your blood pressure/body temperature goes back to normal. The cravings will come in short 10-minute intervals, but they’re going to be pretty strong.

If you’ve managed to resist the urges, within 8 hours, the nicotine levels in your blood will have dropped to almost 0%. Carbon monoxide levels are halved, and the number of oxygen increases. At this point, it’s normal to feel irritable, nervous, and fatigued.

The cravings are still going to be healthy, and you might even have trouble sleeping, but this is a sign that they’ll subside very soon. Your appetite is going to skyrocket, especially for sweet foods.

Weeks After Quitting

Congratulations, you’ve managed to push through the worst initial part! You should notice a significant improvement of your sense of smell and taste. Foods should become much tastier as your nerve endings begin to regrow. You’ll still feel fatigued and have occasional nicotine cravings, but your appetite will slowly start to stabilize. Some people will again suffer from a persistent cough, while others might not even experience it.

Near the end of week 4, the circulation/blood pressure is further improved. The risks of a heart attack drop all around, and lung function is better.

Withdrawal Symptoms

Months/Years After Quitting

At this stage, you’re home free. It’s all about staying true to your initial goal. Your energy levels gradually begin to rise, and cravings are decreased. After one year, your risk of developing heart disease is half that of a smoker’s.

Withdrawal symptoms are at an all-time low, but an event could still trigger a nicotine craving, albeit much more milder. Your cholesterol is back to normal, and after 15 years, your heart disease risks are back to that of a non-smoker.

Dealing With the Symptoms

From therapists to medicine, there are a lot of different methods to help you get through these symptoms. Still, a lot of it depends on you, and there are some simple guidelines that you can follow to help ease it a bit.

Avoid triggers. Cravings will happen no matter how hard you try to avoid them, but you can at least reduce their frequency. They might be caused by being around other people who smoke or any other event which your brain associates with nicotine.

Find out what they are and do your best to avoid them. Remember that cravings last only for a couple of minutes. Take a walk, chew on gum, breathe deeply – anything to get your mind off of the craving.

Exercise. Alongside the well-known health benefits, regular physical activity has a significant positive impact on your mental strength. Hitting up the gym or going for a jog when you feel your mood shifting can act as a way to let off steam.

Furthermore, studies have shown that people usually gain 5 to 10 pounds in the first two weeks after they quit smoking due to the increased appetite. Exercising regularly will help keep the weight at bay while still allowing you to eat guilt-free.

Develop a routine. It’s common for people to resort to eating as a way to fill in the time during which they smoked/vaped. Find a new, healthy hobby which you’ll do in your free time, such as reading a book, learning a new skill, or going out for a walk. If you do start to snack more often, try to do it with healthy fruits and veggies to prevent unnecessary weight gain.

Believe in yourself. Many people before you managed to quit smoking, and there’s no reason why you can’t do it too. It’s not pleasant, and it surely isn’t easy. Even if you do happen to relapse, don’t beat yourself up over it. Identify the issue, develop a plan, and try again.

Seek Help

Needing professional help is nothing to be ashamed of, and it can help you reach your goal quicker without going through as many difficulties. Nicotine replacement therapy implies using different nicotine products such as skin patches, nasal sprays, gums, and others. Keep in mind that you’ll still be consuming nicotine this way, although in much lower amounts. Withdrawal symptoms are always going to be present, but they won’t be as severe.

Long-term smokers most commonly use nicotine-free prescription medication. Although they have the highest success rate, they carry a lot of risks with them, which is why they should be used only as a last resort. Before considering this type of therapy, make sure to consult a medical professional.

A support group can also be of enormous help. By attending their meetings, you’ll be able to meet those who are fighting the same battle as you are. Knowing that you’re not alone and having a group of people by your side can make your journey a whole lot easier.


The nicotine withdrawal symptoms might seem scary at first, but they’re a necessary evil if you want to get rid of one of the most damaging habits in the world. Every person’s experience differs in some way, but they all share the same goal. Deciding that you want to power through the side effects is half the job done. When the experience gets overwhelming, keep your motivation in mind and, if necessary, seek help.

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