Last updated: 11/12/2018
Author: Addictions.com Medical Review
Reading Time: 12 minutes
Nicotine addiction refers to the condition of being dependent on and unable to stop smoking cigarettes or using smokeless tobacco. Nicotine is the main addictive chemical in tobacco, a plant whose leaves are smoked, chewed, or sniffed for a variety of effects. Becoming addicted to nicotine is possible whether you smoke cigarettes, or use smokeless tobacco products. The health risks are slightly different for each method of use. The main methods include smoking cigarettes, cigars, smoking pipe tobacco, snuff and chewing tobacco.
Most smokers are dependent on nicotine, meaning they feel they need the substance to function in everyday life. Furthermore, nicotine dependence is the most common form of chemical dependence in the United States. Nicotine is very dangerous and is linked strongly with cancer, with 1 out of 3 cancer deaths caused by tobacco.
Nicotine has a number of effects on the body, and these effects worsen with increasing amounts of nicotine. Some of these effects go unnoticed by people who use tobacco, but others are the effects that people seek out.
These are some immediate effects of nicotine:
- Decrease of appetite
- Boosts mood, may increase sense of well-being
- Increases intestinal activity
- Creates more saliva/phlegm
- Increases heart rate by 10 – 20 beats per minute
- Increases blood pressure by 5 to 10 mmHg
- May cause sweating, nausea, diarrhea
- Stimulates memory and alertness
Signs of Nicotine Addiction
A dependence on nicotine can develop quickly, especially for regular users of tobacco products. The more regularly and often that you use products that contain nicotine, the more likely you are to become addicted, though it is possible to get addicted even if you do not use nicotine too regularly at first.
The Mayo Clinic describes these as signs of nicotine addiction:
- You cannot stop smoking. Despite one or more serious attempts to stop smoking, you are unable to do so.
- When you try to stop you are affected by nicotine withdrawal. This is associated with strong cravings for nicotine and other physical symptoms which are described in the next section.
- Despite health problems, you continue to smoke. Even if you have developed heart or lung problems, you are unable to stop using tobacco products.
- You may forgo activities in order to smoke. Avoiding situations where you can’t smoke, such as smoke-free restaurants or parties, family members who you can’t smoke around and more, is also one of the main nicotine addiction symptoms.
Two main factors that describe nicotine addiction are dependence and withdrawal. Dependence, in this case, would be the repetitive and compulsive use of substances containing nicotine, and withdrawal is a collection of symptoms experienced when use stops abruptly.
Nicotine Withdrawal Syndrome
Individuals who are addicted to nicotine will experience withdrawal symptoms when they try to quit or simply do not have access to tobacco products for a short period of time. These symptoms are a sure sign that you have become dependent on and addicted to nicotine. Nicotine withdrawal symptoms may begin as early as 1 – 2 hours after a regular user’s last dose of nicotine, whether it’s in the form of a cigarette, chewing tobacco, or some other type of tobacco.
Just like your body gets used to having nicotine and becomes dependent, it must get used to not having the chemical. The process of withdrawal is doing just that. The symptoms of nicotine withdrawal can be very uncomfortable, and it is partially because of them that people have a hard time quitting – they do not like and cannot get over how they feel in withdrawal. However, symptoms peak 2 -3 days after quitting, and they are over within a couple of weeks and even in days for some people.
Nicotine withdrawal is not dangerous, though it can be uncomfortable. The symptoms will subside in time. If you have a history of depression, however, quitting smoking may cause you to feel sad and have a depressed mood. If you are feeling extreme sadness you should find help.
Nicotine withdrawal symptoms include:
- Feeling down, generally depressed, or sad
- Feeling anxious, irritable
- Feeling tense, restless, or frustrated
- Drowsiness or trouble sleeping, sometimes with nightmares
- Getting headaches
- Having an increased appetite, possibly with weight gain
- Having problems concentrating
- Slower heart rate
- Feeling constipated
- Mouth ulcers or dry mouth
- Coughing a lot
- Intense cravings for nicotine
What Causes Nicotine Addiction
A large factor that causes nicotine addiction is, much like heroin and other drugs, the substance’s interaction with the brain.
Nicotine stimulates the dopaminergic pathways of the brain. It binds to nicotinic acetylcholine receptors, which causes the release of dopamine in the nucleus accumbens and the subsequent release of neurotransmitters. This causes a number of nicotine’s physiological effects, including behavioral arousal and neural activation.
Another cause of nicotine addiction is the improved mood smokers report. Whether this is because of the actual effects of nicotine, or due to their relieving withdrawal symptoms is unclear. Women and girls, as well as men on occasion, sometimes become regular tobacco users because of the appetite suppressing qualities of nicotine.
Dangers of Nicotine Addiction
Nicotine addiction is very dangerous, as it causes you to use tobacco products more. Tobacco contains more than 19 chemicals that are known to cause cancer, which are called ‘tar’. There are more than 4,000 other chemicals in tobacco, and the potential effects of these are not entirely known. The effects of these chemicals on your body vary depending on the method of entry – smoking or chewing. In both cases, they affect the face and mouth as well as the internal organs the most. Nicotine addiction is very prevalent in the world.
Tobacco addiction kills one person prematurely every six seconds.
Here are some of the effects of nicotine
- Smoking can cause hearing loss, as it reduces the oxygen supply to the cochlea, an organ of the inner ear. This may result in permanent damage.
- Nicotine harms the production of a chemical necessary for you to be able to see at night. Thus, night vision can be greatly impaired by nicotine.
- Smoking also increases your risk of developing cataracts and macular degeneration, both of which can lead to blindness.
- Whether smoking or chewing, tobacco takes a major toll on your mouth. They can cause gingivitis, cavities, ulcers, and mouth sores.
- People who are addicted to nicotine are more likely to lose their teeth at a young age, and are at a higher risk for cancers of the mouth and throat.
- Smoking can cause dryness of the skin and for the skin to lose elasticity, leading to wrinkles.
- Skin tone can become dull or grayish.
- Smoking raises blood pressure and puts stress on your heart. Working harder like this increases the risk of heart disease and heart attacks.
- The blood of smokers is thick and sticky, which is more prone to clotting and is harder to move around the body.
- Smoking increases the amount of cholesterol and unhealthy fats circulating in the blood. This can build up the walls of the arteries which blocks normal blood flow and can lead to heart attack or stroke.
- Smoking causes inflammation in the tissues and small airways of the lungs. This causes shortness of breath and can develop into scar tissue over time. It can eventually lead to a chronic cough with mucus.
- Smoking causes emphysema. Alveoli are the tiny sacs in the lungs that allow oxygen exchange to happen – smoking destroys them. When they are destroyed, alveoli do not grow back. This causes emphysema to develop, which causes shortness of breath and can lead to death.
- Smoking temporarily paralyzes and can kill cilia, which leads to respiratory infections. Cilia are the tiny hairs that line our airways. They keep our lungs clean by wiping out mucus and dirt. Without them, we are more prone to colds and infections.
- A reason nicotine causes cancer is that it damages your DNA. When DNA is damaged, it does not function properly, which can cause cells to grow out of control and create tumors. Your body does repair this damage generally, but smoking can wear down the repair system over time.
Stomach and Hormones:
- Smokers have bigger bellies than non-smokers, and less muscle.
- Smokers are more likely to develop type-2 diabetes even if they do not smoke every day. Diabetes can lead to blindness, heart disease, kidney failure, and amputations.
- Female smokers have lower estrogen levels. This can cause thinning hair, dry skin, and memory problems. It can cause women to have a hard time getting pregnant and having a healthy baby and can lead to early menopause.
Blood and Immune System:
- Nicotine causes people to have a high white blood cell count. This signifies that your body is constantly fighting off damage caused by tobacco. Having a high white blood cell count for a long time increases the risk for heart attacks, strokes, and cancer.
- Blood vessels are tightened, which causes wounds to heal at a slower rate.
- The immune system overall functions at a lower, weaker level. The tar and chemicals in nicotine make the body less effective at fighting off infections.
Muscles and Bones:
- Smoking causes muscle deterioration and can cause more aches and pains than non-smokers experience.
- Cigarettes can disrupt the body’s cycle of natural bone health. Over time the effects of smoking can lead to a thinning of bone tissue and loss of bone density, making bones weak and brittle.
Getting Help for Nicotine Addiction
Quitting smoking or using any tobacco products is hard. It’s hard, but it can be done. Nicotine is considered to be as addictive as heroin.
Many smokers who try to quit will make 8 to 11 attempts before actually succeeding. That said, there are many different ways to quit, and you should not give up if you don’t succeed on your first few tries.
There are many resources that can help, and enlisting family, friends, and coworkers for support is a very good idea. Another important part of the process is dealing with your habits, such as smoking in the car or while on the phone. Over time you will get used to not using tobacco in these situations. Remember, to be successful in quitting tobacco you have to really want it.
Treatment for nicotine addiction is found in many different forms, the most popular of them being:
- Smoking cessation programs: Hospitals, treatment centers, community centers, and national organizations offer smoking cessation programs both online and in person. Joining one of these groups could greatly help your chances of quitting. You can learn tips from others, share mutual encouragement, and more.
- Nicotine replacement therapy: Nicotine replacement therapies are products that supply low doses of nicotine over a period of time. Two benefits of these therapies are that they do not contain other toxins that tobacco does, and they help to ease withdrawal by using a tapering method. The skin patch, gum, lozenges, inhalers, and nasal spray are all methods of replacement therapy. Nicotine replacement therapy is best when combined with counseling, and it is recommended the most for smokers who smoke 15 cigarettes a day or more.
- Medications: There are medications that do not contain nicotine and are not habit-forming which are used to help people stop using tobacco products. These medications help people cope with cravings and withdrawal, and generally keep peopl from starting using tobacco again. They are most effective when combined with counseling, support groups and/or other ways that help people cope with smoking urges and the like. Medications that are used include Bupropion (Zyban), Varenciline (Chantix), and Clonodine. These medications are obtained from a physician.
- Electronic Cigarettes: The electronic cigarette or “e-cigarette” is a newer method of smoking cessation. E-cigarettes are battery powered devices that resemble regular cigarettes, and that deliver an aerosol of nicotine and other chemicals. They are used by and increasing number of people in their efforts to quit smoking regular cigarettes, but their efficacy is still unclear.
Other methods of overcoming nicotine addiction include quitting cold turkey, or just abruptly stopping use of tobacco products with no external aid, hypnotherapy, where people undergo hypnosis in an effort to quit, laser therapy, which uses low intensity lasers on certain parts of the body, and acupuncture, which uses special needles and needle placement to ease withdrawal.
Tips for Quitting Smoking
While nicotine addiction is a very strong addiction indeed, quitting is possible. Quitting the use of nicotine products will improve your overall physical health immensely. Recognizing the difficulty of quitting smoking, it’s important to have help along the way.
These things can help you overcome nicotine addiction:
- Set a quit date. Set a day on which you will completely stop smoking cigarettes. You may want to reduce your smoking or using other tobacco products before this date, but on this date you have to commit that you will completely stop. Get rid of all of your tobacco products before that date, and other things that remind you of smoking (such as ash trays, smelly clothes, etc).
- Decide how you will go about quitting. If you want to use medications, nicotine replacement therapies, or some other method you should make that decision soon. Obtain the necessary materials so that you are ready to go on your quit date.
- List the reasons you want to quit. Reminding yourself of why you are doing this will help you stay motivated, and you can revert to this list if you have urges to smoke after your quit date.
- Identify the times you most want to smoke. Recognizing when you smoke the most and are likely to have the strongest urges will help you be prepared for them and to combat them. If you smoke in the car, with coffee, before or after dinner, with certain friends – you name it – paying attention to those situations will help your quitting efforts.
- Make a plan to deal with cravings to use tobacco products. Decide what you will do instead of smoking when you normally would or when you want to. Call a friend, have a cup of coffee or tea, go for a walk – all of these things are potential alternatives. You may want to keep a straw or lollipop at reach where you used to have cigarettes. Some people become very attached to the oral aspect of smoking or chewing tobacco, and these kinds of things can help you cope.
- Enlist the help of friends and family. Tell the people around you what you’re doing and that you may need encouragement along the way. If you feel a craving, you may want to call someone or tell someone and simply talking about it may help distract you until it goes away, and will motivate you not to. If you have friends you usually smoke with, telling them that you are quitting and asking for their support will help you. They can encourage you, and hopefully do what they can to help.
- Know what to expect with nicotine withdrawal. Learning about and anticipating withdrawal can truly help. If you know what to expect, you can be prepared. Remind yourself that how you’re feeling is a result of you quitting, and that in a week or so you will feel better.
- Make productive lifestyle changes. Changing small things you do on a regular basis can help you cope with the change you’re making by quitting smoking or chewing tobacco. Incorporating more exercise in your life and eating at different times can be a great help in combating urges and creating new habits.
- Reward yourself for meeting your goals. It may be helpful to put money aside that you would normally spend on cigarettes and to buy yourself something nice. Realizing the financial impact nicotine addiction has on your life will also greatly help to motivate you. As well, rewarding yourself along the way for small goals like one week without cigarettes is a nice way of recognizing your achievements. Take it one day at a time.