If you’re in the midst of quitting smoking, you’ve likely experienced at least a few withdrawal symptoms. Cigarettes are designed to keep you smoking, so when you quit, a number of unpleasant and sometimes frightening withdrawal symptoms can arise. These sensations can sometimes be so uncomfortable that you may find yourself wondering: can you die from cigarette withdrawal? The good news is no, withdrawal symptoms cannot kill you nor can they cause you serious harm. Here, we explain what symptoms are likely to appear during the withdrawal phase and provide tips on how to manage them.
What Is Cigarette Withdrawal And Can You Die From It?Cigarette withdrawal can be extremely unpleasant, but you cannot die from it. Understanding why these feelings are occurring and where they’re coming from can be helpful in easing the anxiety around them.Cigarettes contain nicotine, a highly addictive substance that alters the chemicals in your brain. Nicotine stimulates the release of dopamine, which is a neurotransmitter that the brain uses to send messages between nerve cells. Dopamine can have a number of effects on the brain, including:
- Boosting moods (making us feel good)
- Reducing irritability and anxiousness
- Improving concentration
- Creating a sense of well-being
- Reducing appetite
Nicotine Withdrawal Symptoms ExplainedSo, nicotine withdrawal symptoms cannot kill you, but you’re not imagining it — they can be very difficult to deal with. They may be particularly intense if you’re a heavy smoker (you smoke more than or equal to 25 cigarettes a day).Most of the physical withdrawal symptoms subside after 72 hours. Psychological symptoms generally last a little longer, but in the vast majority of cases, all withdrawal symptoms will disappear after 4 weeks.Below, we take a look at some of the most common withdrawal symptoms and how you can manage them on your road to quitting.
StressNicotine withdrawal can cause an increase in stress and anxiety. When your brain realises it is no longer receiving a regular dose of nicotine, and therefore dopamine, these feelings may arise. It’s likely that you have used cigarettes to cope with day-to-day stressors, anxiousness, and nervous feelings, so your body will need some time to adjust.People with pre-existing mental health conditions need to take extra care when quitting smoking. If you have previously suffered from an underlying mental health condition such as stress or anxiety, your symptoms may worsen during withdrawal. If you notice a significant increase in anxiety or depression, it is advised that you speak to a professional.
What You Can DoImplementing some relaxation activities into your routine can help to ease the stress and anxiety that comes with withdrawal.You may like to:
- Take 3 deep belly breaths when you feel anxiety coming on
- Listen to a guided meditation for at least 5 minutes a day
- Write down your thoughts in a journal
- Carve out half an hour a day to do something you find relaxing (take a bath, go for a walk, listen to some music)
- Practise progressive muscle relaxation before bed
Anger And Mood ChangesYou may feel restlessness, irritability, or anger during the nicotine withdrawal period. This is completely normal.Coping with physical withdrawal symptoms can be very difficult and may trigger feelings of anger or frustration. Remember, your brain and body are learning to function without cigarettes, so try not to be too hard on yourself throughout this process.
What You Can DoThere are a few things you can do to work your way through these emotions.
- Remind yourself that these feelings will pass. It might be helpful to write down this reminder or repeat the affirmation silently to yourself when anger arises.
- Get in some exercise to release energy and stimulate the release of endorphins.
- Explain to your friends and family that you may be quicker to snap during this time. This way, you’ll have a mutual understanding and your network can better support you.
- Take some time to engage with activities that lift your mood. Watch your favourite movie, read your favourite book, or listen to some music that you love.
- Avoid unnecessary stimulants, such as excessive caffeine and sugar.
CravingsCravings occur as your body and brain learn that they will no longer be receiving a regular hit of nicotine. Cigarette cravings usually come in waves that last for about 10 to 20 minutes, and then pass.
What You Can DoThe cravings can feel quite intense, but there are a few things that can help you ride the waves:
- Keep busy. A structured daily routine broken down into half-hour blocks will help to distract you from your cravings.
- Find your smoking substitutes. For example, if you usually have a cigarette mid-morning, plan to get a smoothie instead. If you smoke after dinner, plan a late-night walk with a friend during that time.
- Avoid triggering situations, such as standing in the smoking area of a bar. For more information on triggers, visit this article.
- Play music, read a book, or journal during intense cravings until they pass.
- Consider Nicotine Replacement Therapies such as Prescribed Nicotine Vaping to help with withdrawal symptoms. These therapies slowly wean you off nicotine which can reduce the intensity of cravings. Prescribed Nicotine Vaping mimics the hand-to-mouth ritual of smoking that you may physically crave.
HeadachesThe nicotine withdrawal headache can be extremely bothersome. You may also experience dizziness or migraines. While these symptoms can be painful and even debilitating, they cannot harm you.Withdrawal headaches can happen for a few reasons. Firstly, nicotine withdrawal can cause your muscles to tense and tighten. Secondly, your body is essentially returning to its natural chemistry without nicotine. Thirdly, you may be experiencing increased stress and anxiety. All of these factors can cause headaches, dizziness, and migraines.
What You Can DoHeadaches and dizziness are usually the first physical symptoms to show up (within 48 hours of quitting) and are the first to leave. There are a number of ways you can help to manage your headaches, including:
- Using heat packs and warm baths and showers to soothe the area
- Relaxing and sleeping in a very dark, quiet room, as lights can intensify the symptoms
- Practising meditation and deep breathing to reduce stress and prevent headaches from arising
- Establishing a good sleep routine, ensuring you switch off devices at least an hour before bed
- Eating properly — skipping meals can lead to headaches.
Muscle TwitchingFor some people, nicotine withdrawal causes muscle twitching and spasms. These spasms can be painful but are usually quick to pass. These symptoms occur because nicotine withdrawal essentially triggers a process of physiological changes within the body, as it learns to cope with its new nicotine-free state.
What You Can DoSpasms and muscle twitches are normal in the first few days to weeks following quitting. However, if these symptoms continue after a month, it’s a good idea to check in with your doctor. You can manage muscle twitching by:
- Exercising regularly, even if it’s just a light walk
- Take hot baths to soothe and relax your muscles
- Eat well and stay hydrated
- Ensure you’re getting enough sleep, as insufficient sleep can worsen muscle twitching
- Stretch out your muscles gently and regularly
Abdominal Pain And DiscomfortIt’s common for nicotine withdrawal to trigger abdominal pain. Smoking actually speeds up your digestion and metabolism, so stopping smoking slows these systems back down again. This can lead to uncomfortable gastrointestinal symptoms such as constipation, abdominal cramps and pain, and bloating.
What You Can DoThese symptoms will gradually taper off over a few weeks as your digestive system recalibrates. To reduce your discomfort, ensure you are:
- Drinking plenty of water
- Eating a fibre-rich diet that includes fruits, vegetables, and whole grains
- Exercising regularly, as movement aids digestion
- Using deep belly breathing to relax your stomach
- Only using laxatives when directed by your doctor (only in the case of severe constipation)