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
Essentially, when you smoke, the nicotine in the cigarette prompts the brain to release dopamine. This makes you feel good and your brain naturally craves more of that feeling, which is why when you go too long in between cigarettes, it fires off certain signals to prompt you to reach for another one. These signals are better known as nicotine withdrawal symptoms.
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Nicotine Withdrawal Symptoms Explained
So, 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.
Nicotine 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 Do
Implementing 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
If you have previously suffered from mental illness and find yourself experiencing significant anxiety or depression during withdrawal, it’s important to seek help.
In fact, it’s recommended that anyone who is attempting to quit smoking speak to a mental health professional. They will be able to offer psychological support, suggest tailored strategies to help you cope, and treat any underlying anxiety or depression.
Anger And Mood Changes
You 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 Do
There 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.
Cravings 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 Do
The cravings can feel quite intense, but there are a few things that can help you reduce your nicotine craving:
- 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.
The 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 Do
Headaches 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.
For 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 Do
Spasms 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 and ease the other withdrawal symptoms of smoking 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 Discomfort
It’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 Do
These 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)
For more on why you feel worse after quitting smoking, visit our dedicated article.
How Long Does it Take to Stop Craving Nicotine?
How long does a craving for nicotine last?
Nicotine cravings can last from a few minutes to several months, but they tend to decrease over time as your body and brain heal from the effects of nicotine. The longer you stay smokefree, the less frequent and severe your cravings will be.
So just keep at it and manage your cravings using the tips we’ve listed above.
A Nicotine Withdrawal Timeline
Here’s a look at what happens once you’ve decided to quit smoking. There are plenty of benefits, even while you’re going through smoking withdrawal symptoms during the first few weeks.
- Six Days of Stopping Smoking: Your sense of smell and taste have improve after. You may also breathe easier and cough less. Congratulate yourself for reaching this milestone. While you may experience withdrawal symptoms such as cravings, irritability, and insomnia during this time, you can easily manage your cravings than before.
- 1 Month of Stopping Smoking: Your lung function and blood circulation has greatly improved by this time. You may also feel more energetic and confident. Reward yourself with something you enjoy.
- 4 Months of Stopping Smoking: You have significantly reduced your risk of heart disease, stroke, and cancer. You have also saved a lot of money and time. Celebrate your achievement.
- 1 Year of Stopping Smoking: You have successfully quit smoking for a whole year. You have overcome many challenges and temptations. You are a non-smoker for life. Be proud of yourself.
We’re Here To Help
The road to quitting can be testing at times, particularly if you’re experiencing an array of nicotine withdrawal symptoms. Though it can be an uncomfortable and distressing process, you cannot die from cigarette withdrawal. In fact, by quitting smoking and pushing through withdrawal, you are preventing a number of health issues that can seriously harm you.