In the past, if someone said they were a “nicotine addict”, most people would take that to mean that they were a regular smoker. Today, with the emergence of e-cigarettes, increasing numbers of people may be dependent on nicotine without ever having smoked a cigarette.
So, how long does it take to get addicted to nicotine?
Well, researchers are still unable to give a definitive answer, but we do know that some types of nicotine products are likely to cause dependence less often and less quickly than others. With nicotine, it’s long been known that cigarettes are exceptionally likely to cause addiction, particularly in young people.
Researchers calculated that historically, if an adolescent tried a single cigarette, they had a 50% chance of going on to become a daily smoker at a later stage.
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In general, addictive drugs are more addictive if they can enter the bloodstream quickly. For example, smoking allows nicotine to get into the bloodstream almost immediately. In contrast, nicotine patches can take an hour to reach maximum nicotine levels.
There are no examples of never-smokers becoming dependent on nicotine patches, but there are a few case studies of people becoming addicted to nicotine gum, which delivers nicotine faster than patches but still much more slowly than cigarettes.
What does nicotine addiction look like?
Someone addicted to cigarettes will experience two different parts to their addiction.
The first part is cravings.
Cravings are a strong desire to smoke, and these are usually strongest when a smoker hasn’t had a cigarette for a while or does something they typically do while smoking.
Craving is the main reason why quitting smoking is so hard.
You can be entirely resolved not to smoke in one context but suddenly experience intense cravings in another. These cravings are called “cue-elicited” cravings. About 50% of long-term smokers who stop smoking will experience occasional cravings for several years after quitting.
The second part is withdrawal.
Most dependent smokers will experience mood changes or confused thinking when they stop. Some people may even put on weight.
These symptoms vary in their intensity. Some people can find them easy to deal with, while others find them overwhelming. The symptoms happen because nicotine mimics other signalling chemicals in the nervous system, and over time, the nervous system lowers its own production of those chemicals.
When nicotine is withdrawn, the body no longer produces enough, and this causes the symptoms. It can take many months for a smoker’s body to “reset” and the withdrawal symptoms to entirely stop.
Nicotine is cleared by the body very quickly (although this too varies between people). Dependent smokers, then, experience a constant cycle of withdrawal and relief. This, in turn, increases the number of contexts in which a person smokes, leading to more possible “cue-elicited” cravings.
So, How long does it take to get addicted to nicotine?
When a person starts smoking, cravings can begin very quickly, even if they don’t smoke regularly. Some research has shown that young people that smoke only occasionally still experience “cue-elicited” cravings. This makes them vulnerable to more regular usage and eventually developing withdrawal symptoms.
As noted above, how a person uses nicotine is key to predicting how likely they are to become addicted to it. We know a lot about the process of addiction to cigarettes simply because it has been studied for many years.
We know less about other forms of nicotine addiction because non-tobacco nicotine use has, historically, been very rare.
Of course, today, there are multiple forms of non-tobacco nicotine, most notably e-cigarettes, which have some important differences compared with cigarettes.
The difference between smoking vs. vaping
The first difference is that e-cigarettes are not lit and do not contain tobacco. This is important because, in addition to disease-causing chemicals in cigarette smoke, some compounds may increase the addictive potential of nicotine.
The second is that a cigarette takes around 10 to 15 puffs to consume, but with an e-cigarette, you can take a couple of puffs and put it away. A cigarette doses you with a certain amount of nicotine and does so in a short time.
An e-cigarette, on the other hand, lets you use the amount you want and lets you spread it out over a more extended period.
Some research, while not conclusive, appears to bear this out. Despite delivering nicotine very efficiently, exclusive users of e-cigarettes report less dependence than when they were smoking.
This research gives some cause for optimism for current smokers looking to use e-cigarettes to stop smoking. But it’s important to note that it does not necessarily mean that e-cigarettes are less likely to cause dependence in youth.
More on Prescribed Nicotine Vaping.
A better way of thinking about the risk of nicotine addiction?
Suppose a person ends up with “full-blown” nicotine dependence because of the vicious cycle of craving and withdrawal that began with a single cigarette. Can’t we say that it started with that first cigarette?
Perhaps “how long does it take to get addicted to nicotine” is the wrong question to ask in the first place.
Instead, let’s try this: If you’re young and you try a cigarette, there’s a 50% chance that you are going to go on to become a daily smoker. If you’re young and try a vape, there’s a chance you’ll become dependent, but no one yet knows how high it is.
Most smokers or ex-smokers would agree, though, that it’s never worth taking the chance.
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