It’s no surprise that quitting smoking is a challenge – cigarettes are designed to make it that very way.
Nicotine is the primary chemical responsible for the addictiveness of cigarettes, and when you’ve gone a while without smoking, your body experiences withdrawal from nicotine. The symptoms that follow can be uncomfortable, and these symptoms are almost always the cause of relapses.
The good news? These symptoms are temporary. So, how long does nicotine withdrawal last?
What’s In A Cigarette?
First of all, the main problem with a cigarette is that it delivers nicotine by burning tobacco and it is the smoke itself that is responsible for tobacco related illness and disease. It’s helpful to look at what’s in cigarette smoke that makes it so addictive and damaging to our health.
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Cigarette smoke contains a number of known carcinogens, which are essentially cancer-causing agents. Carcinogenic substances found in cigarette smoke include:
- Benzene – found in gasoline and exhaust fumes
- Arsenic – a potent poison
- Chromium – used in dyes and paints
- Cadmium – used in batteries
- Nickel – used to make stainless steel
- Vinyl chloride – found in plastic products
- Ethylene oxide – found in polyester and anti-freeze
- Polonium-210 – a radioactive element
Cigarette smoke also contains chemicals, which can cause additional damage to our bodies. Chemicals found in cigarette smoke include:
- Carbon monoxide – a poisonous gas
- Formaldehyde – used in building materials, pesticides, and glue
- Ammonia – found in cleaning products
Of course, cigarette smoke also contains nicotine which is the addictive chemical in cigarettes.
What Is Nicotine?
Nicotine is a highly addictive chemical that can be found in cigarettes. It affects the function of the brain and works by stimulating the adrenal glands, which results in increased heart rate and blood pressure. Nicotine also constricts the blood vessels, which reduces blood flow and limits the amount of oxygen traveling through the body.
Nicotine also prompts the release of dopamine in the brain, which is the chemical responsible for pleasure, emotion, and pain. This is why cigarettes are often associated with being a means of reducing anxiety and increasing feelings of relaxation.
What Is Nicotine Withdrawal?
When you smoke, particularly over long periods of time, your body becomes dependent on nicotine and comes to expect a regular dose of nicotine.
Nicotine withdrawal essentially begins the second you put out a cigarette. When you stop smoking, your body will quickly begin to crave the nicotine hit it has become accustomed to. When you don’t feed that craving, the body will start to experience withdrawal symptoms.
These symptoms can be very uncomfortable and can make the road to quitting challenging.
How Long Does Nicotine Withdrawal Last?
Withdrawal symptoms usually start a few hours after your last cigarette, which is why most smokers have multiple cigarettes a day.
The symptoms intensify during the first 48 hours as the nicotine leaves the body. Symptoms will likely continue for 2 to 4 weeks, albeit at a decreasing intensity.
While the physical side effects are likely to be intense over the first few days, they will diminish quite quickly. After about 72 hours without smoking, any remaining withdrawal effects are primarily psychological.
Being aware of social cues (i.e., situations that you would associate with smoking, like a coffee break, or drinks with friends) during the weeks and months following quitting is very important.
Nicotine Withdrawal Symptoms
Nicotine withdrawal symptoms are usually the toughest during the first few days. Symptoms of nicotine withdrawal are both physical and psychological.
Physical symptoms of nicotine withdrawal include:
- Restlessness – the body has become used to relaxing through the use of nicotine, so you will likely see a spike in restlessness and jitteriness. It’s also important to note that the body absorbs twice as much caffeine when you quit smoking, so limiting caffeine intake will help to avoid unnecessarily exacerbating these sensations.
- Increased appetite and weight gain – nicotine suppresses your appetite and increases your metabolism, which leads to weight loss. When your body is no longer receiving nicotine, your appetite will increase which may lead to weight gain.
- Difficulty sleeping – it’s normal for your sleep to be interrupted when experiencing nicotine withdrawal. It can help to implement a good evening routine. This may include avoiding caffeine at night, switching off devices at least an hour before bed, and ensuring your bedroom is dark and at a comfortable temperature.
- Head cold symptoms – you may experience a runny nose with nicotine withdrawal, as well as other cold symptoms such as a sore throat, headache, and cough.
- Digestive issues – nicotine withdrawal can cause gastrointestinal symptoms such as constipation and abdominal cramps.
Psychological symptoms of nicotine withdrawal include:
- Anxiety and/or depression – people who smoke are more likely to suffer from anxiety and depression than those who don’t. Many smokers believe cigarettes alleviate these feelings, however, the nicotine hit actually eliminates the withdrawal symptoms rather than the anxiety or depression that may be present. Some people notice an increase in these feelings after quitting, so be sure to seek mental health support if these issues arise for you.
- Anger and stress – some people going through nicotine withdrawal experience anger and stress. It is very common for these feelings to arise as your body adjusts.
- Struggling to concentrate – it may be difficult to focus during this withdrawal period. This is completely normal and will subside within a few days to weeks.
- Cravings – intense cravings are common while on the road to quitting. Remember these cravings are temporary and will pass, gradually reducing in severity over the 2-4 week withdrawal period.
Managing Nicotine Withdrawal Symptoms
While nicotine withdrawal symptoms can be challenging, there are a number of ways you can manage them and work through the discomfort.
Journalling is a very powerful way to work through psychological withdrawal symptoms. You might choose to write down daily reminders for yourself, including why you decided to quit and who you have in your corner supporting you.
It can be very helpful to write down the emotions you’re feeling during this time. Releasing any frustrations, anxiety, and stresses onto the page can help to clear the mind and validate your emotions.
It’s important to keep yourself occupied during the withdrawal phase. It can be helpful to plan out your day and spend as much time out of the house as possible. Exercise will be beneficial in lifting your mood, even if it’s just a light walk every morning.
It can be helpful to introduce meditation practices into your day, particularly if you’re feeling stressed or overwhelmed. You may like to put on a meditation track as you fall asleep, or simply notice what you can see and hear around you when you’re out for a walk. You could also set an alarm at points in the morning, afternoon, and evening to pause to take three deep breaths.
Ensure you’re in daily contact with your loved ones or support network. While you may be feeling down and unsociable, it is important to talk to people you trust during this time. They will be able to offer you encouragement and listen when you’re finding things tough. It’s also a good idea to talk to a mental health professional if you can, as they may be able to suggest additional strategies to help you through.
Therapies For Quitting Smoking
A study from The European Respiratory Journal found that people who sought the help of smoking cessation clinics were more successful in quitting than those who attempted to quit without professional help. Quitting cold turkey can be difficult, therefore you may need to look to therapies to help wean your body off nicotine.
A few common assistance therapies include:
- Nicotine Replacement Therapy (NRT) – with this therapy, your body will receive nicotine but will not receive the harmful chemicals and carcinogens found in tobacco. These therapies include patches, lozenges, inhalers, and gum, and can be purchased over the counter.
- Pharmacotherapy – pharmacotherapy products include varenicline and bupropion, which reduce cravings and withdrawal symptoms. You can talk to your doctor to determine if this will work for you.
- Counselling and Behaviour Therapy – counselling can help you to cope with the psychological impacts of quitting smoking. A mental healthcare professional can work with you through Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), which can help you develop strategies around triggers and change thought patterns to help you deal with cravings.
- Prescribed Nicotine Vaping – prescribed Nicotine Vaping Products (NVPs) are e-cigarettes that are used to help you quit smoking. They deliver nicotine to the body and mimic the experience of smoking, which can be particularly helpful for people who have struggled to quit through other methods. Much like NRT, NVPs do not contain the other harmful chemicals and carcinogens as smoked tobacco products.
We’re Here To Support You
Nicotine withdrawal symptoms can be challenging to deal with. With the right support network, treatment, and symptom management strategies, you will be best prepared to work through withdrawal and start your smokefree life.
At Smokefree Clinic, we’re here to support you every step of the way. Click here to speak with a specialised GP for free about your quitting journey.