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Nicotine withdrawal symptoms

How long does nicotine withdrawal last?

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What is nicotine?

Nicotine is a drug which is considered to be a member of the stimulant group of drugs. It speeds up messages which travel between the brain and the body and it is the main and is the main psychoactive ingredient present in tobacco products. A psychoactive drug affects how the brain works and can cause changes to mood. Awareness, thoughts, feelings or behaviour; other psychoactive drugs include alcohol, caffeine, marijuana and some pain medication.

Psychoactive drugs are not necessarily addictive but nicotine is highly addictive which is the reason why so many people find it difficult to give up smoking.

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What is nicotine withdrawal?

A person becomes addicted to nicotine because of the feelings of pleasure and reward. Nicotine achieves this by boosting the production of dopamine; this is a neurotransmitter which is made by the body and it enables messages to pass between the brain and the nerve cells. Dopamine is a large part of how we as human beings think and plan and also and it also has a role in how we feel pleasure. Nicotine, through increased levels of dopamine, can also have other effects including:

  • Mood boosting
  • Encouraging a sense of well being
  • Reducing levels of depression
  • Enhanced concentration and short term memory
  • Lower levels of irritability
  • Reduction of appetite

When a person has a nicotine ‘hit’ via, for example, the smoke from a cigarette, the nicotine is absorbed through the lining of the lungs, mouth, nose. It is absorbed into the bloodstream and this means that it can affect all areas of the body including the heart and vascular system, hormones, brains and metabolism in general. Over time, the neurotransmitters in the brain are ‘altered’ by the nicotine and as a result, when the brain’s nicotine supply is shut off abruptly, it disrupts the chemical balance which results in physical and psychological side effects. These are what is known as withdrawal symptoms and it is this that makes nicotine addiction so very hard to break; addiction to nicotine has been compared to that of heroin or cocaine. It is considered that the ‘high’ that is experienced by a person using these illegal drugs is very intense compared with that experienced from nicotine but it is considered to be just as difficult to give up.

So what are the symptoms experienced by people who are trying to break the nicotine habit?

The effects of ditching the nicotine so suddenly can affect both the mind and the body. The physical symptoms are likely to pass in a relatively short time but psychological symptoms can linger for a great deal longer.

Whilst it is very unpleasant withdrawing from nicotine, none of the symptoms is actually dangerous in any way and there are no health risks associated with it.

Physical symptoms of nicotine withdrawal

It is likely that everyone who breaks the habit will experience withdrawal symptoms in a different way, the symptoms include the following:

  • Headaches
  • Sweats
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Tremors
  • Waking at night
  • Nausea
  • Abdominal cramps
  • Increased hunger
  • Restlessness
  • Digestive problems including constipation and flatulence
  • Problems with concentration
  • Tingling in the extremities
  • Coughing
  • Sore throat
  • Reduced heart rate 
  • Weight gain

How does nicotine withdrawal affect the brain?

As with the physical symptoms, psychological symptoms will vary from person to person and will include:

  • Craving for nicotine
  • Irritability
  • Short-tempered
  • Low mood
  • Depression
  • Mood swings

The physical withdrawal symptoms will begin to subside in a few days and should be almost completely gone within four weeks. Physical withdrawal, as mentioned earlier, can last substantially longer.

Nicotine withdrawal - what to expect

Part of the preparation process for giving up nicotine is to be aware of what to expect in the minutes, hours, days, weeks and years after your final cigarette. The act of quitting the drugs and breaking the addictive cycle along with ‘rebuilding’ some neural pathways is what will prevent you from reaching for another cigarette. We are going to cover the process in this section and believe that this will help to ensure that your final cigarette is just that - final!

Twenty minutes - In just 20 minutes, your pulse rate and blood pressure will begin to drop and return to normal and the fibres lining the airways will begin to move.

Two hours - Circulation in the hands and feet is beginning to improve. The constriction of blood vessels caused by smoking can result in the hand and feet feeling cold and/or numb and after two hours this will begin to improve.

Twelve hours - at this point the levels of carbon monoxide in the bloodstream have begun to fall back to the normal range and at the same time, the oxygen levels in the bloodstream will begin to rise. It is at this point that nicotine withdrawal and associated symptoms will be setting in. Now, the symptoms are becoming difficult to handle and they may include:

  • Headache
  • Poor concentration
  • Irritability
  • Restlessness
  • Frustration
  • Hunger

Twenty four hours - already, after just one day, your risk of having a heart attack is beginning to drop; this is because there is less constriction of the blood vessels in the body. The reduced pulse rate or reduced blood pressure and higher oxygen levels will also contribute to this as the heart is now able to function more efficiently.

Forty-eight hours - by this point your sense of smell and taste may have begun to re-emerge. Improved nerve function in the mouth and nose will be the result of the nerved beginning to regenerate themselves.

Seventy-two hours - inflammation of the lungs caused by smoking is now starting to settle down. As a result, lung function is improving, the airways from the lungs are beginning to relax and the small fibres or cilia which line the lungs, airways and nose are now beginning to grow back.

The cilia are tiny, hair-like structures whose function is the clear debris and pathogens from the lungs. As they become more operational, you may begin to experience coughing as the cilia begin the ‘clearout’ process.

One week - this may have felt a long week but it is a major milestone in the process and it is a time to be proud of yourself and you are now nine times more likely to succeed than you were when you started.

Also, nicotine cravings are beginning to diminish and will continue to do this from now onwards.

Two weeks - it is now easier to breathe and walk. This is a result of improved lung function and improved oxygen levels in the bloodstream.

One month - changes now include improved energy levels, you will be able to exercise for longer periods of time and your lung function will have improved by as much as 30%.

One to three months - whilst circulation is still improving it is at some point in this period that a woman who wishes to become pregnant now has a fertility level which is steadily improving; the risk of having a premature birth is also falling.

Six months - thankfully, by now you are beginning to see psychological withdrawals beginning to subside and as a result, it is easier to cope with stressful circumstances without reaching for a cigarette. Your lungs are much less congested and inflamed.

Nine months - the cilia in the lungs and the lungs themselves have healed significantly. Chest infections are far less frequent.

One year - this is an amazing milestone and you have reduced the chance of your having a smoking-related heart attack by 50%.

Year three - the risk of your having a heart attack is now the same as that of a non-smoker. The effects that smoking has of constricting the blood vessels and reducing the blood supply to the heart and lungs have now been reduced.

Year five - the risk of your contracting lung cancer from smoking has fallen by 50%.

Year ten - your chance of contracting lung cancer is now the same as that of a non-smoker and any pre-cancerous cells have been replaced by healthy cells.

The risk of developing any smoking-related disease has now dropped, including the risk of the following cancers:

  • Mouth
  • Throat
  • Oesophagus
  • Bladder
  • Kidneys
  • Pancreas

Year fifteen - the risk of developing heart disease and the risk of developing pancreatic cancer has fallen to that of a non-smoker.

Year twenty - any risks associated with using tobacco are now the same as a non-smoker.

What support is available if I want to give up smoking?

Some people are able to quit smoking with no support at all for the nicotine withdrawal process; this is called ‘going cold turkey’. For many people, however, this is too much to cope with and they may need some help.

There are a variety of options available that can help a person to get past the worst periods of withdrawal:

Nicotine replacement therapy

Nicotine replacement therapy or NRT are products which will allow a quitter to take on board small amounts of nicotine which will minimise cravings and withdrawal. They come in several forms including:

  • Nicotine patches which are small plaster-like patches which are placed on the kin. They are infused with nicotine and then the nicotine is absorbed through the skin. Reducing the strength of the patch over time will ‘wean’ the body off nicotine.
  • Nicotine gum is chewed by the quitter whenever they experience strong withdrawals and cravings.
  • Nicotine sprays and inhalers are used to help a person get through the cravings also
  • There are also a large number of nicotine pills and lozenges available that can be used when needed

Medications to give up smoking

Some medications are available on prescription to help you to quit the habit and they include:

Varenicline (Champix) - this drug helps to reduce the nicotine cravings as well as reducing the pleasurable effects of smoking. It is not suitable however for smokers under eighteen years old, pregnant or breastfeeding women and people with severe kidney problems.
Bupropion (Zyban) - this was designed as an antidepressant medication but it was also found to help people with the quitting process
Nortriptyline - this is an older antidepressant drug which also helps with nicotine withdrawal.

Physiological and behavioural treatment

There are a number of treatments which have been found effective in the treatment of addiction. They include counselling therapy, hypnotherapy, cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) and neuro-linguistic programming (NLP). The aim of these types of treatment is to modify the thought processes which commonly surround addiction.

Conclusion

We are hoping that this article will have given you some insights into what you will be facing when you give up smoking and what help is available.

As a smoker, giving up is the single most important thing you will do for yourself and give up you must. It is not easy but the benefits cannot be overemphasized. In truth, it is the choice between life and death!

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