What Does Nicotine Withdrawal Feel Like and What Symptoms Does it Include?

Former smokers attest to the multitude of benefits they experience once they quit smoking. The physical and mental health effects facilitate a greater quality of life, but to get there, they have to contend with an extended smoking cessation process. The main hindrance in this process is experiencing nicotine withdrawal, which can cause recovering smokers many adverse symptoms. So what does nicotine withdrawal feel like and what symptoms does it normally include?

A person holding a cigarette

Nicotine Addiction: Basic Definition

Smoking dependence, also known as nicotine addiction or nicotine dependence, is the compulsion to inhale nicotine-rich tobacco smoke. Nicotine acts as a stimulant that creates a pleasant feeling due to the nicotine binding with nicotinic cholinergic receptors in the brain. The resulting mood elevation becomes addictive due to tolerance developed over time. This then induces a disquieting feeling when they go too long without smoking, causing them to seek out nicotine more and more frequently.

In addition to nicotine dependence, developing a smoking addiction has also been linked to a genetic predisposition that increases the likelihood of becoming addicted to nicotine inhalation. A third factor that can lead to nicotine addiction is social pressure. Many begin smoking in social settings and at a young age, when they are more vulnerable to social pressures to fit in through common activities.

13.7% of the general adult population are smokers. Men smoke more than women (15.6% vs. 12.0%, respectively), and 45 million Americans are considered smokers.

A highly addictive substance, one third of those who smoke tobacco eventually become daily users, with only 7% managing to quit. The vast majority who do continue smoking add to the detrimental effects nicotine can have on their bodies including cancer, cardiovascular, diabetes, cardiovascular illness, lung disorders, and other significant health problems. About 8 million individuals die from nicotine addiction each year.

A women breaking a cigarette

Nicotine Withdrawal: Common Symptoms

The symptoms experienced during nicotine withdrawal constitute the primary difficulty within the smoking cessation process. It can cause a variety of symptoms that together, deter most individuals from achieving full remission.

Nicotine withdrawal symptoms can appear from one-to-three hours after an individual first quits smoking. Feelings of anxiety, nervousness, or sadness may become apparent in addition to difficulty concentrating. Within three days, the emotional symptoms of nicotine withdrawal become harder to tolerate, with significant moodiness, irritability, as well as other symptoms of anxiety or depression making it harder to deny oneself a cigarette. On a physical level, they may suffer from headaches, coughing from your body’s attempt to rid itself of nicotine, and insomnia due to the drop in nicotine levels. Since nicotine also affects the release of neurotransmitters such as serotonin, it has an indirect effect on the processes these neurotransmitters take part in, such as eating. As a result, a drop in nicotine levels causes a spike in appetite and the development of hard-to-manage cravings, which often lead to weight gain in the first few weeks of smoking cessation. Adding to this list constipation, which typically occurs during the first few weeks.

The brunt of the nicotine withdrawal process normally continues for one month, with the above symptoms reaching a fever pitch at around two weeks, at which point they begin to decrease in intensity. 

A person lighting a cigarette

Smoking Cessation Benefits

After a month, the body will have eliminated most of its nicotine as the benefits of quitting smoking take center stage in the cessation process. Such benefits include lowered heart rate and blood pressure as well as a decrease in the blood’s level of carbon monoxide (which increases the amount of oxygen delivered to your organs). Staying off cigarettes also restores your sense of smell and taste, lowers the probability of experiencing a heart attack, smoking-related cancer, and a slew of other illnesses. 

Additionally, the longer you go without smoking the more likely you are to stick with it, making it worthwhile to continue refraining from smoking. In fact, those who reach the one-week mark are nine times more likely to achieve long-term remission. 

The following benefits represent a timeline of advantages individuals often gain due to smoking cessation:

  • At two weeks, former smokers will have developed better circulation, easier breathing, and 30% greater lung functioning. At one month, they will have regained more energy and can fight fungal bacterial infections more successfully. 
  • At six months, some of the more long-term benefits begin to take hold. Emotional symptoms such as anxiety and irritation will dissipate, as you find you have greater mental reserves to handle the frustrations and stress in your life in more beneficial ways. 
  • At one year, you will be breathing much more easily and will have drastically cut down the chance of developing a heart disease. 
  • Increased longevity is also added to the above factors, which together form a greater quality of life for those who quit smoking.