If you’re one of the millions of people who have tried to quit smoking cigarettes, you’ll know from firsthand experience that nicotine withdrawal symptoms are very real. Even though nicotines’ high isn’t as dramatic as the high you’ll get from illegal drugs like heroin and cocaine, it’s just as addictive. Nicotine on its own doesn’t have the negative health effects that these other drugs are known for, but since it’s embedded in tobacco cigarettes (which are extremely destructive to your long-term health), learning how to beat the withdrawal symptoms is very important.
Nicotine is substance that effects almost every single area of your body. It affects your brain, heart, blood vessels, hormones, and metabolism. All of these different body parts can become dependent upon nicotine. Once you finally stop consuming the substance, you’ll begin to experience physical cravings for it and will become very irritable when you don’t get it. This is the reason why so many smokers have to try to quit multiple times before they can finally kick the habit.
The physical withdrawal symptoms will generally last about a month. But you may psychologically crave cigarettes for a very long time. Let’s go over how nicotine withdrawal works.
Why do you get nicotine withdrawal symptoms?
Nicotine is such a powerful drug that often times you’ll experience withdrawal symptoms even if you’ve only smoked for a few weeks. Depending on how long you’ve smoked, how many cigarettes per day you smoke, and your own personal body chemistry; you can expect to experience the effects of nicotine withdrawal for anywhere from a few days to a few weeks.
The first week of smoking cessation is typically the worst. You’ll experience intense physical, mental, and emotional withdrawal symptoms. The urge to give up and start smoking again will be extremely intense. After the first few days, the nicotine will be completely cleared out of your body. This is when you’ll start getting anxiety, insomnia, cravings, irritability, headaches, and depression.
If you stick with the program and refuse to give in to cigarettes, the physical symptoms will start to go away after the first week. The mental and emotional problems (like irritability and anxiety) will last for a few more weeks. But those too will eventually subside.
What are the physical withdrawal symptoms?
- Headaches and dizziness. This is generally the first physical symptom that you’ll notice. The headaches and dizziness are usually very mild and will begin to taper off fairly quickly.
- Appetite increases. Cigarettes contain both serotonin and dopamine, two chemicals that have an appetite suppressant effect. Once you wean yourself off of dependence on nicotine, you’ll find yourself getting hungrier and hungrier. There is also a psychological reason for this as well: now that you have free time to fill (since you’re not smoking all the time), you’ll find yourself craving food to help fill the time. This effect will start to wear off after the first couple weeks or so.
- Cough. This is one of the more annoying signs and symptoms. When you’re a current smoker, your lungs have a very hard time cleaning themselves out. Once you finally kick the habit your lungs go into overdrive, working hard to clear out all the mucus you’ve accumulated from cigarette smoking. You can expect your cough to last for a few weeks.
- Fatigue. Nicotine is a stimulant. This is why you tend to reach for a pack of smokes whenever you’re in need of a quick energy boost. Without it you’ll begin to feel tired and cranky. Despite the physical feeling of tiredness, you’ll also be restless and thus might experience insomnia. The negative effect of nicotine withdrawal on your sleep will last a few weeks.
- Constipation. This is another unpleasant and gross side effect that you’ll probably experience for a couple weeks. Since nicotine is a stimulant, it tends to clear you out. Now that your body is trying to function without nicotine, that becomes a little bit more difficult.
- Cravings. This is by far the most annoying symptom of nicotine withdrawal. It’s also the hardest to ignore. You’ll start to feel cravings for cigarettes almost immediately when quitting cold turkey. The cravings will last anywhere from 10-20 minutes. If you can distract yourself, the feeling will eventually pass. Don’t give in to the cravings or else you’ll be back to your old habit.
What are the mental, emotional, and behavioral symptoms?
- Depression. Your body has become accustomed to nicotine. Without it you can find yourself feeling depressed. This can last for a month, but may last longer if you have personal history with depression.
- Anxiety. Know how you reach for a cigarette every time you’re feeling stressed out? Well that’s no longer an option. Now that you can’t reach for the immediate stress-relief of a cigarette, your anxiety is going to increase. This is typically noticeable about 3 days in. It usually lasts for a couple of weeks.
- Irritability. As the nicotine levels in your blood decrease, your irritability is going to increase. As you deal with the physical symptoms of withdrawal, you’ll find that your temper shortens and that you start to feel anger in situations where you normally wouldn’t.
- Difficulty concentrating. You’ll feel a “mental fog” as the effects of nicotine begin to wear off. It’ll be more difficult for you to focus on your daily tasks until your body gets used to functioning without nicotine.
Nicotine withdrawal timeline
- 30 minutes – 4 hours. The first cravings start to hit. This is when the initial effects of nicotine begin to wear off and is the first challenge in your smoking cessation journey.
- 10 hours. Physical withdrawal symptoms begin to kick in. You’ll start feeling restless and anxious, and your mind will be consumed with the thought of smoking.
- 24 hours. This is when you’ll start to feel irritable. You’ll develop a short temper and will be unusually easily annoyed. Your appetite will begin to increase.
- 2 days. You’ll start to experience headaches.
- 3 days. The cravings will start to subside but your anxiety will skyrocket.
- 2-4 weeks. Coughing declines. Your anxiety and depression will begin to dissipate. Your appetite will return to normal. You’ll still feel some physical effects of nicotine withdrawal, but they’ll be much less severe.
- 5 weeks. The physical symptoms are almost completely gone. The mental cravings for cigarettes will still be there, but if you’ve made it this far it’s unlikely that you’ll fall back into your old habit. Congratulations!
Managing nicotine cravings
For most smokers, cravings are the longest-lasting and most difficult symptom of nicotine withdrawal to overcome. Cravings can often appear out of nowhere, but are commonly caused by “triggers” in your environment that you associate with smoking. For example, hanging out with friends who smoke or drinking alcohol are common triggers. It’s important that you have a plan for what you’re going to do to avoid smoking whenever once of your triggers hits and you start to feel the cravings.
If you can make it through 20 minutes worth of cravings then the feeling usually subsides. The bad news is that you’ll feel cravings all the time for a while after you quit smoking. The frequency of cravings decreases the longer it’s been since your last cigarette, but for many smokers the cravings never fully go away. Physical activity (walking, lifting weights, hiking, running) helps many people get through the cravings. If your cravings are really bad, nicotine replacement therapy (NRT) is another solid option.
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- Healthline. Everything You Need to Know About Nicotine Withdrawal.
- National Institutes of Health. Managing Withdrawal.
- Quit Victoria. What is nicotine withdrawal?.
- Mayo Clinic. Nicotine dependence.
- National Cancer Institute. How To Handle Withdrawal Symptoms and Triggers When You Decide to Quit Smoking.
- National Health Service. What will quitting be like?.