Overcoming nicotine addiction

Tobacco and nicotine addiction is a chronic disease that can involve physical, psychological and social dependence.

It’s possible to unlearn old habits and overcome addiction. Everyone can succeed in that, although some may find quitting easier than others.

The most common symptoms of nicotine addiction are:

  • strong craving for nicotine products
  • glorifying the use of nicotine products
  • agitation and anxiety when nicotine is unavailable
  • compulsive use of nicotine products
  • denial
  • mood swings
  • poor appetite
  • insomnia
  • anxiety about quitting.

Being addicted to nicotine means that the person needs to have a sufficient amount of nicotine in their body at all times or they will start to experience withdrawal symptoms.

The first few times, nicotine causes symptoms of poisoning, such as nausea. The body quickly gets used to nicotine. As the nicotine tolerance grows, the body will need more nicotine to get the same effect. Where a person who has smoked for a long time can smoke 20–30 cigarettes a day, a non-smoker would get symptoms of nicotine poisoning from that amount of nicotine.

Frequent exposure to cigarette smoke and high levels of nicotine alter the nerve cells in the brain. The brain adapts to receiving and “needing” increasing amounts of nicotine. The structure of the brain permanently changes as more nicotine receptors are formed and their properties change. Because of this, a former smoker may develop an addiction by smoking only one cigarette after years of not smoking.

People can develop a psychological dependence to nicotine products, meaning that they use nicotine products as a way to regulate emotions, avoid unpleasant situations or relieve stress.

Just 90 minutes without smoking can lead to withdrawal symptoms, which can be alleviated by smoking. This way, the psychological way of reacting is followed by physical positive reinforcement and a brief feeling of pleasure. The health risks are easy to forget.

For many people who become addicted to nicotine products, there is a social factor at play. Their nicotine use is triggered by the company of other people and various social situations from work breaks to parties.

It can be difficult to quit if people around you are still using nicotine. It also takes time to form and stick to new habits and to learn how to navigate social situations without nicotine.

The contents of tobacco smoke and their effects are not entirely known. Various substances can be added to tobacco plants and finished tobacco products during the production process. Cigarette packs do not have an ingredients list that would state the exact contents.

Tobacco or tobacco smoke usually contain the following substances:

  • Ammonia, a substance which boosts the absorption of nicotine by the body by altering the pH of the respiratory tract. Commonly known as an ingredient in household cleaning products.
  • Acetone, which is a solvent and commonly known as a paint remover.
  • Arsenic, which is commonly known as a pesticide.
  • Benzene, an aromatic, highly volatile liquid which, in high concentrations, increases the risk of human cancers, most commonly leukemia.  It is usually used in the manufacture of explosives, synthetic rubber, fabrics and detergents.
  • Benzopyrene, a carcinogenic substance generated by incomplete combustion. Common sources are grilling over an open fire (blackened spots in sausages), traffic, and forest fires.
  • Butane, a lighter fluid used in camping stoves and gas stoves in the form of liquefied gas.
  • Cadmium, an element commonly used in car batteries.
  • DDT, an insecticide banned in most countries. It kills slowly, as it accumulates in the liver and kidneys and gradually affects the endocrine system.
  • Formaldehyde, which is generally known as a substance used to preserve bodies.
  • Carbon monoxide, a toxic gas usually formed by the incomplete combustion of wood.
  • Methanol, which is commonly used in rocket fuels.
  • Naphthalene, a toxic substance used in mothballs. It absorbs through the skin. Long-term exposure causes cancer and anaemia.
  • Nickel, which is in its various forms a harmful substance and a common allergen. The use of nickel is restricted, especially in buttons and jewellery. Gaseous nickel is a compound that is lethal even in small amounts. Inhaling nickel dust predisposes to respiratory cancers.
  • Titanium, which is commonly used in aircraft manufacturing.
  • Toluene, an irritating and highly flammable solvent. It is commonly used in printing inks, adhesives, thinners and varnishes.
  • Hydrogen cyanide, a substance known as the deadly gas used in concentration camps during World War II.

Nicotine is a highly addictive substance that is quickly absorbed from the lungs into the bloodstream.

Nicotine is a toxic, clear, tasteless and alkaline substance that interacts with nicotine receptors.  Nicotine receptors are found everywhere in the central and peripheral nervous systems, especially in the thalamus. Nicotine attaches to these receptors, releasing various feel-good hormones (dopamine, endorphins).

Nicotine is rapidly absorbed from the lungs into the bloodstream. Nicotine molecules are capable of travelling to the brain in a matter of seconds.  Nicotine is metabolised in the liver and excreted in the urine through the kidneys.

The body’s nicotine levels decrease quite rapidly. After about two hours, only 50% of the amount of nicotine obtained by smoking remains (the half-life of nicotine). This results in nicotine addiction, meaning that the central nervous system will require a sufficient amount of nicotine to function normally. Without nicotine, the person will experience withdrawal symptoms until the brain relearns to function without nicotine.

Nicotine has acute toxic effects if ingested, or if large quantities of it come into contact with the skin or eyes. Symptoms of nicotine poisoning include nausea, vomiting, headaches and tremors. With high quantities, symptoms may also include low blood pressure, fast, slow or irregular pulse and difficulty breathing.

Studies on animals have shown that nicotine kills and alters cells in those areas of the brain that are linked to behaviour, memory and learning. Studies on animals have also shown that nicotine contributes to the development of cancers.

Effects of quitting smoking

  • Within two hours: Smoking increases the heart rate. The heart rate will start to go back to normal 20 minutes after smoking. About two hours after smoking, the heart rate will be down to normal.
  • Within 24 hours: Carbon monoxide will be eliminated from the body almost completely.
  • Within 48 hours: Nicotine will be eliminated from the body almost completely. The sense of smell and taste will begin to improve.
  • In 2 weeks: The circulatory system and lungs will function better. Physical performance will improve.
  • In 1–2 months: Coughing and mucus production will ease off.
  • In 2–3 months: Lung function will markedly improve.
  • In 6 months: Symptoms of anxiety and depression will get easier. Quitting smoking relieves anxiety and depression as effectively as medication.
  • In 1–2 years: The risk of heart attack will decrease.
  • In 3–6 years: The risk of coronary heart disease is reduced by half.
  • In 5–15 years: The risk of oral, pharyngeal and laryngeal cancers is halved. The risk of stroke will decrease to that of a non-smoker. The risk of lung cancer is reduced by half.
  • In 20 years: The risk of coronary heart disease will be almost the same as that of a never-smoker.

Other effects

  • Quitting smoking has visible effects on the appearance fairly quickly. When nicotine no longer narrows the small blood vessels near the surface of the skin, the skin tone will go from grey and pale to looking normal and healthy.
  • Fairly immediate benefits include fresher breath and hair. 
  • The level of HDL cholesterol, known as good cholesterol, increases soon after quitting smoking. Any potential weight gain after quitting does not cancel out the positive effects on cholesterol.
  • Quitting smoking before the age of 30–40 can completely prevent COPD. People who have already developed COPD can significantly slow down the progression of the disease by quitting smoking.
  • Quitting smoking fixes erectile dysfunction in one in four people.
  • Quitting smoking reduces the risk of developing cervical cancer from an HPV infection.
  • Quitting at the age of 30 reverses the risk of death almost to the level of a non-smoker. Even at the age of 50, quitting almost halves the risk of death.
  • Quitting smoking helps reduce the need for various medicines. Among others, it reduces the need for psychiatric medication and decreases side effects.
  • Quitting smoking significantly improves oral health. Quitting reduces the risk of mucosal changes and oral cancer, reduces tooth loss, improves the condition of the periodontium, i.e. the tissues surrounding the teeth, and boosts response to treatment.

Today is the day

Read our guide to quitting smoking.