Nicotine Addiction, Effects, Withdrawal Symptoms and Health Risks

Nicotine is the one of the many chemicals found in tobacco products and more commonly used in the form of cigarettes. These days other products such as nicotine chewing gum, mouth sprays and patches are also utilised but more frequently as a temporary measure to quit cigarette smoking. These nicotine replacement products deliver a fixed dose to alleviate the symptoms of nicotine withdrawal and are rarely used as means to continue the addiction. Although nicotine itself has a host of effects on the body, the dangers associated with nicotine specifically is minimal. However, the wide range of other chemicals in burning tobacco have been implicated in serious disease, including cancer.

Is Nicotine Addictive?

Nicotine is an addictive chemical and considered a drug just as much as many other drugs used in substance dependence and abuse. The addiction may be both a physiological (physical) dependence and a psychological dependence. In order to understand the physiological dependence, it is important to have a knowledge of the effects of nicotine on the body and brain in particular. The psychological addiction is closely related to these physiological effects on the central nervous system (CNS). Furthermore, the act of smoking, socialising while smoking and association of smoking with certain events contribute to the psychological dependence.

Effects of Nicotine and Cigarette Smoke

Nicotine acts on the nicotinic receptors that are present on certain types of nerve cells (neurons) in the brain causing it to release a neurotransmitter known as dopamine. Through this mechanism, nicotine is able to elicit a ‘feel good’ sensation as dopamine acts on specific areas of the brain that causes the euphoria. Other chemicals in cigarette smoke may also have an effect on the brain. These substances known as monoamine oxidase inhibitors (MAOIs), block the action of the enzyme monoamine oxidase which breakdown specific brain hormones known as monoamine neurotransmitters. It therefore also causes a ‘feel good’ sensation. MAOIs of a different form are also used as antidepressants.

Apart from the euphoria, nicotine and the MAOIs may also help with concentration and counteract mental fatigue and sleepiness since it is a CNS stimulant. The action of nicotine is not isolated to the brain and nerves. It also acts on the heart, blood vessels, gastrointestinal tract (gut) and various other organs and systems of the body. It raises the heart rate and blood pressure, decreases the oxygen-carrying capacity of the blood, narrows the airways, stimulates stomach acid secretion and increases gut motility. This altered state is considered the norm in the body of the cigarette smoker. Smoking cessation, although returning the body to a normal level of functioning, is unusual to a smoker and contributes to the overall perception of withdrawal symptoms. The effects of nicotine, however, largely depend on the dosage.

Withdrawal Symptoms of Nicotine Cessation

The withdrawal symptoms may vary from person to person. It is not uncommon for some cigarette smokers to quit smoking and experience little or no withdrawal symptoms. However, most cigarette smokers will experience most, if not all, of the withdrawal symptoms to varying degrees. The period that this lasts for will also vary among individuals but most smokers who quit report the symptoms of the first 3 days as being the most intense and a significant easing of symptoms after day 10. Some of the withdrawal symptoms may be psychosomatic as cigarette smoking may have been a norm in the person’s life for years of even decades.

  • Lack of energy.
  • Anger and irritability.
  • Poor memory.
  • Difficulty concentrating.
  • Sleepiness and/or poor quality of sleep.
  • Fatigue.
  • Intolerance to physical stimuli like bright lights and loud sounds.
  • Headaches.
  • Change in vision.
  • Constipation or less frequent bowel movements.
  • Sneezing and runny nose – this may occur in some smokers or even ease in other smokers who had these symptoms prior to quitting.
  • Excessive yawing.
  • Cravings for certain foods and snacks, particularly sweets.
  • Dryness of the mouth.
  • Jaw pain more often due to clenching.

Health Risks of Cigarette Smoking

The main dangers of cigarette smoking are not entirely due to nicotine but rather associated with the cancer-causing chemicals (carcinogens) in cigarettes. A link between cancer and cigarette smoking has been established not only in mouth, throat and lung cancer, but with just about every other malignant tumor in the body. Nicotine itself may contribute to cardiovascular disease, although this may be in conjunction with other chemicals in cigarette smoke. It increases the development of fatty plaques in the arteries (atherosclerosis) and can affect the rate and rhythm of beating heart. As with cancer, the link between cigarette smoking and cardiovascular disease has been well established. The dangers, however, appear to be vast and even extends to the effects on the foetus (unborn child) in women who are pregnant. Read more on the dangers of cigarette smoking during pregnancy.