Nicotine withdrawal is the one thing that many smokers fear when embarking on a smoking cessation plan. It can be a distressing experience for some, triggering a host of physical and psychological symptoms that some find hard to tolerate.
This doesn’t mean that everyone will experience nicotine withdrawal in the same way. People who quit cold turkey usually have worse symptoms than those who take a cohesive approach, with counseling, support systems, and smoking aids (including nicotine replacement therapy).
By understanding the signs and symptoms of nicotine withdrawal, you can better prepare for them and know how to act if and when they occur.
While nicotine withdrawal is never fun, it is important to remember that it’s only a temporary situation.
With a little preparation and persistence, you will get through it.1
Smoking urges, commonly known as nicotine cravings, is one of the most challenging and persistent symptoms of nicotine withdrawal. The cravings you feel are caused by nicotinic receptors in the brain.1 When sudden deprived of nicotine, the brain will no longer release the “feel-good” hormone dopamine which the body has grown accustomed to.
Craving is a physiological response in which the body yearns for something to which it has adapted and become tolerant.
Nicotine cravings typically last for five to 10 minutes. They may be extremely uncomfortable, but try to wait them out and remind yourself that the feeling will pass. Chewing nicotine gum or taking a long, brisk walk usually helps.
The urge to snack is about more than just replacing cigarettes with food. Whenever you smoke, the intake nicotine triggers the release of glucose (sugar) from your muscles and liver while altering your insulin response.
As a result, if you were to stop smoking, you would experience a drop in blood sugar and feel the need to consume carbs, sweets, and other foods to satiate this sudden and often unexplained hunger.
As a result, people who quit cigarettes will gain an average of 10 pounds after one year with most of the gain occurring during the first three months, according to research from the University of Birmingham in England.2
Sleep problems are common side effects of nicotine withdrawal and can run the gamut from insomnia to needing extra sleep during the day. The symptoms are also closely linked to the dysregulation of dopamine, the hormone of which is also involved in sleep regulation.
Studies have also shown that rapid eye movement (REM) can be adversely affected when you quit, resulting in a lack of quality sleep and a persistent tiredness during the day. Improved sleep hygiene can often help.
People will often become alarmed when they develop a persistent cough after they quit smoking.3 As odd as this may seem, coughing at this stage is a sign that your lungs are getting better, not worse.
When you smoke, the tiny finger-like projections in the lining of your airways, called cilia, will become immobilized and eventually flatten out. After you quit, the cilia will return to its normal shape and function, pushing toxic deposits out of the lungs to be coughed up.
You can help relieve this symptom by staying well hydrated, humidifying the air, and using honey or an over-the-counter cough drop to ease any throat irritation.5
While in the process of quitting, you may experience something popularly referred to as the “quitter’s flu.”4 The condition, characterized by a mild fever, malaise, sinusitis, coughing, and body aches, is simply your body’s response to an unfamiliar state.
The sudden cessation of smoking can trigger an immune response in much in the same way as it would respond to a bacteria or virus it considers abnormal.
In most cases, a quitter’s flu will last for only a couple of days. Nicotine replacement therapy, along with over-the-counter pain relievers, may help ease the symptoms. 6
Stress and irritation are common symptoms of early nicotine withdrawal, triggered by the profound dysregulation of the endocrine (hormonal) and central nervous systems.5
This can not only cause extreme changes in mood, including sudden and irrational outbursts, it can trigger short-term physiological changes, including increased blood pressure and heart rate. Memory problems, difficulty concentrating, and dizziness are also common.
The psychological symptoms can further deepen if you are sleep-deprived, leading to bouts of anxiety or depression that may require medical treatment. 7
In addition to the lungs and brain, the digestive tract can be adversely affected if you suddenly stop smoking. Doing so alters the motility and contraction of the intestines, dramatically slowing the speed by which food is digested. As many as one in six smokers who quit cigarettes will experience bouts of constipation, generally lasting for one to two weeks.6
The symptom may be further exacerbated by the “munchies” people experience while quitting, increasing both the volume of food you eat but intake of foods more likely to cause constipation (such as white bread, chocolate, potato chips, and ice cream).
Drinking plenty of water and increasing your intake of dietary fiber can usually help normalize bowel movements.