Smoking is so common, and not to mention legal, that most people don’t ever know that the nicotine that gives cigarettes their kick is actually a poison and nerve toxin.
Nicotine is the substance in tobacco that makes cigarettes so physically addictive. By itself, it tastes bitter and unpleasant. In addition to causing cravings and physical dependency, nicotine can also be deadly.
In its purest form, nicotine is so toxic that it’s commonly used as an insecticide. Although an average cigarette contains 10 mg of nicotine, most smokers only consume 1 to 2 mg of nicotine per cigarette as a result of smoking. And while the amount of nicotine exposure an average smoker receives falls within the safe limits, it actually doesn’t take much to reach the point at which nicotine is toxic.
When you smoke a lower amount, you don’t have as high of a concentration of nicotine in your blood and therefore the nicotine in your cigarettes only binds to the receptors in your brain. But when you smoke a larger amount or experience nicotine overdose, the nicotine binds to your muscles as well as to your brain, creating a greater overall concentration of nicotine in your body and making the effects more pronounced.
Symptoms of Nicotine Overdose
Accidental exposure to too much nicotine causes a long list of unpleasant and even dangerous physical effects. Some of the specific negative effects from too much nicotine include the following:
- Abdominal cramps
- Panic attacks
- Chest pain
- Ringing in the Ears
- Muscle twitching
- Rapid heart rate
- Coma and convulsions
- Difficulty breathing
Children and Pets
Children and pets are most at risk for nicotine poisoning for several reasons. One reason is because they have a much smaller body weight, which makes nicotine exposure more concentrated. Children and pets are also more likely to ingest nicotine by eating a cigarette, for example, instead of by smoking it. Even just eating one cigarette can be enough to make a small child very sick, and consuming a couple cigarettes could be fatal. A full pack of cigarettes contains enough nicotine to kill an adult if the cigarettes were eaten rather than smoked.
Make sure that your cigarettes and nicotine replacement products are put up away from the reach of children. Young children in particular may eat cigarettes when they find them – even cigarette butts in your ashtrays. Nicotine gum and patches can seem “fun” to kids as well, so it’s important to put them away where they definitely can’t get to them.
Tobacco workers who harvest the leaves are also at risk of accidental nicotine overdose. When workers harvest wet tobacco leaves, especially without wearing gloves, they absorb the nicotine through their skin and it’s not difficult to get too much. Farm workers who don’t smoke or chew tobacco themselves are most likely to suffer negative effects from exposure through harvesting the leaves.
Many farmers use nicotine based pesticides called neonicotinoids. These pesticides have been proposed as a possible reason for the widespread death of bee colonies. Nicotine based pesticides paralyze the nerves and muscles of insects, ultimately killing them. Those pesticides can have a similar effect on human nerves as well, though usually humans aren’t exposed in high enough concentrations to be fatal.
Aids to Quit Smoking
Nicotine patches and gum are great tools to help you break the smoking habit. However, they can also increase the risk of nicotine overdose. If you have nicotine patches and gum in your house, children could find and consume them and get very ill as a result.
You yourself could also suffer from nicotine overdose if you are consuming nicotine from multiple sources. For example, if you are wearing a nicotine patch and continuing to smoke, you could be putting yourself at risk of nicotine poisoning. Read the package to choose the appropriate level of nicotine replacement for you, and be sure that you choose one that matches the level at which you smoked. For example, nicotine patches come in different strengths, each delivering a different level of nicotine.
Some nicotine patches and gum has a stronger concentration of nicotine, which are designed for use by heavier smokers who are trying to quit. If you were a light smoker and choose the nicotine replacement program that contains more nicotine and is designed for heavy smokers, you could experience symptoms of nicotine poisoning even if you don’t continue to smoke during use. Make sure you check with your doctor about using nicotine replacement products and follow any package directions about how to use such products safely.
Most nicotine replacement products are designed that you should gradually step down to weaker concentrations to wean off of nicotine completely. You should not smoke while using nicotine replacement products, so medications like Zyban to reduce cravings might be better if you feel that you cannot stop smoking entirely.
It’s important to remember that nicotine replacement products, including gum, patches and nasal spray, are drugs in themselves and they are not harmless. It’s actually possible to consume far more nicotine through using these nicotine replacement products than by smoking!
What To Do If There Is a Suspected Nicotine Overdose
If you do believe that you, a child or another person in your household has received an overdose of nicotine, it’s important to treat it like the serious emergency that it is. The fact that nicotine is legal does not mean that an overdose is any less harmful. Call your doctor and the poison control hotline in your area if you believe that you or someone in your household has consumed too much nicotine.