Ask anyone who smokes or who has ever smoked, and you’ll always find common ground in talking about nicotine withdrawal. Addiction to nicotine is what keeps a smoking habit going, even long after you’ve realized that the habit is incredibly expensive and is taking a dangerous toll on your health. Many people who quit smoking have to make a good attempt several times before finally being successful, and nicotine withdrawal is one of the biggest reasons that smoking is a hard habit to break.
How long does it last?
The first two weeks of nicotine withdrawal are the hardest by far. Withdrawal symptoms begin about four hours after finishing the last cigarette, and peak between days three and five. The withdrawal happens because your body is physiologically dependent on the nicotine and is uncomfortable with its absence. Although the most acute symptoms of nicotine withdrawal wear off within 72 hours, it is extremely common to continue to have sporadic cravings for nicotine pop up from time to time for months or even years after quitting smoking. Most of the longer lasting effects have more to do with psychological withdrawal than physiological withdrawal, and these cravings are often triggered by certain situations like stressful events or times when you would have enjoyed smoking before, like while drinking at a bar.
What are the symptoms?
The symptoms of acute nicotine withdrawal include the following:
- Irritability. It’s common when you’re experiencing nicotine withdrawal to feel like you have a much shorter fuse than normal. Relatively small things that would ordinarily cause some stress can cause you to snap and become extremely irritable. Fortunately, this phase is short lived, but you’ll want to give your loved ones a heads up and ask for their patience.
- Flu-like symptoms. While you’re getting off of nicotine, it’s normal to feel run down. You might feel like you’re coming down with a cold or even the flu and have symptoms like a cough, sinus pressure and congestion, a sore or dry throat, tightness in the chest and sweating.
- Headaches. Many people experience headaches when they’re withdrawing from nicotine. Researchers aren’t sure why headaches are so common during nicotine withdrawal, but it may have something to do with the fact that smoking constricts the blood vessels that lead to the brain and blood vessel changes in general are often linked to headaches.
- Insomnia or unusual dreams. Nicotine is a powerful psychoactive drug, so it’s not surprising that it can affect your sleep. Since nicotine is a stimulant and can help you stay awake, it might seem like the opposite would be true about the absence of nicotine when you’re trying to quit. While you might temporarily feel sleepier without the nicotine in your system, it might not be as easy to actually fall asleep because of the withdrawal symptoms. And when you do sleep, you might have strange or vivid dreams. These symptoms, too, will pass.
- Depression and anxiety. A lot of people with mild mental health conditions smoke, and it’s not just coincidence: there’s some evidence that smoking is a form of self-medicating and may help them to cope with symptoms like depression and anxiety. Withdrawal from nicotine can also cause increased depression and anxiety, but even if you already had those issues without smoking, the symptoms won’t be as intense after the first couple days off nicotine. Any positive effects from nicotine on mental health are very short lived.
- Nausea and other gastrointestinal issues. Nicotine has major effects on your appetite and digestion, so it makes sense that withdrawing from it could also affect those things. Although smoking can cause urgency with your bowels, nicotine withdrawal has more unpredictable effects and may either cause constipation or diarrhea.
- Problems with concentration. You weren’t imagining things if you thought that smoking improved your concentration: it probably actually did, although the effects were mild. Similarly, you may experience a temporary period of finding it harder to concentrate when you’re going through nicotine withdrawal. Some of this effect is physical, although some is also psychological.
- Intense cravings for more nicotine. Part of what makes smoking so addictive is because it is a psychological habit with conditioned responses to smoke in certain circumstances, reinforced by the way nicotine causes you to crave more of it. Because nicotine’s effects are so short lived, it drives you to want more of it as soon as possible.
When you try to wean off of nicotine, the symptoms are indeed pretty uncomfortable. The urge to get more nicotine can be so irritating and intense that it drives many smokers to dig right back into a pack of cigarettes to light up again. Eventually the intensity of the cravings will decrease. It’s important not to give up just because the initial effects of nicotine withdrawal are unpleasant; with enough determination and the help of a few good techniques to help you cope, you can rise above it.