With nicotine’s highly addictive nature, it’s no wonder that it’s the most common addiction in America. In fact, approximately 50 million people in America struggle with an addiction to some type of tobacco product, whether it be smoking cigarettes, cigars, chewing tobacco or snuff. The unfortunate reality is that because the biochemistry of the brain is altered when consuming nicotine, it is extremely difficult for someone to quit smoking, even when honest attempts at quitting are made. Furthermore, despite known health risks associated with smoking, the unpleasurable withdrawal symptoms experienced when quitting can keep the user in a vicious cycle of using nicotine to ward off these symptoms. Fortunately, it is possible to get the help one needs to transition from smoking to being drug-free. Learning what nicotine abuse looks like and it’s side-effects, along with how to detox off nicotine and get help for addiction are essential to maintain this long-term drug-free lifestyle.
What is Nicotine Abuse?
Nicotine addiction can occur immediately, even after one use for some people. This can lead to dependence on the drug, needing more and more nicotine in order to feel “functional”. Learning some of the tell-tale signs of nicotine dependence/abuse can help one discern if seeking help to detox off nicotine is necessary. Some signs of nicotine addiction may include:
- Inability to stop smoking: Although many attempts may have been made, the attempts have been unsuccessful long-term.
- Experiencing withdrawal symptoms when attempting to stop smoking: When attempting to stop smoking, one may experience physical and emotional withdrawal symptoms such as: anxiety, irritability, strong mood swings, intense cravings, restlessness, difficulty concentrating, depressed mood, frustration, diarrhea, constipation, increased appetite, or insomnia.
- Continuance of using despite apparent health problems: If one cannot stop smoking, despite experiencing known health problems associated with smoking, addiction is most likely at hand.
- Avoiding social events that don’t allow smoking: This can include avoiding “smoke-free” restaurants or hanging out with people that have an aversion to smoking.
Nicotine Side Effects
It is well-known that nicotine can cause many adverse health side-effects, but many people may not know extensively just how damaging this harmful chemical can have on the human body and its ability to function properly. Nicotine particularly impacts areas of the brain related to breathing, heart rate, appetite, and memory. As such, when people use nicotine for an extended period of time, especially in cases where nicotine is abused, the brain chemical messengers become imbalanced, affecting a number of bodily functions. However, because withdrawal symptoms can be so uncomfortable for the user, many people are stuck in an addiction cycle with nicotine.
Some immediate, short-term side-effects of nicotine may include:
- Feelings of relaxation
- Increased blood pressure
- Increased heart rate
Some long-term effects nicotine can have on the body may include:
- Lung and mouth cancer
- Heart attack
- Macular degeneration
- Gum disease
- Premature aging
- Fertility issues (or if pregnant: miscarriage, sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS), stillbirth, early delivery, or pregnancy complications)
Some psychological problems induced by nicotine abuse may include:
Because nicotine is highly addictive, it is particularly dangerous for teens under the age of 18 whose brains are still developing. As such, the surgeon general warns that “nicotine exposure during adolescence adversely affects cognitive function and development. Therefore, the potential long-term cognitive effects of exposure to nicotine in this age group are of great concern.”
How Long Does Nicotine Stay in Your System with a Detox?
Whenever you smoke, nicotine gets absorbed into your bloodstream. Once the nicotine hits the bloodstream, enzymes in the liver break down nicotine to become a product known as cotinine. The amount of cotinine in the bloodstream will be proportionate to the amount of nicotine that was ingested. With that being said, it only takes 72 hours after you quit smoking for the nicotine to be out of your body, however, it takes at least 3 months for the brain chemistry to return to normal after last using the drug. Furthermore, if smoking is infrequent, cotinine may be present in the body for up to four days but with regular exposure, cotinine may be detectable in the body for up to 3 weeks after the last exposure.
Some employers may require prospective employees to take a test that identifies if nicotine is being used and use the results to make a decision on whether to hire someone or not. Nicotine can be measured either qualitatively (whether nicotine is present) or quantitatively (how much nicotine is present) through urine, saliva, hair, or blood tests.
Nicotine and cotinine can be detoxed out of saliva within four days, however, if testing through the hair follicle method, nicotine/cotinine can be detected for up to three months to one year after the last exposure, depending on what hair test is used. However, because this test is the most costly out of all methods, it isn’t as commonly utilized with doctors or employers. Because false positives with blood testing can be common since it picks up on a compound called thiocyanate, found in foods such as broccoli and cabbage, and with certain medications, it is important to discuss any false positives with your doctor or possible employer (if you currently do not smoke or have not smoked in the past). While many people will start feeling better after one week of detoxing off nicotine, it may take those full 3 months (or more) for some people to feel better, especially if nicotine addiction was severe and the user had been smoking for a long period of time. This is typically why most doctors will recommend weaning off nicotine slowly with nicotine replacement therapy, to increase the chances of long-term success.
When weaning off nicotine, make sure to monitor any withdrawal symptoms that you may experience and discuss with a doctor if they become severe. Some common withdrawal symptoms include:
- Insomnia/difficulty sleeping
- Increased appetite
- Abdominal cramps
- Difficulty concentrating
- Digestive issues
- Strong craving for nicotine
- Mood swings
- Low mood/depression
How to Get Help and Detox from Nicotine
Nicotine is extremely addictive so you are not alone if you have had many unsuccessful attempts at trying to quit smoking. Therefore, in order to set yourself up for success, it is best to have a treatment plan that will help lay out exactly how you are planning on quitting. Because cravings for the drug are of particular concern during this transition time, one needs to take into account this adjustment period and have a plan for how they will quit smoking.
A typical plan to quit smoking may include:
- Making a decision to quit
- Understanding that it may take a while for cravings to subside
- Speaking with a medical professional for guidance on quitting
- Removing all nicotine from the house/car
- Understanding your triggers and speaking with a clinical professional to discover why you started smoking in the first place to avoid future usage
- Stock up on supplies: replacing the need to smoke with chewing gum, hard candy, raw vegetable sticks, etc.
- Picking a day to quit: avoid picking a day when you know you’ll be busy or tense to avoid the trigger of smoking to “calm your nerves”
- Let people know: have people keep you accountable for your decision to quit smoking. Pick people that will encourage you and don’t smoke themselves.
With the help of a medical professional or behavioral treatment plans through an inpatient/intensive outpatient drug rehab, one will have the best chance at having a successful transition from nicotine dependence to freedom from nicotine addiction.