Nicotine Withdrawal: Symptoms and Coping

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Nicotine withdrawal is a big reason why it's hard to quit smoking. Most regular smokers become addicted to nicotine, and stopping all of a sudden brings on symptoms of nicotine withdrawal. The good news is nicotine withdrawal usually lasts just a few weeks or less. How to get through it? Know what to expect and have a plan for coping.

Understanding Nicotine Withdrawal

When you smoke, nicotine causes changes in your brain chemicals. This may cause you to feel relaxed and less anxious. After a while, your brain starts to depend on these feelings. When you stop smoking, your brain starts to crave nicotine. Your brain and body may react by making you feel anxious or sick. That's withdrawal.

Craving is the toughest symptom for most people. Your brain will start to crave nicotine within hours of stopping smoking. Certain triggers make the craving to smoke worse.

Common triggers include:

  • Being around smokers

  • Feeling stressed or bored

  • Drinking coffee or alcohol

  • Driving

  • Finishing a meal

  • Getting up in the morning

  • Activities you associate with smoking

You may feel strong cravings for several days to a few weeks. Milder cravings may last for up to six months.

Cravings aren't the only withdrawal symptom. Other symptoms are usually worse during the first week after quitting. Some may last for a few weeks. These other symptoms include:

Surviving Nicotine Withdrawal

The No. 1 tip is: Be prepared for cravings. They may come often, but they last for only a few minutes at a time. Avoid triggers that cause cravings. This can include not drinking alcohol and limiting caffeine. To make things easier, begin limiting these things and modifying trigger situations weeks before you plan to quit smoking. Keep some healthy snacks in your car. Be active so you don't get bored or lonely.

Try to avoid other smokers. Ask friends not to smoke around you and don’t let anyone smoke in your car or home.

When cravings hit, try these coping techniques:

  • Take about 10 deep, slow breaths.

  • Drink a glass of water.

  • Do something: Start a chore or get some exercise.

  • Talk with somebody.

Exercise and relaxation techniques can also work if you have feelings of anger, depression and anxiety. Plus, exercise and a healthy diet can help prevent weight gain. People usually gain a few pounds after they quit smoking. Watch out for junk food.

When to Call for Help

If you have symptoms of depression that are severe or do not go away after a few weeks, tell your doctor. Nicotine withdrawal can trigger a major episode of depression in people who are prone to depression.

If you are really struggling with cravings and withdrawal, talk with your doctor. Several options exist. There are prescription medicines approved for smoking cessation. A nicotine patch or nicotine gum might help. These are known as nicotine replacement therapy. A smoking cessation program is another option. You could go to a group meeting or join an online program. All of these options can be effective.

If you slip and start smoking again, don’t give up. Most people need a few tries before kicking the habit. Remember: Withdrawal lasts only days or weeks. The health benefits of being smoke-free last a lifetime. 

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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2020 Sep 18
THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.

  1. Understanding Nicotine Withdrawal. Smokefree.gov. https://smokefree.gov/withdrawal

  2. How to Handle Withdrawal Symptoms and Triggers When You Decide to Quit Smoking. National Cancer Institute. http://www.cancer.gov/about-cancer/causes-prevention/risk/tobacco/withdrawal-fact-sheet

  3. Withdrawal and Relapse from Tobacco Use. American Thoracic Society. http://www.thoracic.org/patients/patient-resources/resources/withdrawal-and-relapse.pdf?gclid=CjwKEA...