Nicotine addiction

Nicotine is the chemical that makes tobacco products so addictive. As you introduce nicotine to your body, you will begin to crave more. The use of cigarettes and other forms of tobacco that contain nicotine (such as little cigars, cigars, pipes, chewing tobacco, and snuff) may lead to addiction.

What nicotine does

  • Nicotine is found naturally in the tobacco leaf and is present in tobacco products such as cigarettes. When you smoke, nicotine is absorbed through the lungs and then moves through the bloodstream and into the brain and other organs of the body.
  • It can take as little as 10 seconds for nicotine to reach the brain after being inhaled.
  • This causes several reactions in your body:
    • heart rate and blood pressure increase
    • blood vessels constrict, causing a temperature drop in your hands and feet
    • brain waves are altered and muscles relax
  • Upon introducing nicotine to the body, new smokers might experience coughing, dizziness, and a dry, irritated throat. Other effects may include nausea, weakness, stomach cramps, headache, coughing or gagging. These symptoms may lessen as you develop a tolerance to nicotine.

How nicotine addiction works

Addiction means that a person cannot control their use of a substance (they use it despite harmful consequences). Nicotine causes addiction and physical dependence.

  • Nicotine may cause you to temporarily feel good or energized. It also causes the release of natural chemicals in your brain that may make you feel more alert and calm.
  • Over time, your body builds a tolerance to some of the effects of nicotine and you must therefore continue to smoke to make the effects last.
  • When you go without tobacco for more than a few hours, you may experience withdrawal symptoms. Many people continue to smoke to avoid feeling this way.

Smoking is also a learned behaviour, causing you to form habits that are tough to break. You learn to associate things with smoking, like:

  • the pleasant feelings that it brings you
  • the temporary relief of worry, tension, boredom or fatigue
  • drinking coffee or alcohol
  • eating a good meal
  • having a good time with friends

Withdrawal symptoms

When you stop smoking, the nicotine levels in your body drop and you may have withdrawal symptoms. It is good to know that these symptoms are temporary and are often signs your body is healing.

  • Withdrawal symptoms can be difficult to cope with and many smokers might not be able to quit on their first try because they are not prepared. If you know what to expect you can think of ways to manage the symptoms.
  • Most withdrawal symptoms happen within the first week. Symptoms are usually gone after two to four weeks.
  • Withdrawal symptoms may include:
    • dizziness and shakiness
    • headaches
    • anxiety and irritability
    • nervousness and restlessness
    • difficulty concentrating and sleeping
    • increased appetite
    • slight depression or feeling down
    • cravings for a smoke
  • Other side effects, like tiredness and coughing, show that your body is in a state of repair and healing.
  • You may crave cigarettes for months, even once the other withdrawal symptoms are gone. The desire to smoke can be especially strong when you are under stress, although some people crave cigarettes when out with friends or when bored.

Did you know?

A nicotine addiction can be overcome. More than half of all Canadians aged 15 years and older who have ever smoked have already quit!

Need help to quit?

Call the pan-Canadian, toll-free quitline at 1-866-366-3667 or see the quit smoking website for your province or territory.

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