Tobacco Poisoning

Medically Reviewed by Dany Paul Baby, MD on November 04, 2022
4 min read

The tobacco found in products like cigarettes and cigars starts as a plant. People have consumed the leaves of the tobacco plant in various forms for thousands of years. But handling the leaves of the tobacco plant or ingesting too much can cause poisoning and other negative health effects. 

There are over 60 species of tobacco, all of which are in the genus Nicotiana. Nicotiana tabacum is the cultivated form of tobacco that's used to make cigarettes, cigars, and chewing tobacco. 

Other common types of tobacco include:

  • Tree tobacco (Nicotiana glauca)
  • Desert tobacco (Nicotiana trigonophylla)
  • Wild tobacco (Nicotiana attenuata

Tobacco plants are typically shrubs or small trees that have large leaves and small flowers.

History of the tobacco plant. The tobacco plant originated in South America and has been used by indigenous cultures in the Americas for thousands of years. Cultures like the Maya used tobacco recreationally, medically, and as a part of religious ceremonies.

European colonizers in the Americas took tobacco back to Europe as early as the 1500s. It’s believed that the tobacco plant eventually spread to the Middle East and Asia through seeds carried and traded by Europeans. 

Uses of the tobacco plant. People mainly use the cultivated tobacco plant for its leaves, which contain a high concentration of the chemical nicotine. Tobacco leaves are typically dried and aged before being processed into different products.

What does tobacco look like? Tobacco plants are typically shrubs or small trees with green leaves. But there are some differences in appearance among species.

Cultivated tobacco is a shrub that typically has:

  • Thick stems
  • Thin, oval, green leaves
  • White, cream, pink, or red tubular, symmetrical flowers that cluster and droop
  • Pointed capsules that release seeds when ripe

Tree tobacco is typically a shrub or small tree that releases seeds similar to cultivated tobacco. But tree tobacco has:

  • Thick, oval, bluish-green leaves
  • Yellow tubular flowers that cluster and stay horizontal or slightly droop

Where does the tobacco plant grow? Although the tobacco plant originated in South America, it is now grown throughout the world. Tobacco plants thrive in environments where there are three to four months without frost and a dry period with little rain. They can grow in many different types of soil. 

Does the tobacco plant grow year-round? Cultivated tobacco is an annual plant that loses its leaves in the winter and has to be replanted yearly. Tree tobacco is a perennial that can survive year-round.

All parts of the tobacco plant are poisonous because of the chemicals in the leaves, stems, and flowers.

Chemicals in tobacco plant. The tobacco plant, particularly cultivated tobacco, is poisonous because of its high concentration of nicotine. Nicotine in cultivated tobacco is highly concentrated in the leaves. 

Tree tobacco contains lower concentrations of nicotine but does have high concentrations of anabasine, which acts similarly to nicotine in the body and is also poisonous. Anabasine in tree tobacco is typically found in the roots. 

Tobacco plants may also contain other toxic chemicals found in the soil, like cadmium and lead. They may also contain nitrates picked up from fertilizers.

Inhaling, eating, or smoking cultivated tobacco leaves can cause nicotine poisoning. Nicotine poisoning is extremely dangerous, especially if you ingest a large amount of nicotine.

Nicotine binds to specific receptors in your body that are found throughout your nervous system and at the connection between the nervous system and muscles. 

Ingesting large amounts of nicotine can cause a range of symptoms. Nicotine poisoning symptoms include:

  • Headache, restlessness, and confusion
  • Muscle twitching or paralysis
  • Abdominal cramps and vomiting
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Rapid heartbeat
  • Coma and death

Green tobacco sickness. A particular type of poisoning often occurs in workers who harvest tobacco leaves. The body can absorb nicotine in the leaves through the skin, especially if the leaves or hands are wet. 

Green tobacco poisoning occurs most often in workers who don’t regularly use tobacco and therefore have a lower tolerance to nicotine. 

Typical symptoms of green tobacco sickness are similar to those of nicotine poisoning and include:

  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Headache
  • Dizziness and weakness
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Changes in blood pressure or heart rate

Long-term effects of tobacco. Handling tobacco leaves and consuming too much tobacco can cause acute poisoning. But regular tobacco use also has many long-term health effects.

Smoking tobacco in cigarettes or cigars can increase your risk of developing lung diseases like emphysema and lung cancer. It can also increase your risk of heart disease. Chewing tobacco can also cause cancers like mouth cancer, throat cancer, and esophageal cancer.

If you’ve been handling tobacco leaves or have consumed too much tobacco and suspect nicotine poisoning, call your poison control center right away. Your body absorbs nicotine quickly, and it’s critical to get medical attention immediately. 

Nicotine poisoning treatment. Treatment for tobacco poisoning may involve trying to clear the system of excess nicotine by using treatments like activated charcoal. 

But if the body has already absorbed the nicotine, treatment typically involves supporting the patient by treating symptoms, like by:

  • Providing a breathing tube
  • Administering fluids
  • Using medications to regulate the heart rate

Prognosis for nicotine poisoning. Nicotine poisoning can be fatal, but immediate medical attention can help stabilize the patient until the nicotine works its way out of the body. Patients who survive nicotine poisoning typically have no long-term effects.

There are many different types of tobacco plants that can look very similar to each other. Some tobacco plants, like cultivated tobacco, can be poisonous just by handling the leaves. It’s important to confirm what plant you’re looking at and to not touch or eat a plant unless you’re sure that it’s safe.