What Is Nicotine Withdrawal?
Nicotine creates a chemical dependency so that the body develops a need for a certain level of nicotine at all times. Unless that level is maintained -- by smoking or chewing tobacco -- your body will begin to go through withdrawal. So, when you stop, your body goes through a very uncomfortable, but short-lived withdrawal process. This is why nicotine replacement (with gum, lozenges, patches) is helpful for people trying to quit cigarettes -- it reduces these unpleasant feelings.
Going through nicotine withdrawal can be tough. Because smoking affects so many parts of your body, nicotine withdrawal involves physical, mental, emotional, and behavioral symptoms, including irritability, insomnia, anxiety, and increased appetite.
You’ll have intense cravings for a cigarette. You’ll be angry, irritable, and restless. You’ll have headaches and a cough. You’ll be tired but won’t be able to sleep.
But hang in there! Most withdrawal symptoms peak 48 hours after you quit and subside over the next 3 to 4 weeks.
When it ends, the nicotine will be out of your system. You’ll be healthier than you’ve been in a long time.
Before you quit, it’s wise to have a plan for getting through these withdrawals. You’ll have an easier time if you’re mentally prepared and have some strategies for how to deal with your symptoms.
Know What to Expect
Anyone who’s quit (or tried to quit) smoking will tell you that the first week of withdrawal is the worst. In the 3 to 4 days that your body is clearing out the nicotine from that final cigarette, you will feel physically terrible -- and your mental state and emotions will be all over the map.
But it will get better after that. You’ll improve physically, and your mental symptoms will also start to go away over the next few weeks.
During nicotine withdrawal, you may have:
You might not have all of these symptoms, and you might find that some are easier to handle than others. But you should be aware of them so they don’t take you by surprise.
Some symptoms, such as headaches and cough, you’ll just have to power through. But you can take an active role in ensuring that you survive the others.
How to Deal With Cravings
Cravings are the longest-lasting and strongest withdrawal symptom. They can start within 30 minutes of your final cigarette, as the nicotine starts to wear off and your body wants more.
The worst of the physical cravings will be over in a few days, when all the nicotine has left your system. But then come the mental cravings, which can last for a few weeks.
Take it one step at a time. Try not to worry about how you’ll get through the next few weeks. Each craving should last only 15 to 20 minutes. There are a lot of ways to outlast a craving, so it pays to keep a mental list of things you can do, like:
- Keep your mouth busy with gum, hard candy, and crunchy (healthy) food
- Use nicotine replacement therapy, like gum, lozenges, or the patch
- Go for a walk or do some quick exercises when a craving hits
- Head to a public place where you can’t smoke
- Call or text a friend
- Take deep breaths
- Start a new routine for times when you usually smoke
- Avoid triggers that make you want to smoke, like alcohol, caffeine, or people you know who still smoke
- Remember why you quit
Handling Other Withdrawal Symptoms
Nicotine replacement therapy, aside from helping with cravings, can also ease other symptoms by giving a small hit of nicotine without the other dangerous chemicals found in cigarettes.
Chewing nicotine gum or sucking on a lozenge might help when you’re stressed-out or feeling anxious.
Cigarettes contain chemicals that curb your appetite, so food cravings are also a big part of withdrawal. It’s common to gain 5 to 10 pounds in the first few weeks. Eating can also become an activity that helps you deal with nicotine cravings. Be mindful of this and keep healthy snacks on hand.
Above all, stay focused on the big picture and remember that withdrawal will soon be in the past.