What is nicotine?

Nicotine is an addictive substance found in all tobacco products.  In addition to being addictive, it is poisonous.  Tobacco use kills nearly half a million Americans each year, with one in every six U.S. deaths the result of smoking. Cigarette smoke contains many other dangerous chemicals, including tar, carbon monoxide, acetaldehyde, nitrosamines, and more. Low doses of nicotine can act as a central nervous system stimulant.  The majority of nicotine in the blood is metabolized by the liver and excreted from the kidney.  Nicotine can be expected to remain in the blood at significant levels for six to eight hours after the smoking stopped. Regular use of nicotine containing products will result in physical withdrawal symptoms resembling amphetamine and cocaine dependency.

What are the warning signs of nicotine dependence?

Addiction is characterized by certain patterns of use.  The first pattern is called tolerance.  Tolerance is when the individual needs to use larger quantities of the drug to obtain the same effect.  Note that most smokers start with a "few" each day and end up smoking over a pack a day.

The next characteristic of addiction is withdrawal.  Withdrawal is a set of physical symptoms which occur when the person stops using the substance.  Anyone who has tried to quit smoking can tell you that your body reacts poorly to the absence of tobacco.  Some common withdrawal symptoms include:  cravings for tobacco, anxiety, drowsiness, irritability, nausea, restlessness, headaches, depressed mood, decreased heart rate, increased appetite or weight gain, and difficulty concentrating. 

The third characteristic of addiction is the presence of dependent behaviors.  Once common example is the continued use of tobacco in spite of knowledge that such use is harmful to yourself or someone you care about.  Other examples include an individual who refuses to accept a job they need because their work will occur in a smoke free environment or a parent who continues to smoke around a child in spite of the damage it does to the child's health.  Other behaviors include preoccupation with tobacco, rituals about buying and smoking tobacco, hiding or sneaking cigarettes, or choosing friends, recreational activities, and lifestyles which revolve around the availability of tobacco.

What are the effects of nicotine?

Tobacco smoke contains approximately 4,000 chemicals.  Each puff of tobacco injects a small quantity of these drugs into your body.  Some of these drugs produce physical damage leading to emphysema, lung cancer, and heart disease.  Nicotine use increases blood pressure, pulse rate, and causes the blood vessels in your body to contract.  Carbon monoxide in cigarette smoke reduces the amount of oxygen in the blood. Larger doses of nicotine will cause the user to feel nervous, anxious, and shaky.

A two-pack a day person will inhale cigarette smoke over three million times in ten years.  Each of these puffs represents the injection of an addictive drug.  It isn't important how you quit.  It is only important that you quit for good.  Some people put their cigarettes down and say "I quit" and never pick them up again.  These individuals are few and far between.  There are a variety of programs available to help an individual quit. A program that focuses on the addictive nature of nicotine will be helpful for most people. 

How can someone get help?

For a free confidential assessment by a Certified Addictions Counselor, call the Illinois Institute for Addiction Recovery at (800) 522-3784.  An assessment can be completed 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.  Appointments are preferred, but walk-ins are always welcome. 

Sources: American Heart Association, American Psychiatric Association, National Institute on Drug Abuse