Nicotine Addiction: Definition, Common Signs & Options For Help


Are you, a friend, or a family member struggling with nicotine addiction?

You are not alone! While nicotine addiction might seem like an alienating and embarrassing disease, thousands of people like you are struggling to kick the habit.

Luckily, thanks to research, we know more about nicotine addiction today than we did back in the days of unknown health risks and smoking sections in restaurants.

We’ve compiled this empowering guide to help you understand nicotine addiction, its causes and effects, and how to support yourself or others to treat and beat this addiction.

What Is a Nicotine Addiction?

Nicotine addiction is a dependency on nicotine, a chemical in tobacco. Nicotine addiction is characterized by the inability of the user to stop using. A nicotine addict will quickly develop withdrawal symptoms if they stop using.

Do Nicotine Addiction Urges Go Away?

The good news is that, yes, nicotine urges do go away. The urges are often intense during the first week, especially the first couple of days. However, they lessen the longer your body is without nicotine.

While the urges do go away, nicotine cravings can pop up weeks, months, or even years after quitting. Usually, these cravings are triggered by environmental or emotional triggers. These cravings pass if you do not give in to them.

Forms of Nicotine Addiction

Knowing which form of nicotine addiction you or your loved one identifies with will help in figuring out how to approach and address the addiction.

  • Social: Social nicotine addicts only use nicotine while around others.
  • Light: Intermittent nicotine users may not even realize they have an addiction. A light nicotine addict might smoke a couple cigarettes a day, take a couple of puffs from a vape once or twice a day, or chew a bit of tobacco a few days a week.
  • Moderate: Moderate nicotine users depend on nicotine as a routine part of their day, but they can usually refrain from smoking for a few hours when needed.
  • Heavy: Heavy nicotine addicts use it constantly throughout the day. This is the person who is always chewing, who has their vape at their side every time you see them, or the stereotypical chain smoker.
  • Physical: During withdrawal, addicts experience physical cravings and symptoms such as headaches, nausea, and a general unwell feeling.
  • Psychological: Nicotine addicts also feel as if emotionally they “need” nicotine, and withdrawal leads to mood swings, irritability, anxiety, and restlessness.

Nicotine Addiction Statistics

Nicotine addiction statistics show how widespread and severe the problem of nicotine addiction is. If you or someone you love is struggling with nicotine addiction, hopefully, these statistics will prove to you that you are not weak and you are not alone.

  • Nicotine addiction is the most common form of addiction in the U.S. Around 50 million people in America are addicted to some type of nicotine-containing product, including cigarettes, cigars, vapes, snuff, and chewing tobacco.
  • Tobacco use is the leading cause of preventable disease and death in this country. Every year around 500,00 Americans die from smoking or exposure to secondhand smoke.
  • Every day in the U.S., around 1,600 youths under the age of 18 smoke their first cigarette.
  • People diagnosed with PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) are 22% more likely to have a nicotine addiction.
  • Every year in the U.S., between 30% and 50% of nicotine addicts attempt to quit. However, only 7.5% are successful.

What Are the Signs of Nicotine Addiction?

Unlike other substance dependencies, the signs of nicotine addiction are difficult to hide. Here are some signs that you may be struggling with nicotine addiction.

1. Inability to Quit Using Nicotine

You have tried to quit nicotine in the past but were unsuccessful. Perhaps you stopped for a while but started using it again.

2. Intense Cravings

Nicotine addicts require nicotine. The first way this manifests is in intense cravings. These cravings take over all other thoughts. Smokers often have a cigarette first thing in the morning. Many nicotine addicts schedule their lives around their expected cravings.

3. Withdrawal

Nicotine withdrawal can start an hour or two after someone’s last use. The symptoms can range from uncomfortable to overwhelming. Withdrawal is a tell-tale sign of nicotine addiction.

Nicotine withdrawal symptoms include headaches, irritability, restlessness, loss of concentration, depression, anger, hunger, insomnia, and constipation or diarrhea. While it can be intensely challenging, even painful, nicotine withdrawal is not dangerous.

4. Health Issues

Nicotine users who smoke or vape may suffer from persistent cough, shortness of breath, and other respiratory, heart, and circulation issues. Those who chew tobacco may have mouth sores or dental problems.

5. Giving Up Social Activities or Going Out

In most places in the U.S., you can no longer smoke indoors, and many venues, establishments, and school campuses do not allow outdoor smoking.

A nicotine addict might stop going out to eat, visiting with friends, or doing other activities if they know they won’t be able to smoke. They may leave parties, venues, or social settings to smoke instead.

Types of Unhealthy Nicotine Behavior

Because of the highly addictive nature of nicotine, addicts can develop unhealthy or even dangerous behaviors to prevent or stop withdrawal.

Unhealthy nicotine behaviors include:

  • Letting nicotine come before relationships. Nicotine users may stop engaging socially with friends or family who are critical of their nicotine use. They also might refrain from attending parties or social engagements where they cannot use nicotine or feel judged for their use.
  • Due in many states to taxes, nicotine-containing products can be tremendously expensive, especially for daily, heavy users. Addicts may purchase nicotine products they can’t afford, prioritizing their cravings over groceries, bills, and other necessities.
  • Even though nicotine is a legal drug, sometimes addicts engage in dangerous behavior to get it, including asking strangers for a cigarette or walking to an unsafe gas station in the middle of the night because they feel that they need the cigarettes no matter the risk.
  • Nicotine addiction and tobacco use are distinct among many other substances because, especially when smoking, the risks do not confine themselves to the user. There are extremely serious consequences of inhaling second-hand smoke. Smokers can be careful, but there is no way to eliminate the dangers for others other than not smoking or vaping.

What Is the Main Cause of Nicotine Addiction?

While nicotine is the chemical reason for nicotine addiction, we need to dig a little deeper for the actual cause.

Why do people need to feel good so desperately that they are willing to risk their health, happiness, and financial security for addiction?

Life is stressful, and those who do not learn to manage their stress in healthy ways are likely to try to manage it in unhealthy ways. The same goes for those dealing with mental illness and other substance addictions.

It is important to note that learning to deal with trauma, stress, illness, grief, etc., in healthy ways can be extremely difficult and painful and does not happen overnight. Don’t blame addicts in your life for their addictions or assume that they are weak or lazy.

Nicotine addiction can also be caused by other genetic or environmental factors, such as coming from a family of addicts or growing up around nicotine addicts.

How Nicotine Addiction Affects the Brain

Within seconds of smoking, vaping, chewing, or using snuff, nicotine releases dopamine in the same part of the brain as other addictive drugs. It makes the user feel good and provides a sense of alertness.

The brain begins to crave and even require this dopamine release.

Youth and teens with developing brains are particularly susceptible, becoming addicted to nicotine more quickly than adults.

Nicotine can cause loss of impulse control and mood disorders. It also changes how synapses form, which can affect attention and learning.

What Is the Personality of a Nicotine Addict?

A withdrawing nicotine addict might be irritable, quick to anger, scattered, and restless.

An NIH study showed that current smokers scored higher on neuroticism and lower on agreeableness and conscientiousness than never-smokers.

Is Nicotine Addiction a Mental Health Issue?

Nicotine addiction is a mental health issue. Physical and psychological dependence on any substance or habit is counter-productive to a healthy, balanced life. Nicotine changes how the brain works, affecting an addict’s mental and emotional health.

What Mental Illnesses Go Hand in Hand With Nicotine Addiction?

Nicotine addiction has a high comorbidity with several mental illnesses. The connection is most likely because sufferers use nicotine to self-medicate.

  • Depression: People with depression often use nicotine as a way to gain temporary relief from their symptoms. Nicotine addiction may make the addict feel even worse about themselves.
  • Anxiety Disorders: Addicts may use nicotine to deal with social or generalized anxiety. While the dopamine release may help in the moment, the stimulation of the drug may also make them more susceptible to triggers or withdrawal.
  • Bipolar Disorder: A withdrawing addict with bipolar disorder will be more sensitive to mood swings, irritability, and depression.
  • Schizophrenia: An estimated 70% to 85% of people with schizophrenia are nicotine addicts.
  • Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder: While nicotine does not worsen the disorder, it does not treat the cause and can keep addicts from getting the treatment they need by masking symptoms.

How Do I Stop My Nicotine Addiction?

If you want to stop your nicotine addiction, the first step is to admit that you are a nicotine addict and that it is negatively affecting your life.

Also, quitting nicotine can be a complex and challenging process!

You need to want to quit. There is no shame in knowing you need to quit but not wanting to. Luckily there is a lot of help out there. You can always contact a therapist or a smoking/nicotine support group.

Can Nicotine Addiction Ever Be Cured?

While you may struggle with cravings off and on even years after quitting, nicotine addiction can be managed and effectively cured.

It is essential to support your physical and mental health during and after cessation. If you can build healthy habits and find healthy ways to cope and manage stress and mental illness, it will be more difficult to succumb to future cravings.

What Is the Most Common Treatment for Nicotine Addiction?

Medicine for addiction is the most common treatment for nicotine dependency, especially in the early stages. Many former nicotine users have found success with one or a combination of the following:

  • Nicotine Replacement Therapy: These products are available over the counter in the form of transdermal patches, sprays, gums, and lozenges. People use these to get them over the difficult early days of withdrawal, then taper off steadily until they no longer need them.
  • Bupropion: Originally approved as an antidepressant, bupropion is indicated for nicotine cessation. It works by inhibiting the reuptake of dopamine and norepinephrine, preventing cravings.
  • Varenicline: This medication has gained popularity in the last several years for being effective in quitting nicotine use by reducing nicotine cravings. In a primary care setting study, 44% of patients who used this drug remained abstinent for two years.

What Can I Replace Nicotine With?

Dealing with nicotine withdrawals is hard, but it can also be tricky to quit if you have an oral fixation or need something to do with your hands. If you relate to this, try the following:

  • Chewing gum. This could be nicotine gum at first, but after you wean off the nicotine, experiment with flavors and celebrate your newfound fresh breath.
  • Keep a snack bag of fresh vegetables like carrot sticks or celery sticks. These healthy snacks mimic the feeling of bringing a cigarette or vape pen to your lips.
  • If you miss the inhalation and exhalation of smoking or vaping, practice deep breathing exercises. There are a number of great online resources to demonstrate proper technique.
  • Keep something in your pocket you can fidget with. This might be a fidget toy, a pen, a rubber band, or anything that keeps your hands focused and busy.

Frequently Asked Questions

There are many facets to nicotine addiction. Here are some answers to commonly asked questions you may have.

How fast does nicotine addiction start?

Nicotine is exceptionally addictive. Nicotine dependency develops within a few days after just a few cigarettes or a similar amount of other nicotine-containing products. Even occasional users can develop an addiction within a couple of weeks.

How long does nicotine addiction last?

Nicotine addiction lasts as long as you are using nicotine. The only way to stop the addiction is through abstaining. Nicotine withdrawal can last up to a month, depending on your age, years of use, and how much you use.

Additional Addictions To Be Aware Of

Often nicotine addicts smoke, vape, or consume nicotine with other substances. Here are some other addictions to be aware of:

  • Caffeine Addiction: While caffeine is a common and socially accepted substance enjoyed by millions of people a day, caffeine addiction is typified by excessive use.
  • Alcohol Addiction: Alcohol addiction is a chronic disease. Alcoholics may be social alcoholics, functional alcoholics, or severe alcoholics.
  • Marijuana Addiction: Marijuana addiction occurs when a user develops a dependency on the drug. While many self-medicate, marijuana dependency can adversely affect mental health and physical health.

Wrapping Up

Understanding nicotine addiction, what it does to your brain, what causes it, and how to overcome it are critical in helping keep you and your loved ones healthy. Consider yourself armed with the knowledge you need for the next step toward recovery.

While nicotine addiction can be notoriously difficult to beat, it can be done with knowledge, honesty, and support.


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