Tobacco Addiction Causes, Withdrawal, Symptoms, and Treatments 

By The Fix staff 01/21/15

Tobacco Addiction Causes, Withdrawal, Symptoms, and Treatments 

Tobacco Addiction

p>By now, most adults are aware of the dangers of tobacco products, including cigarettes, snuff, and chewing tobacco. According to the American Heart Association, tobacco use is the leading preventable cause of disease and death in the U.S. With cigarette smoking accounting for 90% of all cases of lung cancer, why do so many people still smoke? The simple answer is that the nicotine in tobacco is a highly addictive drug that entraps tobacco addicts in complex psychological and physiological ways. Research shows that a nicotine addiction is as hard to kick as heroin, amphetamines, and cocaine.


Since the mid-1960s, when the U.S. Surgeon General first reported the dangers of tobacco use, approximately 37 million Americans have quit smoking. Although it may take an addict several attempts to quit tobacco for good, it can be done. As research continues to uncover deeper understandings of this addiction, new strategies and medications become available to tobacco addicts so they can kick the habit for good.

Signs of Tobacco Addiction

Although the specific signs of tobacco addiction may vary from one person to the next, there are several common clues to look for when determining if someone is addicted to tobacco. A user might be addicted if:

  • They continue using tobacco products despite the onset of a health problem or illness related to their tobacco use

  • They have tried, unsuccessfully, to quit using tobacco at least once before

  • They no longer wants to engage in activities, attend events, or visit places where tobacco use has been prohibited

  • They experience mental and physical withdrawal symptoms after giving up tobacco such as mood swings, depression and increased appetite

For some individuals, addiction can take hold shortly after using tobacco products; for others, it may take longer to become addicted. Everyone is different so it's never safe to assume that you won't become addicted to tobacco or experience a relapse if you "just have one puff."

Tobacco Addiction Side Effects

Tobacco addiction is caused by the user’s increasing need and desire for nicotine. A combination of physiological and psychological effects causes tobacco users to become dependent on nicotine-containing tobacco products.

Physiological Effects of Tobacco

Once nicotine enters your bloodstream, it only takes about 10 seconds for it to reach the brain. This causes an immediate release of adrenaline, stimulating your body’s central nervous system and increasing your heart rate, blood pressure, and respiration.

Nicotine also increases levels of dopamine, a neurotransmitter responsible for feelings of pleasure and motivation. Since the effects of nicotine dissipate within a few minutes, tobacco addicts must continue to self-administer the drug throughout the day in order to maintain the pleasurable effects of nicotine in the brain. The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) states that there may also be additional chemicals in cigarette smoke that enhance the effects of nicotine in the brain.

Psychological Effects of Tobacco

The psychological effects of nicotine can make it just as challenging to give up tobacco as the physiological effects. Over time, the use of cigarettes, snuff, and other tobacco products can become a deeply ingrained habit that affects the user’s overall sense of enjoyment when used at certain times of day or during activities, such as:

  • After a meal

  • While drinking alcohol

  • With a cup of coffee

  • While driving

  • When taking a break from work

  • As a reward for completing a task

  • While talking on the phone

  • When socializing

  • During a stressful situation

  • First thing in the morning

  • Last moments before bed

  • After sex

This list could go on forever since users unconsciously create rituals by using tobacco over and over in certain situations, making it that much harder to quit.

Understanding Nicotine

Although it is a highly addictive substance that affects a user’s brain chemistry, nicotine, itself, does not cause cancer. Nicotine is one of more than 4000 chemicals found in tobacco smoke, others including carcinogens like carbon monoxide, tar, cyanide, ammonia, and formaldehyde,. These chemicals are the main culprits responsible for the severe health risks involved with using tobacco products. For example, the tar in tobacco smoke increases risks of lung cancer and emphysema, while carbon monoxide exposure can cause cardiovascular disease.

Nicotine is a naturally occurring alkaloid that is produced by several kinds of plants, including the tobacco plant. There are many species of tobacco plants that produce nicotine, but nicotine can also be made synthetically. Because of its pleasurable effects in the brain, tobacco companies began increasing the nicotine content in their products between 1998 and 2004 in order to keep customers addicted, according to a study by the Massachusetts Department of Public Health.

Tobacco Addiction Withdrawal Symptoms

When you stop using tobacco products, your body needs time to adjust to no longer having nicotine in your system. Although these symptoms can be tough to cope with at times, keep in mind that the worst of it will be over within a week or two. Since the uncomfortable withdrawal symptoms and cravings are typically strongest during the first week, this is the time when most people slip up or relapse.

Before you quit using tobacco products for good, it’s important to know what common withdrawal symptoms to expect so you can prepare for them ahead of time. As the saying goes, “Failing to plan is planning to fail.”

Common side effects of tobacco addiction withdrawal include:

  • Depression or sadness

  • Trouble sleeping

  • Mood swings

  • Irritability and grouchiness

  • Feeling jumpy or restless

  • Increased appetite

  • Difficulty focusing on tasks or thinking clearly

  • Slowed heart rate

  • Lightheadedness

  • Anger or hostility

While coping with these uncomfortable symptoms, keep in mind that your body is hard at work creating healthy new cells and rebalancing your brain’s chemistry. Try to see these withdrawal side effects as signs of health and healing.

Treatments for Tobacco Addiction

Overcoming an addiction to tobacco may seem overwhelming, but it can be done. There are many ways to achieve tobacco addiction detox, but research shows that taking a two-pronged approach that utilizes both pharmacological and behavioral treatments often results in the highest rates of long-term abstinence.

Medication-Assisted Treatments

Medication-assisted therapy for tobacco cessation is the first form of pharmacological treatment available for users who wish to quit. Currently, there are two FDA-approved medications that can effectively help you stop using tobacco products for good:

  • Bupropion (Zyban or Wellbutrin) can be prescribed to help reduce nicotine cravings and withdrawal symptoms.

  • Varenicline (Chantix) targets the nicotine receptors in the brain to ease withdrawal symptoms and block the pleasurable effects of nicotine if the individual resumes using tobacco products.

Reports indicate that there is a nicotine vaccine in the works that could someday help prevent tobacco relapse by blocking the entry of nicotine to the brain. This vaccine is not yet on the market.

Nicotine Replacement Therapy (NRT)

This is the other form of pharmacological treatment available for tobacco cessation. FDA-approved nicotine replacement therapies include:

  • Nicotine Gum

  • Patches

  • Lozenges

  • Inhalers

  • Nasal Sprays

These types of nicotine replacement therapies can be acquired either over-the-counter or with a prescription, depending on the type you choose. NRTs may help users reduce withdrawal symptoms after they give up tobacco by delivering a controlled amount of nicotine into their bloodstream. As mentioned above, you increase your odds of success by using a NRT in conjunction with behavioral therapy.

Behavioral Treatments

Behavioral treatments for addiction play an integral role in long-term cessation because they can target the psychological reasons behind tobacco addiction. Behavioral therapy includes the examination of personal factors such as:

  • Coping strategies when faced with cravings and urges

  • Recognition of high-risk situations that trigger relapse

  • Alternative ways to manage stress

  • Receiving support from others

Behavioral therapy may involve other treatments such as seeing a professional addiction counselor, attending a support group, or utilizing a self-help program for tobacco addiction. There are a variety of options geared toward treating the psychological addiction to tobacco that are readily available for users who wish to quit, so you never have to feel like you’re in this alone.

Even if you've tried, unsuccessfully, to quit using tobacco products in the past, don’t give up! On average, it takes most tobacco addicts five attempts to quit before they achieve long-term tobacco cessation. Try to think of every failed attempt as practice for the next time. If you’ve relapsed before, examine the reasons behind each relapse so you can pinpoint the triggers to avoid, next time you decide it's time to become tobacco-free. Remember, the only real failure in life is the failure to try again.

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