Tobacco Withdrawal Symptoms

Tobacco withdrawal includes symptoms like headache, increased appetite, and strong cravings. Learn more about treatment options and getting through detox here.

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ARTICLE SUMMARY: In this article, we review main symptoms and side effects that occur when you quit using tobacco. We’ll explain what to expect. We also describe the safest way to quit for good.


Ready to Quit?

Quitting tobacco is one of the hardest things to do. This is because nicotine is a highly addictive drug. Maybe you’re even beginning to have doubts whether you should try, or not.

Before you give up the idea of quitting… think again!

Going through withdrawal can be more comfortable than you think. There are medical professionals trained in tobacco dependency issues who can make your detox a less uncomfortable and a less scary journey. Becoming free from tobacco makes withdrawal challenges worth it in the end. A professionally assisted tobacco detox is the passage to a better health and a longer life.

In this article, we’ll introduce you to the way tobacco is eliminated from the body with the help of experts in a safe and controlled environment. We’ll explain the most common withdrawal symptoms and their intensity. Additionally, you’ll have the chance to find out how to help yourself during tobacco withdrawal, and what your loved ones can do to assist you on your journey to sobriety. Feel free to use the end section for questions. We’ll make sure to answer ASAP.

Why Does Tobacco Withdrawal Happen?

Our body likes to keep itself balanced. It must keep our breathing coordinated with heart rate, for example. The process of keeping every function coordinated and in balance is called “homeostasis”.

This natural balance is disrupted by the intake of drugs, including nicotine.

When nicotine, the main ingredient in tobacco, reaches your brain, it acts as a stimulant. It floods the brain with excessive amounts of dopamine, the neurotransmitter associated with pleasure and motivation. Over time, this sets up an action-reaction, or action-reward system – “smoke in order to feel good”.

If you continue to take tobacco, your body will start adjusting to chemical rush of nicotine. It will adapt to rely on the external source of nicotine for normal function. Then, a person can become addicted to nicotine even after just a few uses. This is because the rewards are immediate and repeated a short intervals.

When a long term smoker tries to quit tobacco s/he will face uncomfortable withdrawal symptoms. Withdrawal is the process during which your body suddenly realizes nicotine isn’t there anymore. You feel symptoms of withdrawal as the body reacts to the absence of nicotine. These symptoms usually make people irritable and nervous.

How Is Dependence Different than Addiction?

Mainly, dependence and addiction differ by severity of symptoms. Let’s explain what we mean.

Drug dependence occurs as a result of repeated tobacco use. This condition is known to be less severe than addiction. may be recognized by:

  1. Tolerance, the body’s natural adaptation to tobacco and a need for more tobacco over time.
  2. Detox, or the presence of withdrawal symptoms after an attempt to quit.

Your level of physical dependence on nicotine can be measured by using the Fagerstrom Test for Nicotine Dependence, or the FTND. [1]

Addiction, on the other hand, is a state which usually develops after physical dependence. To be more precise, an addiction to tobacco includes physical and psychological dependence. Addiction is a compulsive brain disease usually manifested by the following symptoms:

  • An inability to limit the amount of tobacco consumed.
  • Feeling strong physical and psychological need to smoke.
  • Hiding smoking habits and frequently smoking alone.
  • Developing rituals associated with smoking.

Tobacco Withdrawal Symptoms

Nicotine, the main ingredient found in tobacco, makes smoking addictive. When you quit using nicotine after a period of long term smoking or tobacco use, your body produces withdrawal symptoms. These symptoms usually occur 30 minutes after your last tobacco use.

Physical Tobacco Withdrawal Symptoms:

  • Cramps
  • Frequent coughing
  • Hands and feet tingling
  • Headaches
  • Nausea
  • Respiratory problems
  • Sore throat
  • Sweating
  • Weight gain

Psychological Tobacco Withdrawal Symptoms:

  • Anxiety
  • Cravings
  • Depression
  • Irritability
  • Trouble concentrating

How Long Does Tobacco Withdrawal Take?

The actual tobacco withdrawal symptoms last for about two weeks. But some chronic users can experience a prolonged withdrawal that might last for a month. Expect anxiety along the road, but rest assured that each passing day will bring fewer and fewer thoughts of wanting to smoke or use. Withdrawal requires learning to remain calm by being prepared.

Tobacco Withdrawal Timeline

Tobacco withdrawal symptoms develop at a fairly predictable rate. Coping with tobacco withdrawal is not easy, but it is not impossible. Withdrawal symptoms will eventually fade with time, and you will feel the change soon afterward. Following is a common timeline for the appearance of specific symptoms.

30 Minutes after your last tobacco use you’ll begin to feel the first cravings. The intensity of the cravings usually varies from smoker to smoker. For some people, cravings peak about 2-3 hours after the last cigarette. At this time, you feel the need for a cigarette at the most. Psychological support and motivation is critical.

10 Hours after your last smoke anxiety and a strong tobacco need hits in. During this time, your body will start demanding nicotine strongly because your brain is not used to functioning without it. In addition to anxiety, most people begin to feel frustration and irritation. This stage of withdrawal is usually accompanied by trouble sleeping. The goal of clinicians at this point will be to turn your attention to something else. Thought distraction can be achieved by engaging in another activity. Smoking is considered as a time-filler. Doing something else other than smoking is a way to get your mind off it. Being 10 hours tobacco-free will improve your breathing.

24 Hours after tobacco cessation. Your first day without smoking slowly but surely leads you to a tobacco-free life. At this point, however, tobacco withdrawal symptoms peak. This stage of withdrawal is characterized by mood swings. Cravings hit stronger than ever, and people feel helpless and in critical need of a cigarette. Irritability is highest at this stage. Being tobacco free for a day has decreased the chances of heart disease by a slight percentage.

48 Hours after your last cigarette. Headaches are most common at about two days without a cigarette. At this stage, people in tobacco withdrawal deal with stress. Every day tasks and usual obligations feel very complicated. Troubles with focus are the second struggle that appears at this time.

72 Hours without tobacco. By the third day, nicotine is totally washed out of your system and you are officially tobacco-free. At this point your body and brain still struggle to readjust to the newly condition. As a consequence nicotine withdrawal symptoms will toughen after the third resulting with nausea and extreme sweats. It is also likely to experience chills, and cramps. In addition to the physical discomfort, you may also experience depression, and mood swings.

Week 1 after quitting tobacco. Your condition should begin to stabilize and symptoms should subside slowly. However, your body and mind are still fragile. This is time to be extra careful as most relapses happen exactly at this stage. People relax and lose focus of their goal. This is when a slip happens. Therefore, do not let your guard down. Cravings will begin to fade about 7 days after you quit. Overall energy levels of your body start to normalize again.

Week 2 without tobacco. By the second week after quitting, your strength begins to increase. Mood and motivation are also on the rise. Your job at this point will be to maintain sobriety. This can be done with a lot of fresh food and sports.

Weeks 4+ without tobacco. A month after being tobacco free, your lungs will start to return to their normal state again. Your cough may increase but you should not worry. This is normal and happens because your lungs are cleaning themselves out. People who use tobacco also develop prblems in their sense of smell and taste. These  senses will start to come back as your nerve endings begin to revitalize again. You will be able to smell and taste like you used to when you did not smoke.

Tobacco Withdrawal Complications

Nicotine withdrawal is not life-threatening. However, you may find mood changes distressing and hard to handle once you quit smoking. Some people gain extreme weight which may put their overall health condition in question.

Because of this it is highly advisable to talk with your doctor about your fears and concerns during and after tobacco cessation. Medical professionals are able to help you identify strategies to manage your weight and prevent eating disorders that can trigger severe health damage.

Mental health issues are also a common problem during and after tobacco detoxification. Depression associated with tobacco withdrawal is often temporary and subsides with time. Depression is a treatable, but it can be life-threatening when left unmanaged. If you have a history of depression, talk to your doctor about ways to manage your symptoms during tobacco withdrawal.

Tobacco Withdrawal Symptoms According To Severity

Experts monitor tobacco withdrawal by classifying types of symptoms. These symptoms are then placed in levels to indicate easier or more difficult. Following is a list of common symptoms and the level of severity you might experience during withdrawal from tobacco.

Level 1 Minor symptoms include cravings, frustration, and irritation.

Level 2 Mid-Level symptoms include troubles sleeping and concentration.

Level 3 Severe symptoms include mood swings, severe cravings and increased irritation, headaches, stress, and depression.

Will Tobacco Withdrawal Be Severe, Or Not?

Each person has unique cessation experiences. The number and intensity of symptoms varies from person to person. Many people undergoing detox are surprised to find that they experience almost no symptoms at all, while others are confronted with multiple symptoms.

Several factors contribute to the severity, intensity, and duration of tobacco withdrawal. Individual factors that make tobacco withdrawal more or less intense include:

  • The length of time you used tobacco.
  • The amount of tobacco you’ve been using on a daily basis.
  • Whether you used other drugs in addition to tobacco.
  • Your overall physical health, age, and gender.
  • Your unique body response and metabolism of nicotine.
  • Presence of co-existing physical or psychological health conditions like diabetes, high blood pressure, depression, anxiety, or schizophrenia.

Is It Better To Quit Tobacco Cold Turkey Or Gradually?

Cold turkey involves stopping tobacco all at once. People who decide to quit smoking abruptly usually choose a date  far in the future so that they can have time to prepare psychologically. What are some tips for quitting like this?

Before your quit date, make sure you have a sound support system from friends and family. Remove cigarettes from your home, car, and work. It might be helpful to have oral substitutes such as: gum, carrot sticks, hard candy, cinnamon sticks, and water whenever a craving occurs.

While it is possible to quit tobacco cold turkey it is not recommended to do this by yourself. Abrupt tobacco cessation without professional guidance usually leads to relapse.

Instead of going cold turkey, you might want to follow a tapering schedule made with a doctor. Tapering tobacco involves slowly decreasing the number of cigarettes or amount of tobacco that you use per day. This method lasts longer and requires discipline and persistence.  You also can try smoking just half of each cigarette or smoking lighter brands with less nicotine.

The Safest Way To Withdraw From Tobacco

A medically supervised detox is the most effective way to quit tobacco.

There are many benefits from detoxing on tobacco in a controlled environment. You’ll receive an immediate medical care. The most important benefit of a medically assisted detox is SAFETY. You can be immediately treated if any complications arise.

While tobacco withdrawal is generally non-life-threatening, medical supervision and immediate medical intervention improve the overall safety of this difficult process. Plus people who tend to quit smoking on their own usually relapse many times. Benefits of medically assisted tobacco detox include:

  • Clean and controlled environment.
  • Constant support from professionals.
  • Improved chances of recovery.
  • Reduced cravings.
  • Reduced risk of relapse.
  • Reduces severity of withdrawal symptoms.
  • Reduction of psychological trauma associated with anxiety or irritability.
  • Treatment for underlying conditions.

Professionals That Address Tobacco Dependence

Experts that participate in the process of tobacco withdrawal that offer physical and psychological support are:

  • Addiction counselors and psychologists
  • Addiction doctors, an MD specialist
  • Addiction treatment centers
  • Drug detox clinics
  • Family doctors
  • Psychiatrists

Helping Someone Cope With Tobacco Withdrawal

Even though quitting can be very difficult, there are ways for families and friends to help someone in withdrawal. But first, you must be aware that some actions can be counterproductive. For example, telling your loved one that you know how s/he feels, especially if you’ve not been through the withdrawal process personally, is frustrating.

Also, try to avoid mentioning previous attempts to quit. Instead, be positive and affirm this time that they will succeed quitting. Here are some positive ways you can express your support:

1. Create a smoke-free environment. Setting up the home to be smoke-free can be the best help for someone. This supports behavior change and make it harder to trigger a relapse. For that reason, try to remove all cigarettes from your home and avoid places where is allowed smoking inside.

2. Look for alternative drinks. Try to avoid drinking coffee and alcoholic beverages, because they often trigger an urge to smoke.

3. Take walks together. Especially after a meal, when there’s bigger temptation to light up a cigarette, suggest to go for a walk around the block. The exercise will do both of you good and will make them forget about the urge.

4. Set a short-term goal. Setting up goals like being smoke-free for a month or two, will be much more stimulating than targeting “forever”. When the goal is achieved, think of something meaningful that recognizes how great this is and go do it together.

5. Be encouraging. Although nicotine is addictive, anyone can overcome smoking addiction with a proper help. Tell the person you love you know that they can do it — just like they learned to read or ride a bike when they were small, or got an “A” on a tough assignment after putting their mind to it.

Self Care During Tobacco Withdrawal

Withdrawal symptoms are the unlikely visitor to our journey toward smoke-free life. Here we suggest few tips on how to cope with them:

Stress management
You might have found cigarettes as quick stress reliever at some points in your life. However, there are many healthier ways to manage everyday stress. Any sport reduces the level of stress in the body, but you can also do activities such as waking your dog, gardening, playing an instrument and many more that relaxes your body and mind.

Sleep and Rest
Your body is going through a lot of change as it works to rid itself of the nicotine dependence. It’s normal to feel extra tired while you are going through nicotine withdrawal. Take naps, or go to bed earlier. Your body still detoxes while you’re asleep.

Make a smoke-free life for yourself
There may be members of your family who are still smoking. You should explain them how important is for new rules to be set, like smoking outside your house or car. Respecting your new lifestyle will make them understand how serious you are with your decision.

Entertain yourself
Often people replace cigarettes with food in order to content their cravings. That’s why people fear gaining weight when they decide quit smoking. Instead, you should find another entertaining activity when cravings for cigarette occurs. You can read a book, going for a walk, or play some games with friends. The aim is to get away from the temptation and focus on different ideas.

Moving Past Your Fears Of Tobacco Withdrawal

Withdrawal brings pain and discomfort to the mind and body. It seems like something which is best to be avoided. However, withdrawal is an essential first step towards recovery, and it is a short-lived part of a long-term journey.

If you put some thought into your fears, you can turn them all around and make them reasons to quit tobacco. One of the things you might find helpful is making an argument for why each fear isn’t a reason to avoid quitting with professional help. The goal of this exercise is to turn your fears into strengths. This may be hard to believe but you can do it if you learn to look at this experience in a positive light.

Tobacco detox is nothing to be afraid of as with proper medical supervision, it can be done safely and risk free. Withdrawal is the first real sign of healing and stabilizing within the mind and body. So don’t postpone your smoking habit. You have a change to live tobacco free.

Reference Sources: [1] National Drug Research Institute: Fagerstrom Test for Nicotine Dependence
Drug Abuse: How Does Nicotine Act in the Brain?
CESAR: Tobacco
NIH: Physical Detoxification Services for Withdrawal From Specific Substances
Smoke-Free.GOV: Understanding Withdrawal

About the author
Lee Weber is a published author, medical writer, and woman in long-term recovery from addiction. Her latest book, The Definitive Guide to Addiction Interventions is set to reach university bookstores in early 2019.
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