Can I become addicted to nicotine?
Yes. Nicotine addiction has two components: physical and psychological. When you smoke a cigarette, nicotine travels to the brain within seconds, where it quickly binds to nicotine receptors and eventually leads to a release of dopamine in the pleasure pathways of your brain. Once this happens, you typically begin experiencing feelings of pleasure and calmness. However, these effects wear off soon, triggering an urge to smoke so that you can get those same feelings, hence the cycle continues. With continued smoking, your brain may adapt by increasing its number of nicotine receptors, and you will gradually need even more nicotine to satisfy them.
The psychological addiction develops based on the connection between smoking and the activities you are doing while you smoke. For example, if you enjoyed coffee and a cigarette every morning for years, these two are likely linked in your brain, so even when you don’t smoke, future cups of coffee may trigger an urge. After years or even months of smoking, it may become part of your daily routine to the point where you may not even be making a conscious decision to smoke; you just do.
I don’t smoke every day, or I smoke only a few cigarettes a day. Are my health risks lower than a person who smokes often?
Although people who smoke casually may not experience nicotine addiction the same way that people who smoke regularly do, the health risks associated with smoking are still present. With each puff you ingest dangerous substances, some of which are carcinogenic. Social smokers may eventually become regular, daily smokers if their pattern of smoking continues. No matter how often you smoke, the best thing to do for your health is to quit.
What are effective methods for quitting smoking?
Treating Tobacco Use and Dependence: 2008 Update, a clinical practice guideline sponsored by the U.S. Public Health Service, lists practical counseling, social support and medications as scientifically proven to help people quit smoking for good. Counseling and medication, when used in combination, are even more effective than either alone.
There are multiple counseling options available, including group (Courage to Quit), one-on-one, online (BecomeAnEx.org) and telephone (The Illinois Tobacco Quitline) support. Each will help you to address the psychological addiction to nicotine by giving you the tools and skills to become smoke-free and to face risky situations – the ones that trigger your urge to smoke. Medication helps to weaken the physical addiction by delaying nicotine’s journey to the brain or by making it difficult for nicotine to bind to nicotine receptors.
Although you may have heard that e-cigarettes, laser therapy, acupuncture and hypnosis will help you quit smoking, there is not yet any scientific evidence to show that these methods are effective.
What medications are proven to help people quit smoking?There are seven first-line medications approved by the FDA for quitting smoking. These are:
- Nicotine gum
- Nicotine patch
- Nicotine inhaler
- Nicotine lozenge
- Nicotine nasal spray
Some of these medications are available over the counter, while others require a prescription. Because medications may not be appropriate for adolescents, women who are pregnant, people who do not smoke regularly, and people with certain medical histories, it is important that you speak with a health care provider about what is best for you. For more information about smoking cessation medications, visit our Tobacco Library.
I am trying to quit smoking. Do you have any suggestions?
Yes. Your quit will be most successful if you have a quit plan and plenty of support. Consider the following free or low-cost resources to help you reach your smoke-free goals.
- This list of 10 quit tips by Respiratory Health Association can get you started. These tips are also available in Spanish.
- Courage to Quit, an adult tobacco cessation program based upon proven methods for tobacco dependence treatment. Led by trained program leaders, Courage to Quit offers information, skill-building, and support.
- BecomeAnEx.org is a free, online program that helps you re-learn life without cigarettes through personalized quit plans and support from smokers and ex-smokers.
- Healthy Lungs Initiative is a multi-year program of the Cook County Health and Hospitals System, in collaboration with Respiratory Health Association. Through Healthy Lungs Initiative, trained health educators offer smoking cessation counseling in multiple health care and social service settings throughout Cook County.
- Illinois Tobacco Quitline is a statewide telephone helpline staffed by trained counselors who can provide information about quitting and can work with you to develop a customized quit smoking plan. Call the Illinois Tobacco Quitline at 1-866-QUIT-YES.
When can I start seeing health changes after I quit smoking?
Within 20 minutes of your last cigarette, your blood pressure and pulse rate will drop. In addition, body temperature in your extremities increases to normal. Soon after, you’ll find that your lung capacity has improved, physical activity is easier, and you have more energy. Over time, you have a reduced risk of cardiovascular disease, COPD, emphysema and many cancers.
What is nicotine withdrawal? How long does it last?
When you quit smoking, your body goes through several changes (i.e. withdrawal). Everyone is different; some people experience severe withdrawal symptoms, and some people experience only one or two or even no symptoms. As long as you remain smoke-free, these symptoms will disappear over time.
Withdrawal symptoms may include cough, headache, nausea, gas, constipation or indigestion, fatigue or trouble sleeping, sore throat or gums, dry mouth or runny nose, sad mood, irritable, or trouble concentrating.
If I quit smoking, will I gain weight?
Nicotine is a stimulant that sometimes decreases appetite. So after you quit, your metabolism may slow down. Cigarettes may also take the place of food in your daily routine. Because of these factors, some people gain up to 10 pounds when they quit smoking, some people gain more, and some do not gain any weight at all. But remember: you would have to gain upwards of 70 pounds to have the same health risks as smoking a pack each day.
You can plan to counter these changes in your body with increased physical activity – which is made easier by quitting smoking! – and nutritious food choices, particularly if you are using food to manage cigarette cravings.
I have smoked for years, is it too late to stop?
It is never too late to stop smoking! Even veteran smokers can add years to their life by quitting. Beyond that, quitting smoking can save you money, and can greatly improve the overall quality of your life.
Will Courage to Quit or other tobacco cessation programs make me stop smoking?
There is no silver bullet for quitting smoking. In fact, for many people, it is the hardest thing they will have to do in their lifetimes. It may even require multiple quit smoking attempts before you are successful. However, arming yourself with counseling and medications can double or triple your chances of quitting smoking permanently.