Nicotine is an addictive drug found in tobacco, a plant grown for its leaves. Tobacco leaves are used in products such as cigarettes, chewing tobacco and flavored hookah tobacco.
Tobacco products can be smoked, sniffed or chewed. Traditional cigarettes, cigars and electronic cigarettes are popular nicotine products that are often smoked. Smokeless tobacco, such as dip or snuff, is typically chewed or inhaled.
As a stimulant, nicotine increases levels of the chemical dopamine in the brain. This triggers euphoria, boosts mood and enhances memory. However, nicotine can also cause a number of immediate and long-term health problems.
Exposure to nicotine can be fatal. Tobacco causes nearly 6 million deaths each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And more than 16 million Americans live with a disease caused by smoking.
Efforts to stop tobacco use don’t always work. But people addicted to cigarettes can take a number of steps to quit smoking. Individuals who overcome nicotine dependence often go on to live longer than those who continue using the substance.
Nicotine is one of the most addictive substances in the world. People who are addicted to the drug compulsively use it despite knowing the consequences of their actions.
A 2011 study published in the journal Drug and Alcohol Dependence estimated that more than two-thirds of nicotine users will become dependent on the drug.
Any amount of nicotine use can cause addiction. According to the National Institutes of Health, signs of nicotine addiction include:
People develop a tolerance for nicotine as they consume more of the drug. As tolerance increases, they need higher doses to feel the same initial effects.
Most people addicted to nicotine want to quit. But once you start using nicotine products, it is hard to stop. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, only about 6 percent of smokers are able to quit in a given year.
The more nicotine you consume, the more likely you are to become addicted. People who regularly use smokeless tobacco are more likely than smokers to become addicted to nicotine because these products contain more of the drug.
A cigarette includes about 10 milligrams of nicotine, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse. On average, a person inhales 1 to 2 milligrams of nicotine from each cigarette. Other chemicals absorbed from a cigarette include tar, carbon monoxide and nitrosamines.
The National Institute on Drug Abuse also states that between 4.4 and 25 milligrams of nicotine can be found in smokeless tobacco. In fact, a person holding an average amount of dip in his or her mouth for 30 minutes receives as much nicotine as someone who smokes three cigarettes.
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People of all ages use products that contain nicotine.
The National Survey on Drug Use and Health found that a higher percentage of young adults were current cigarette users than were any other age demographic measured in the survey. In the 2016 survey, more than 23 percent of participants aged 18 to 25 reported using cigarettes in the past month.
Cigarette use among teens has largely declined. For example, the Monitoring the Future survey found that just 9.7 percent of high school seniors were current cigarette users in 2017. More than 13 percent of 12th-grade students were current smokers in 2014.
In recent years, more teens have turned to vaping. This method of nicotine use involves inhaling the vapor produced by an electronic cigarette or similar device. In 2017, more than 16 percent of 12th-graders were current vapers.
Adolescents can easily become addicted to tobacco products. Teens are particularly at risk for the long-term effects of nicotine because their brains are still developing. This makes them more vulnerable to addiction than adults.
Over time, nicotine use can deteriorate a person’s health. It can cause a range of health problems, from coughing and wheezing to increased heart rate or blood pressure.
Because it typically contains more nicotine, smokeless tobacco products such as dip or snuff can produce more distressing effects than those caused by cigarettes.
Side effects of nicotine include:
Long-term nicotine use can lead to pregnancy-related health issues, including problems with fertility and fetal development. The chemical can also increase the risk for heart palpitations, chest pains, Type 2 diabetes and heart disease.
The chemical can produce withdrawal symptoms in regular nicotine users who suddenly reduce or stop their use of these products. Nicotine withdrawal symptoms include headaches, cravings and anxiety.
While nicotine does not cause cancer, tobacco products contain a variety of cancer-causing compounds, such as tar and acetaldehyde. Tobacco use is the leading cause of preventable death in the United States.
A nicotine overdose, also called nicotine poisoning, occurs when someone uses too much of a product containing the chemical. Although rare, nicotine poisoning typically happens when young children accidentally use tobacco.
According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, symptoms of a nicotine overdose include:
Overdosing on nicotine should be treated as a medical emergency. If you witness someone overdosing on tobacco, call 911 immediately. You can also call a nearby poison control center at 800-222-1222. A representative will instruct you on how to help someone who has overdosed.
A combination of medications and behavioral treatments can assist people in abstaining from nicotine products. Behavioral therapies use self-help literature and counseling to teach people to recognize triggers that contribute to continued nicotine use.
Many smokers participate in nicotine replacement therapies. Approved by the Food and Drug Administration, these treatment options help people relieve withdrawal symptoms and slowly taper their exposure to nicotine. The products include chewing gum, transdermal patches, inhalers, lozenges and nasal sprays.
If you are struggling with nicotine addiction, call the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ national helpline at 800-784-8669. A call representative can share information on the dangers of tobacco products and tips for overcoming nicotine addiction.
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