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Nicotine is a stimulant drug found in tobacco and smoking products that can cause addiction and other serious health risks.

What Is Nicotine?

Nicotine is a chemical that is naturally produced in different plants of the nightshade family. It is named after the tobacco plant Nicotiana Tabacum. It is used in several other products such as:

  • Cigarettes
  • E-cigarettes
  • Chewing tobacco
  • Nicotine patches
  • Gum
  • Inhalers

History Of Nicotine

Nicotine has been consumed through the act of smoking or inhaling the tobacco plant for over 2000 years. The practice of smoking tobacco in pipes and cigars quickly spread worldwide in the 1600s, and the tobacco industry boomed by the 1700s. It was not until 1828 that a doctor and chemist from Germany first isolated Nicotine from the tobacco plant. The isolation led to the identification of the compound as a poison and its use as an insecticide since 1763. Historically, Nicotine has not been found to be cancer-causing on its own, but it is highly addictive. It causes dependence, making it one of the most commonly used substances in the world. Tobacco products contain Nicotine, along with thousands of other deadly chemicals, making it responsible for the most common preventable cause of death in the US, which is smoking.

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How The Body Processes It

When Nicotine is inhaled through tobacco smoke (or an electronic vaporizer), the chemical quickly enters the bloodstream, crosses the blood-brain barrier, and reaches the brain within 8 to 20 seconds. The body feels a “kick” or “buzz” from the effects. Nicotine is broken down in the liver, and about half of the chemical leaves the body approximately 2 hours after smoking. Tobacco products that are chewed, placed inside the mouth, or snorted tend to release more significant amounts of the drug in the body than smoking. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), over one billion people worldwide are regular tobacco smokers, making cigarettes the most popular way of consuming Nicotine.

Nicotine affects each person differently depending on factors such as:

  • Size, weight, and overall health
  • The amount consumed
  • The strength and amount of Nicotine contained in a product
  • An individual’s tolerance

There is a common myth that “light” or “low tar” cigarettes are less harmful than regular cigarettes when in fact, there is little difference between the number of deleterious chemicals inhaled by people who smoke “light” cigarettes and regular ones.

The Effects

Nicotine can act as both a sedative and a stimulant, depending on a person’s nervous system and the amount consumed in a dose.

The following effects may be experienced:

  • Mild stimulation
  • Coughing
  • Increased heart rate
  • Dizziness or lightheadedness
  • Numbness in fingers and toes
  • Nausea, reduced appetite, and vomiting
  • Bad breath
  • Heartburn and indigestion

If consumed in vast quantities, the following effect may also occur:

  • Fast or difficult breathing
  • Feeling faint or confusion
  • Respiratory arrest
  • Seizures

People like to smoke tobacco and other Nicotine products because of the pleasurable effects caused by its interaction in the brain. This includes an increase in dopamine levels and euphoric feelings, raised alertness, reduced anxiety, and improved concentration.

Smoking cigarettes regularly can lead to long-term effects such as:

  • Loss of taste and smell
  • Shortness of breath
  •  Coughing fits, asthma, and lung disease
  •  Yellowing of the teeth and fingernails
  •  Stomach ulcers
  •  Heart disease
  •  Infertility
  •  Stroke and brain damage
  •  Erectile dysfunction
  •  Irregular periods or early menopause
  •  Mood swings
  •  Cancer (in many areas of the body)
  •  Insulin resistance (increasing the risk of type 2 diabetes)
  •  Financial, social, and work problems

There is no safe level of Nicotine consumption as it occurs in tobacco and other smoking-related products. Nicotine on its own has no therapeutic or medical benefit other than when it is administered in small doses during Nicotine Replacement Therapy (NRT).

Mixing Nicotine With Medication

If you are regularly taking any medication, it is essential to consult with a medical provider about Nicotine’s effect on them. Nicotine is known to reduce the effectiveness of Benzodiazepines. It can cause blood clots to form when taking birth control pills.

Withdrawal Symptoms

Regular Nicotine users tend to build up a tolerance, requiring higher doses to achieve the desired effects. If a person gives up the drug after using it for a long time, they may begin to feel withdrawal symptoms within 2 to 3 hours after the last use.

Withdrawal symptoms can last from a few days to a couple of weeks and include:

  • Cravings
  • Insomnia or restless sleep
  • Headaches
  • Irritability, depression, and anxiety
  • Increased appetite or weight gain
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Body aches and pains
  • Gastrointestinal issues

Nicotine Addiction

The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) officially recognized Nicotine as an addictive drug in 1994 and took control over federal Nicotine regulations in June of 2009. It is considered to be as hard to quit as Heroin. As of 2018, all products containing Nicotine, including e-cigarettes, must be labeled with a warning. Young people are at the highest risk for Nicotine addiction because their brains are still developing. Currently, more people die from smoking-related complications than all deaths due to HIV, motor vehicle accidents, murder, suicide, alcohol, and drug abuse combined. In the United States, over 16 million people are living with a disease caused by smoking and Nicotine addiction.

Treatment For Addiction

Roughly 70% of adult smokers say they want to quit, according to the FDA. No matter how much or how long a person has been smoking, quitting as soon as possible can dramatically decrease the risk of various cancers, heart disease, and other serious diseases. 12 hours after quitting smoking, the carbon monoxide level in the blood drops to normal, preventing severe organ damage.

Treatment for Nicotine dependence and addiction is also known as smoking cessation therapy. The goal is to reduce cravings and associated risks and health problems that result from the chemical combination in tobacco and smoking products. The most common way to treat smoking addiction and/or Nicotine dependence is through what is known as Nicotine replacement therapy (NRT). NRT’s are products approved by the FDA designed to help smokers reduce their use by using specific amounts of Nicotine that gradually decrease over time. Over the counter NRT’s can only be sold to people age 18 and older and come in many different forms:

Nicotine Replacement Therapy

Skin patchesTransdermal Nicotine patches are placed on the skin, similar to applying an adhesive bandage.

Chewing gumNicotine gum is to be chewed according to label instructions to be effective.

LozengesNicotine lozenges are products that dissolve in the mouth, like a cough drop.

The only prescription NRT available at the current moment is a nasal spray and oral inhaler under the brand name Nicotrol. A person should talk to their health care providers before starting any form of NRT, especially if they:

  • Have diabetes, heart disease, asthma, or stomach ulcer or a recent heart attack
  • Have already been prescribed medication to quit smoking
  •  Are under the age of 18
  •  Are pregnant

Studies have shown that NRT is most effective when accompanied by community/peer support and mental health counseling. Something as simple as advice from a primary care physician or individual and group therapy can increase the success rate of quitting a Nicotine addiction.

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