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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, Nicotina Tabacum, and today it is used in several different products such as cigarettes, e-liquids for vaporizers and e-cigarettes, chewing tobacco, nicotine patches, gum, and 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 was booming by the 1700s. It was not until 1828 that a doctor and chemist from Germany first isolated nicotine from the tobacco and identified it as a poison, after having been used as an insecticide since 1763. Although nicotine is not cancer-causing or extremely harmful on its own, it is highly addictive and 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, and are responsible for the most common preventable cause of death in the U.S., which is smoking.
How the Body Processes Nicotine
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 and 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 greater amounts of nicotine 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 amount of harmful chemicals inhaled by people who smoke “light” cigarettes and regular ones.
Effects of Nicotine Use
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
- increased heart rate
- dizziness or lightheadedness
- numbness in fingers and toes
- nausea, reduced appetite, and vomiting
- bad breath
- heartburn and indigestion
If consumed in very large quantities, the following effect may also occur:
- fast or difficult breathing
- feeling faint
- respiratory arrest
People like to smoke tobacco and other products containing nicotine because of the pleasurable effects caused by the interaction of nicotine in the brain. This includes an increase in dopamine levels and euphoric feelings, raised alertness, reduced anxiety, and an improvement in concentration.
The regular use of nicotine 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
- 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 important to consult with a medical provider about the effect nicotine can have on them. Nicotine is known to reduce the effectiveness of Benzodiazepines and can cause blood clots to form when taking birth-control pills.
Regular nicotine users tend to build up a tolerance which means they require higher doses to achieve the same initial effects. If a person gives up nicotine after using it for a long time, they may begin to feel withdrawal symptoms within 2 to 3 hours after the last use. Symptoms can last from a few days to a couple weeks and include:
- Insomnia or restless sleep
- Irritability, depression, and anxiety
- Increased appetite or weight gain
- Difficulty concentrating
- Body aches and pains
- Gastrointestinal issues
The U.S. 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. In fact, it is considered to be at least as hard to quit as Heroin and 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 serious organ damage.
Treatment for nicotine dependency and addiction is also known as smoking cessation therapy, and the goal is to reduce nicotine cravings as well as associated risks and health problems that result from the chemical combination in tobacco and smoking products. The most common way to treat a 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 patches||Transdermal nicotine patches are placed on the skin, similar to applying an adhesive bandage.|
|Chewing gum||Nicotine gum is to be chewed according to label instructions in order to be effective.|
|Lozenges||Nicotine 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 ulcers
- had 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 counseling and psychiatric care. Something as simple as advice from a primary care physician or individual and group therapy can increase the changes of quitting a nicotine addiction.
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If you or someone you love is struggling to overcome an addiction to nicotine, or any other drug, help is out there. Contact a dedicated treatment provider today to find out what your options are.
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