Cancer Care

Understanding and Overcoming Nicotine Addiction

Is nicotine addictive? No matter which health organization you turn to, the answer is the same: The National Institutes of Health (NIH) emphatically says yes, and according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), nicotine addiction is the most common chemical dependence in the U.S. and is as "addictive as heroin, cocaine, or alcohol." Toxic in high doses, the drug is what makes cigarettes habit-forming.

For centuries, tobacco products were the principal source of nicotine. New vaporizing technology (e.g., e-cigarettes) now bypasses the need for tobacco but comes with its own health dangers. If you or someone you care about struggles with nicotine addiction, know that help is readily available to assist in breaking the habit.

The Science Behind Nicotine Addiction

Like morphine and caffeine, nicotine is a naturally occurring alkaloid. People who continue to use nicotine products after being made aware of the health dangers they pose define nicotine addiction. Are you addicted to nicotine? The U. S. Department of Health and Human Services offers a free and simple quiz to help you find out. Better yet, talk to your health care provider.

Nicotine tricks the brain into believing it needs the drug. It increases levels of a brain chemical called dopamine, which activates the regions of the brain responsible for pleasure. The effects are short-lived -- its half-life is two hours -- and this leads to an almost continuing need for it. The American Council on Science and Health describes the addiction pattern this way: "First comes the wanting ... then comes the strong urge to smoke ... then needing a cigarette to feel normal again. The sequence is the same every time."

According to NIH, over 35 million smokers try to quit each year. Countless others depend on the drug from other sources, such as nicotine vapor and even the chewing gum used in an effort to kick the habit. Whatever its source, nicotine is harmful. It increases your heart rate and is a poison, especially for children. What makes it especially dangerous, however, is the drug's powerfully addictive properties that ensnare people into the leading preventable cause of death: smoking.

Smoking and Nicotine

All tobacco products, from cigars and pipe tobacco to snuff and chewing tobacco, contain nicotine. These products have been linked to oral cancer, and the chemicals they contain are absorbed through the mucous surfaces of the mouth and nose. While nearly 4 percent of Americans use some form of smokeless tobacco, nearly five times as many smoke cigarettes. Smoking is far more dangerous because, with every puff, you inhale toxic smoke into your lungs, and cigarette smoke delivers nicotine to the brain in less than 10 seconds.

Tars combined with thousands of chemicals in the smoke take the lives of nearly a half million Americans each year, primarily from lung cancer and heart disease. Smoking also leads to chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), diabetes, and other chronic diseases. People may light up for the nicotine, but the smoke is what really harms them.


As mentioned above, a rapidly growing trend is the use of devices that vaporize -- rather than burn -- nicotine. These e-cigarettes are a useful tool in helping people quit smoking and have the advantage of providing nicotine without exposing users to the harmful effects of smoking. An entire unregulated industry is producing prodigious quantities, as well as varieties of both delivery devices and liquid nicotine products.

Liquid nicotine comes with its own hazards, however, and the greatest danger it poses is nicotine overdose. Most products contain nonlethal percentages of nicotine, which can still make you quite sick, but more concentrated products are readily available. Shadowing the rapid increase in the use of vaporizers is an increase in the number of people poisoned from liquid nicotine overdose.


For most, overcoming nicotine addiction means quitting cigarettes. If you smoke, the single best thing you can do to preserve your health is to stop. It isn't easy -- nearly 85 percent of those who try to quit fail. Talk to your health care provider to learn the latest about smoking-cessation treatments. Medications and such nicotine-replacement therapies as gum, mists, and vapor have all proven successful for those determined to quit. The CDC provides a website containing a wealth of useful smoking-cessation information, links, and tips.

Your body will immediately begin to heal from the damage caused by smoking. Within minutes, your blood pressure and heart rate will decrease, and 12 hours later, the carbon-monoxide level in your blood will return to normal. In short, you'll cut down on health risks, and no matter your age, quitting will encourage a longer, healthier life.

Posted in Cancer Care

Since retiring from a career as a medical, geriatric, and public social worker, Charles Hooper has published hundreds of articles and blog posts on a variety of topics, including health and medicine, politics and government, and advocacy. Charles graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill with a master's degree in social work. He received an Outstanding Scholar award and graduated with honors from the University of North Carolina at Asheville, where he majored in sociology and political science.

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*This information is for educational purposes only and does not constitute health care advice. You should always seek the advice of your doctor or physician before making health care decisions.