Smoking Withdrawal Symptoms

It takes time and practice to quit smoking, but you can do it. Moreover, the benefits of quitting smoking are well worth your effort. There are various ways of quitting smoking, such as using a system to taper off smoking gradually or going the "cold turkey" route. Each individual is unique and one method may work better for you than someone else.

When you quit smoking, you’ll likely experience some smoking withdrawal symptoms. Here you'll learn more about the types of withdrawal effects and symptoms you may experience if you give up smoking, when you'll start experiencing the benefits of quitting smoking, and how to effectively manage your withdrawal symptoms.

Nicotine Withdrawal

When you stop smoking, your body goes through an adjustment of not getting nicotine anymore. This adjustment is known as nicotine withdrawal.1 You can experience withdrawal symptoms for a couple of weeks, but the worst symptoms typically occur during your first several days of quitting. You're also more at risk of slipping back into your smoking habit during this time because your cravings will be at their strongest; so stay strong, they'll pass.2

While it can be a bit uncomfortable to go through smoking withdrawal, there are things you can do to reduce its intensity. Prescription medication or nicotine replacement therapy is one of the best ways of managing smoking withdrawal symptoms. These can reduce withdrawal symptoms significantly and make it much more likely you'll quit for good.

How Smoking Withdrawal Affects Your Body

Some people may experience intense side effects. Some even feel as if they're suffering from the flu when they go through withdrawal. You experience this withdrawal because smoking affects your entire bodily system. When quitting, it takes your body some time to adjust to not having the nicotine.

Try to stay focused and remember that the symptoms you're experiencing are only temporary.

Here are some potential symptoms you could experience:

  • Nausea and headaches: Smoking impacts your body's every system. Nausea and headaches are common while the nicotine is leaving your body.
  • Sore throat and coughing: You might experience a sore throat and cough as your lungs are beginning to clear the mucus and other debris out of your lungs that smoking creates.
  • Tingling in feet and hands: With the improvement of your circulation, you might experience tingling in your feet and hands.
  • Hunger and associated weight gain: You’ll likely experience a boost in energy after quitting smoking, which will increase your appetite. Some individuals also eat more because they're using food as a substitute for cigarettes to cope with their "hand to mouth" smoking habit. Both of these result in weight gain.
  • Frustration, irritability, and anger: When you quit smoking, it's a big change you're making. Your body and mind have to adjust to not receiving the thing they've been dependent on. This can lead to anger and irritability.
  • Intense nicotine cravings: While you're a smoker, your body is addicted to nicotine. When it goes without it, it will crave it. Cravings will reach their peak around the second and fourth weeks.3
  • Depression, anxiety, and insomnia: Smokers have a greater risk of anxiety and depression, but the reason behind this isn't clear.4 You might smoke to feel better. When quitting smoking, you might feel more depressed and anxious. Also common is insomnia.
    Depression isn't something to take lightly. It's a serious condition. You should seek help from a medical professional who might recommend medication, therapy, or light therapy. If you've consulted with your doctor and they say it's okay, some alternative remedies you might want to try alongside your prescribed treatment are massage therapy, omega-3 fatty acids, meditation, St. John's Wort, and acupuncture.
  • Constipation: Nicotine impacts the colon and small bowel. When you take it away, you might suffer with constipation as your body is adjusting to being without it.
  • Dry mouth: Smoking commonly causes dry mouth. The anxiety and stress linked with withdrawal could make it worse as you're adjusting.
  • Difficulty concentrating: Quitting smoking's side effects could make it hard to concentrate at first.

Quitting Smoking Cold Turkey Symptoms

There are several nicotine products available for helping you wean off nicotine, however, there is the "cold turkey" method where you completely stop all nicotine from entering your body. There is evidence suggesting that when you quit nicotine abruptly instead of gradually, it could increase your likelihood of quitting for good.5 However, the symptoms you experience when you stop abruptly will be more intense than if you gradually come off nicotine.

Benefits Timeline of Quitting Smoking

When you stop smoking, your body goes through a beneficial transformation. Here is a benefits timeline of quitting smoking, according to Vancouver Coastal Health.6

If you quit smoking for:

  1. Twenty minutes - Your blood pressure decreases to the level it was prior to smoking your last cigarette.7
  2. Eight hours - The level of carbon monoxide in your blood returns to normal.8
  3. Twenty-four hours - Your heart attack risks begin decreasing.9
  4. Two weeks to 3 months - It's easier for you to breathe because your lungs' airways relax and you're able to get more air in your lungs.10
  5. One to nine months - You're coughing less and your lungs are working better.11
  6. One year - Your heart attack risk decreases by half compared to a person who smokes.12
  7. Five years - You have the same stroke risk as a person who doesn't smoke.13
  8. Ten years - You have a lower risk of dying from these cancers: mouth, lung, bladder, esophagus, pancreas, throat, and/or kidney.14
  9. Fifteen years - Your risk of experiencing a heart attack-related death is the same as a person who doesn't smoke.15

Help to Quit Smoking

There are ways to help you quit smoking. Some will even increase your chances of success.

1. Get Support

Obtain help from:

  • Online programs, which often include support forums, text messaging service and a phone helpline.
  • Free tablet, smartphone, or hand-held computer apps.
  • Therapists for counselling.
  • Physicians and nurses.
  • Friends or family who quit smoking.
  • You can find smoker's helplines at most provinces where you can call or visit a website for support and information.

2. Consider Prescription Medications

Prescription medicines don't contain nicotine, however, they do decrease withdrawal symptoms and cravings by affecting the way nicotine interacts with your brain. When you use medications to quit smoking, it could increase your chances of successfully quitting smoking. Combine it with counselling support and it's even more effective.

Talk to your doctor about which smoking cessation approach may be right for your quit journey.

3. Utilize Nicotine Replacement Therapy

Nicotine replacement therapy (NRT) provides your body with a set amount of nicotine to help decrease cravings and withdrawal symptoms. NRT is an effective tool for helping individuals quit tobacco and it could increase your likelihood of quitting successfully too. Combine it with counselling and it's even more effective.

NRT can help with stress and cravings and can double your likelihood of quitting smoking, reports HealthLink BC.16 It comes in nicotine:

  • Mouth sprays
  • Gum
  • Lozenges
  • Inhalers
  • Patches

No prescription is required.

Why It's Difficult to Quit Smoking

Quitting smoking is difficult because your body depends on tobacco's nicotine. When you give it up, you're doing more than simply kicking a bad habit. Your body will need to wean off the nicotine. You can use the medications, nicotine gum, and other forms of NRT to help decrease these cravings.

However, you also need to change your habits. Some people don't even think about smoking. They just do it. You might not even realize it, but when you see another person smoke, or even if you simply see a cigarette, it can make you want to smoke. You might smoke when you're drinking alcohol or if you're stressed out. Many people crave cigarettes when they're drinking coffee.

Prior to quitting, think of some ways you can help handle these things. For instance, practice deep breathing or call a friend when you're feeling stressed. Instead of smoking, try chewing sugarless gum. When you have a break at work, take a walk. Try to avoid being around people who smoke when you first quit. It's fine to avoid situations that might tempt you to smoke, such as parties or occasions where there will be alcohol. This is just until you have more confidence that you can stay smoke-free.

Combating Quitting Smoking Withdrawal Symptoms

Along with medication such as NRT, there are practical things you can do to manage your smoking withdrawal symptoms.

If you're irritable, take a walk or perform some type of exercise. Try and relax by:

  • Listening to soft music
  • Taking a bath
  • Getting a massage
  • Stretching

If you're experiencing low energy, take a nap if you're feeling tired and don't attempt to push yourself.

When you're going through withdrawal, it can feel like you're experiencing cold symptoms. You may notice a lot of phlegm and coughing when you first quit smoking. There's no need to worry - this is a good thing. Your lungs are clearing out the debris and tar inside your airways. Allow yourself to cough this gunk up and spit it out to help your lungs. Drink a lot of water to help thin the mucus out and make it simpler to bring it up.

For cravings, you'll, unfortunately, need to wait it out. Strong cravings will likely only last several minutes. When you're going through cravings, try another activity like taking a walk, drinking water, or using a nicotine replacement product like NRT gum.

Quitting smoking isn't going to be easy. You'll want to come up with an action plan first to help improve your likelihood of quitting successfully. Write your plan down to allow you to carefully think about what you'll have to do and how you're going to approach it. Also, let your doctor know you've decided to quit smoking.