Quitting smoking is a life changing decision. The journey towards quitting can be challenging and one of the hurdles is managing the withdrawal symptoms that follow cessation of nicotine. 

What to expect when you quit smoking?

Nicotine influences the brain reward system by releasing dopamine and over time the brain adjusts to it and when the supply is cut off, side effects such as withdrawal symptoms occur. The body responds to the sudden absence of nicotine and presents with cravings which can make it harder for individuals to quit the habit. 

There are many smoking related diseases which could be improved or erased if individuals decide to successfully quit. There are many health benefits of quitting smoking, some of which are evident within hours and others can take years to fully improve. 

What are the withdrawal symptoms of smoking?

Common nicotine withdrawal symptoms can vary in intensity and duration among individuals.

This would be the most challenging symptom but the cravings can be intense and frequent initially but over time it would decrease. Many people experience increased irritability, anxiety and mood swings. The absence of nicotine which previously served as a coping mechanism will lead to emotional instability. 

Nicotine stimulates the release of certain neurotransmitters that enhance focus and cognitive function. Individuals may find it hard to concentrate or stay focused on tasks when experiencing the withdrawal.

Nicotine suppresses the appetite and boosts metabolism which can lead to increased hunger during the withdrawal phase. The cigarette binds to receptors in brain which reduce the release of neurotransmitters serotonin and dopamine. These two substances reduce hunger but can lead to craving more carbs and sweets. Within a day or so after quitting, the appetite can increase potentially causing weight gain as the body adjusts.

Insomnia or changes in sleep patterns are common when quitting smoking. Nicotine affects the sleep-wake cycle and its absence can lead to difficulties falling asleep or staying asleep.

The respiratory system begins to clear out the mucus once we stop smoking. This can lead to temporary coughing as it gets rid of mucus. The body’s energy levels will be affected as it adjusts to life without nicotine. 

How long do smoking withdrawal symptoms last?

The timeline of symptoms of nicotine withdrawal varies individual to individual and on their nicotine dependence. 

The peak of withdrawal symptoms usually occurs within the first three days after quitting tobacco products. Mainly cravings and irritability are the most intense these days. Physical symptoms such as headaches, dizziness and increased appetite are common followed by mood swings and difficulty concentrating. 

In this period symptoms like cravings and mood swings begin to subside but can still linger. Other symptoms like coughing and sore throat may still continue as the body heals. 

Now, cravings will be less frequent and intense. However emotional and physical symptoms start to diminish significantly. 

The most withdrawal symptoms now fade away, though occasional cravings and some psychological dependence may still persist especially if there is a social attachment to smoking. 

Managing smoking withdrawal symptoms

It can be challenging to deal with or reduce nicotine withdrawal symptoms but certain things can help stay motivated. 

Making a list of the reasons you have decided to quit and keep it handy at times when the temptation to smoke is high. Be sure to have plans and stick to them and begin socialising in places or with people where smoking isn’t a part of the event/gathering. Have a support group of family and friends who can keep you accountable and distract you from cravings when needed. 

Other ways to manage it are through deep breaths, drinking water, delaying the craving for a few minutes in hopes it will pass and distract yourself with something else. Engaging in regular physical activity can have various health benefits including that of distraction from craving sensations. 

Some cravings relate to our daily routine and changing that routine can help avoid those triggers that tell the brain it’s time to smoke. At the times where the body reaches for the cigarette, swap it with another activity, e.g. first thing in the morning, have a shower instead of that cigarette. Or at work during tea break, sit in a different place or scroll your phone to avoid the urge to smoke in those 10 minutes. 

Many individuals begin smoking as a way to deal with stress, once you decide to quit, you will need to find a new way to deal with stress. A cigarette is a temporary stress-release, it doesn’t solve the problems, it just shifts the focus from one to another. 

One of the challenges when quitting smoking would be to fill in the spare time in which you would smoke. There is always an alternative activity to handle the situation in which a cigarette would help. If strategies or triggers are not helping, chatting with Quitline can provide bonus support. 

Managing withdrawal symptoms through medication

We can manage withdrawal symptoms through combined strategies. There are pharmaceutical products such as Nicotine replacement therapy (NRT). The NRT products are nicotine patches, gum and lozenges which can help reduce the intensity of withdrawal symptoms by providing a controlled dose of nicotine whilst we reduce our cigarette intake. 

The chances of experiencing withdrawal symptoms will be minimised when we effectively reduce smoking in preparation to quit. There are many options to explore when we decide to quit smoking and beginning with initial reduction of smokes per day, followed by Nicotine replacement products could help with subtle changes in smoke cravings. 

There are prescription medications which are very effective in people successfully stopping smoking. Bupropion and Varenicline are prescription medications which are taken for several weeks and have helped reduce withdrawal symptoms and cravings associated with stopping smoking.  

Consult a doctor

There are many methods to explore, all of which would be suitable to different individuals. Many support resources are available online and the quit helplines. It is important to have professional support and a health professional to help a journey towards quitting smoking.

Consult a doctor