Symptoms arising from nicotine withdrawal can be physical and psychological. In general, most people see a decrease in physical nicotine withdrawal symptoms about 72 hours after last use of nicotine. Psychological symptoms can continue for many months afterwards, which can often account for people beginning to use nicotine again.
The physical symptoms of nicotine withdrawal in the first three days include cravings. These cravings tend to last from three to five minutes, so it is possible to ride out a craving. Distracting one’s self from the craving by engaging in some kind of activity for a few minutes usually helps people get through a craving.
Those in nicotine withdrawal are frequently irritable, may have an exceptionally “short fuse,” and may find handling ordinary stressors quite difficult. People in nicotine withdrawal may also note difficulty concentrating and extreme fatigue. In fact, when possible, fatigue can be a friend rather than enemy. Taking naps is a great way to take a break from cravings. If possible, try to schedule smoking cessation when one has a few days of uninterrupted rest, as on a weekend.
Nicotine withdrawal can cause a number of cold or flu-like symptoms. Some people refer to these as smoker’s flu. This can include dry or sore throat, nasal congestion, coughing, and tightness in the chest. Some people have headaches, and some may suffer gastrointestinal symptoms like constipation, gas, or nausea during nicotine withdrawal. Others may note soreness of the tongue and/or gums.
While some undergoing nicotine withdrawal may experience fatigue and find sleeping quite easy, others may find it extremely difficult to sleep. Insomnia may be aided by a few days of low dose sleep medication. Getting sleep during nicotine withdrawal is important, since lack of sleep tends to dull one’s ability to resist cravings and may worsen mood.
Once through the physical symptoms of nicotine withdrawal, people may still experience psychological symptoms of withdrawal. These include still wanting a cigarette, or other tobacco products one has used in the past, feeling lost without one’s habitual smoking apparatus, and simply deeply missing smoking or chewing tobacco. Usually, wanting a cigarette after the body has completed nicotine withdrawal is not as urgent as the cravings one experiences during the first few days.
It helps to replace old smoking or chewing habits with new ones. Some people find comfort in chewing gum, munching on cigarette-sized carrots, or doing work with their hands, like crocheting, knitting, or woodworking. The former smoker who doesn’t replace old habits with new ones runs more of a risk of returning to smoking. He or she feels like something is “missing” from their lives, creating anxiety.
Persistence of depression, irritability, inability to control mood swings, sleeplessness or fatigue warrants a doctor’s visit. People often use nicotine to control their behavior, and nicotine can mask symptoms of mild psychiatric disorders like anxiety or depression. Many people find benefit in a short course of anti-depressants or anti-anxiety medications while overcoming the psychological symptoms of nicotine withdrawal.