How Do I Know I’m Really Addicted to Nicotine?
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There's a good chance, if you smoke cigarettes, that you’re addicted to nicotine. Out of the approximate 40 million adults in the United States who regularly light up, about 70 percent of them want to quit smoking, says the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Problem is, nicotine, a drug found naturally in tobacco, is addictive — in fact, the CDC says that nicotine addiction has similar pharmacologic and behavioral characteristics to cocaine and heroin addictions.
A pack-a-day smoker smokes a cigarette about once hour, says Erik Augustson, PhD, MPH, a behavioral scientist and program director in the Tobacco Control Research Branch of the National Cancer Institute in Bethesda, Maryland. If you were to stop or even cut back, you would start to go into nicotine withdrawal — and that’s what drives smokers to smoke their next cigarette.
How soon you reach for a cigarette in the morning is a good indication of the severity of your nicotine addiction. According to the Fagerström Test, which evaluates nicotine dependence, if you have your first cigarette of the day within five minutes of waking up, your addiction is pretty strong. If it’s within 30 minutes, it’s moderate, and if it’s within 60 minutes or later, it’s somewhat lower.
Other signs that you have a nicotine addiction include:
- You smoke even when you’re sick.
- You go outside to smoke even if it’s freezing or raining.
- You find it difficult to smoke in places you shouldn’t, like a church, library, school, movie theater, or hospital.
Another way to know you’re addicted to cigarettes is if you try to stop and you experience withdrawal symptoms. The most common nicotine withdrawal symptoms are:
- Irritability and anger
- Physical sensations, like you have a mild case of the flu
- Headaches and dizziness
- Inability to sleep uninterrupted
- Cravings for cigarettes
- Weight gain, though typically less than 10 pounds
"Nicotine withdrawal can be unpleasant for most smokers,” Augustson says, “but it’s not physically dangerous and most smokers can find ways to manage it, especially if they use medication and counseling."
The unpleasant side effects of nicotine withdrawal are the most intense when you first quit. They begin to subside somewhat after a week and even more after a month. Withdrawal symptoms can linger, but it does get easier. Eventually, the time between cravings will grow longer and longer, and eventually stop altogether.
The cravings themselves are like waves, Augustson explains. “Cravings can be very intense, but they will crest and fade even if you don’t have a cigarette. They will go away naturally on their own. Cravings won’t last more than 15 to 20 minutes for most smokers. Finding a way to get through that 15- to 20-minute period is a key part of developing a quit plan.”
Augustson suggests saying to yourself: “I know it’s unpleasant now, but if I wait 15 to 20 minutes, I can wait it out and I can be very proud of myself because I did.”
Other strategies for quitting include:
- Find a distraction. Go for a walk, wash the dishes, or play a game with your kids. “Find something that will distract you enough to get through those cravings,” says Augustson.
- Remind yourself why you want to quit. The most important reason to quit is the one that matters to you. Write a list of the top five reasons why you should stop smoking — such as you don’t want to get lung cancer or you can save a week by not buying cigarettes. Keep the list with you and review it when you feel the urge to smoke.
- Avoid situations where you are likely tempted to smoke.Common triggers include feeling stressed, being bored, or drinking alcohol. Know what situations cause you the most stress and try to come up with coping techniques, such as deep breathing or practicing yoga. Plan activities so that you’re not bored. Stay away from bars and other places where you often drink — especially when you’re first starting in your efforts to quit. If you must have something, switch to non-alcoholic beverages.
- Seek support. Let friends and family members know of your intention to quit. Also, find a support group. The National Cancer Institute operates a quitline at 1-877-44U-QUIT (1-877-448-7848). You can find support online or in person with groups that meet locally.
Because nicotine is addictive, quitting is never easy. But with the right help and the right attitude, you can overcome your addiction.
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