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Nicotine: Complete Guide

nicotine guide — everything that you need to know
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  1. What Is Nicotine
  2. History of Nicotine
  3. Side Effects of Nicotine
  4. Nicotine and the Heart
  5. Is Nicotine Bad for You?
  6. Does Nicotine Cause Cancer?
  7. Nicotine Addiction
  8. Nicotine Replacement Therapy
  9. Does Vape Have Nicotine?
  10. How Long Does Nicotine Stay In Your System?
  11. Nicotine Overdose
  12. Nicotine Poisoning

Ask any smoker why they smoke and the answer you will get is that it brings them pleasure. They’ll note that it either calms or stimulates them (despite being a stimulant, nicotine often has a calming effect on smokers); helps them manage stress, or that they’re so used to smoking that it’s become second nature to them. Rarely anyone will tell you, straight off the bat, that they suffer from nicotine addiction, which is the true, underlying reason why people smoke. Even if they do identify nicotine as the culprit for their smoking habit, most smokers won’t be able to tell you anything about it – they won’t know how nicotine causes addiction, why they don’t feel hungry after smoking, or what are the health effects of nicotine.

Considering that cigarette smoke is something smokers inhale most of the day, it seems ridiculous not to know anything about one of its most potent ingredient. This comprehensive guide aims to rectify that, so if you want to learn more about nicotine, read on.

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What Is Nicotine & Where Can We Find It?

Where Can We Find Nicotine

Nicotine is an alkaloid and parasympathomimetic stimulant found in certain parts of the plants from the nightshade family. The word parasympathomimetic simply means that it affects the parasympathetic nervous system – the part of our brain that is responsible for involuntary actions (also referred to as feed-and-breed and rest-and-digest actions) that occur after sexual arousal, feeding, urination, defecation, and others.
A common misconception is that nicotine is only found in the tobacco plant when, in fact, it’s pretty widespread. The nightshade family of plants (various tobacco cultivars) will usually contain relatively high amounts of it, but it’s easy to detect nicotine in other fruits, vegetables, and herbs, such as:

  • Tomatoes
  • Potatoes
  • Aubergines
  • Peppers
  • Celery
  • Cauliflower
  • Papaya
  • Milkweed
  • Field horsetail

In fact, we’re all exposed (and ingest) nicotine on a daily basis. Of course, in much smaller quantities than regular smokers, who inhale nicotine in much higher concentrations than are available in edible plants.

A Brief History of Nicotine & Its Use

Although nicotine as a compound was isolated from tobacco leaves rather late (in 1828), its effects were known to the indigenous peoples of the Americas for at least 2,000 years prior to that. It was used ritualistically, as a part of the sacred rites of the Mayan people (and Aztecs, Incas, and Native, and native North American peoples to some extent). With the discovery of the New World, tobacco (and nicotine) use spread through Europe like wildfire.

In fact, at one point, tobacco was referred to as ‘Herba Regina’ in Europe, owing to the fact that Catherine de Medici used it to treat her migraine headaches in 1530. She was kindly supplied by Jean Nicot, whose name is given to both the tobacco plant (Nicotiana tabacum) and it’s most controversial compound.

Other than in cigars and cigarettes (which contain large amounts of nicotine, sometimes up to 20 mg per piece), nicotine can also be found in various nicotine replacement therapy products (NRTs), such as nicotine gums, lozenges, sprays, patches, and so on.

However, what’s interesting is that nicotine was used for hundreds of years as an insecticide – the first recorded use of nicotine for that purpose was in 1763 in France. It’s possible that farmers knew about insecticidal properties of nicotine long before that – after all, the plants developed it as a form of self-defense against predatory insects and small animals.

The use of nicotine as an insecticide is in a decline in recent years, due to the fact that it has been discovered that it can interfere with pollinators, such as bees and bumblebees. Even though in low (recommended doses) it won’t kill the pollinators, it can affect their ability to extract nectar and seriously impairs their orientation and memory.

Health Side Effects of Nicotine

Side Effects of Nicotine

We’ve already noted that nicotine acts like a stimulant, which means that it stimulates the centers in the brain, making smokers more alert and inducing feelings of euphoria. That’s only partly true. In fact, the side effects of nicotine are ‘biphasic’ – in lower doses, it is a stimulant, while, in higher doses, it can act as a relaxant. These effects are also known as the psychodynamic effects of nicotine.

Pharmacological side effects of nicotine (meaning, affecting the body) are diverse. It slightly (and temporarily) raises blood pressure and heart rate. It also leads to insulin resistance. What does that mean? Essentially, it means that smokers tend to have higher than normal insulin levels in their blood, which can sometimes lead to a prediabetic state. That’s why people who already suffer from diabetes are strongly encouraged to quit smoking since that would allow them to control their disease more easily.

Nicotine and the Heart

Nicotine and Heart

Because nicotine is a stimulant, it’s only natural to conclude that it will result in changes in heart rate and blood pressure. That’s true to some extent, especially if we’re talking about short-term nicotine side effects. Nicotine promotes the release of noradrenaline, so small and temporary spikes in HR and BP are to be expected. However, these increases are short-lived and disappear as quickly as 10 minutes after putting out a cigarette. In fact, some studies suggest that longtime smokers tend to have a lower than average blood pressure than people who never smoked.

Although the evidence is far from conclusive, scientists have been looking hard into the relationship between nicotine and cardiovascular diseases and, so far, can’t conclude that nicotine alone has any serious effects on the heart or the blood vessels. What is safe to say is that people with pre-existing heart problems should definitely avoid nicotine in all its forms since it could exacerbate their symptoms.

Is Nicotine Bad for Your Health?

It would be foolish to suggest that nicotine is good for the body, but there’s no denying the fact that, in its pure form, it’s far less dangerous than we’ve been led to believe. Its effects can be compared to those of caffeine – mildly stimulating, yes, but by no means life-threatening.

Nicotine got a pretty bad reputation because it was always observed through the lens of smoking. Very few studies have endeavored to find out how nicotine, in and of itself, affects the human body. However, times are changing and researchers are looking into whether nicotine could be used to treat certain medical conditions.

So far, studies have been done in the following areas:

  • Nicotine and ADHD – nicotine has been found to reduced clinical symptoms in patients with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, especially in those who are non-smokers.
  • Nicotine is a neuroprotector – through stimulation of nicotinic cholinergic receptors in the brain, nicotine can restrain acute inflammation. Also, it acts as an estrogen blocker, which is beneficial for men who are trying to regulate their estrogen levels.
  • Nicotine and Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and Tourette’s – the fact that smokers suffer less from neurodegenerative diseases has fueled research into whether nicotine might be considered as a treatment for those conditions. So far, studies suggest that nicotine, by acting on nicotinic receptors in the brain, can improve cognitive performance and mental abilities in patients diagnosed with these diseases.
  • Nicotine reduces inflammation – it’s currently researched whether a nicotine therapy could be beneficial to people suffering from acute rheumatoid arthritis.
  • Nicotine promotes tissue healing – nicotine promotes revascularization and helps skin heal faster. The best results are observed with nicotine patches applied topically.
  • Niacin boosts good cholesterol – niacin (also called nicotinic acid) is a close relative of nicotine and a vitamin falling into a group of B vitamins (B3). It boosts good cholesterol and lowers triglycerides, and reduces atherosclerosis.

Nicotine Bad for Your Health

As is evident, the poison really is in the dosage. Removed from cigarette smoke and various chemicals produced by it, nicotine offers interesting avenues for researchers in numerous fields of medicine.

Does Nicotine Cause Cancer?

Most smokers (and people in general) wrongly assume that nicotine causes cancer. Specifically, they believe that lung cancer and various oral cancers are triggered by nicotine consumption. Their reasoning follows a familiar line – smoking causes cancer – cigarettes contain nicotine – therefore, nicotine causes cancer. The opinion is so prevalent that, in a study with a sample of nearly 3,000 smokers, 65% of them believe that nicotine causes lung cancer and a whopping 71% believe the same for oral cancers.

The fact of the matter is, there is no conclusive evidence that nicotine causes any type of cancer. Information from a Lung Health Study indicates that, although smoking is directly linked to cancer formation, the same can’t be said about nicotine replacement therapy products. Other studies, including those on Swedish snus (a type of chewable tobacco) also confirm that nicotine doesn’t increase chances of getting cancer. In fact, due to the fact that a lot of smokers in Sweden turned to snus, the country now has one of the lowest cancer rates in Europe.

However, this doesn’t mean that nicotine and cancer can’t be linked. Due to its revascularization properties and the fact that it promotes capillary blood vessel growth, nicotine can increase the growth of existing tumors. Mice studies also show that nicotine can result in a high rate (40%) of tumor recurrences after the initial tumors have been successfully removed or treated.

Nicotine Addiction

Nicotine Addiction

Possibly the worst aspect of nicotine is that it’s addictive and habit-forming. It binds to certain receptors in the brain, namely the nicotinic acetylcholine receptors. Once there, it triggers the production of neurotransmitters – chemicals in the brain that are responsible for relaying messages between neurons.

Nicotine addiction affects several well-known neurotransmitters:

  • Dopamine – the brain’s ‘reward’ chemical, central to the development of many addictions. In essence, dopamine release makes smokers associate an action with something pleasurable, contributing to the reinforcement of the addiction.
  • Serotonin – a mood-altering neurotransmitter that is often associated with feelings of pleasure and euphoria.
  • GABA – a neuro-inhibitor that acts on neurons in a way that helps reduce stress and combat anxiety.
  • Noradrenalin – a transmitter that’s responsible for the fight-or-flight response and puts the organism in the state of heightened alert.


Once the nicotine is absorbed into the system, it finds its way to the brain pretty fast (within 10 to 20 seconds, depending on how it was introduced). Once there, it triggers a number of chemical reactions. Getting addicted to nicotine doesn’t take long precisely for this reason.

There are many facets of addiction and metrics by which we measure that addiction. You would be surprised to know that nicotine ranks very highly on all of those and that is considered extremely addictive by most scientists.

There are five areas in which addiction is measured and compared. The following metrics were developed by doctors Henningfield and Benowitz and are very useful when comparing common drugs to each other.

  • Dependence – difficulty quitting, relapse rate, subjective rating of need.
  • Tolerance – how much of the substance is needed to satisfy a craving.
  • Reinforcement – the property of a substance to make users use it over and over again.
  • Intoxication – the effect of the substance on the user.
  • Withdrawal – how intensive and common withdrawal symptoms are.

Two tables above show that nicotine scores the highest on the dependance metric, which means that it’s considered to be an addiction that’s most difficult to quit. Although a nicotine high is not comparable to that of heroin or cocaine, it’s still potent enough to make people come back for more over and over again. In fact, compared to other drugs, nicotine has the highest percentage of regular users.

The vicious cycle of nicotine addiction wouldn’t be too concerning if other chemicals in cigarettes and cigars were benign as it was. Seeing how cigarette smoke contains over 60 known carcinogens, nicotine addiction needs to be viewed in completely different light. However, that’s often easier said than done. Smokers who attempt to quit go through severe withdrawal symptoms that, more often than not, pull them right back into the cozy embrace of their addiction.

Nicotine withdrawal symptoms include:

  • Intense nicotine cravings
  • Irritability and mood swings
  • Anxiety
  • Headaches
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Nausea
  • Insomnia
  • Depression
  • Tingling in hands and feet

These symptoms might look intimidating but should not deter you from attempting to quit. Luckily, there are a lot of conventional nicotine replacement therapies available currently and, if you’re planning on quitting, you should definitely look into them.

Nicotine Replacement Therapy Products

Nicotine Replacement Therapy

A lot of smokers attempt to quit cold turkey, wrongly assuming that the effects of nicotine in NRT products are as bad as smoking. As we’ve demonstrated already, that’s simply not true. Although the effectiveness of conventional NRTs is still widely debated, some studies confirm that they can lead to increased quit rates.

Nicotine replacement therapy products include:

  • Nicotine patches – 16 or 25-hour patches are available. They slowly release a predetermined quantity of nicotine into the bloodstream and help to fight cravings.
  • Nicotine gums – a fast-acting nicotine replacement, gums are available without a prescription and offer immediate relief. Limit the use of nicotine gums to no more than 24 per day.
  • Nicotine lozenges – available in 2 or 4 mg concentrations, lozenges slowly release nicotine into the bloodstream. They should be used sparingly, one every one to two hours.
  • Nicotine nasal spray – only available on prescription, nicotine nasal spray quickly deals with cravings thanks to its unique method of delivery. It should not be used for longer than six months.
  • Nicotine inhalers – also available only on prescription, this NRT is fast-acting and reduces nicotine cravings immediately. It should be used for a maximum of six months.

Does Vape Have Nicotine?

More and more people are turning to vaping in an effort to try to curb their smoking habit. And, they are succeeding – some studies find that electronic cigarettes are even more effective than traditional NRTs. Of course, that’s taking into account the amount of nicotine in a given vape juice.

So yes, vapes do have nicotine, but the important thing to note is that it’s optional. There are vape juices available that only contain propylene glycol/vegetable glycerin and flavorings so vaping without nicotine is definitely possible. In fact, that’s the goal – tapering down nicotine consumption until you’re completely free of it.

However, beginner vapers and those trying to quit smoking by using electronic cigarettes should consider a higher nicotine concentration at first. This is because vapes deliver nicotine less efficiently than cigarettes. A recommended dosage for regular (1-pack per day) smokers is roughly 2 ml of vape juice containing 18 mg of nicotine. The amount of bioavailable nicotine, in this case, would be somewhere around 15 mg, which is still less than one pack of combustible cigarettes.

Still, the answer the eternal question: ‘Is vaping without nicotine bad for you?’ is a firm no. Vaping without nicotine is not bad and it should be the goal of every smoker turned vaper.

How Long Does Nicotine Stay In Your System?

How Long Does Nicotine Stay In Your System

With every cigarette, cigar, snus package, or an inhale of a nicotine-containing vape juice, nicotine is delivered to your body. Once delivered, it stays in your system for some time. How long? That depends on several things, such as:

  • The method of ingestion
  • Physiological attributes
  • Age and gender
  • Liver function
  • Frequency of use
  • How long have you been ingesting nicotine

When it comes to nicotine testing, it can be done in several different ways – through urine, blood, saliva, and hair follicles. Nicotine has a low-half life (around two hours) so it usually takes your organism anywhere from 12 to 15 hours to flush it out. However, as it passes through the liver, it’s broken down into a metabolite called cotinine. The half-life of cotinine is longer (meaning that it’s a more stable compound), so it can be detected by tests even after nicotine has cleared the system.

Why are these tests even done? Usually, nicotine tests are required by health insurance companies and can mean a difference between a low and a high premium. In addition to that, some employers prefer to hire non-smokers, and they will use these tests to ensure that all candidates are telling the truth about their smoking habits.

How Long Does Nicotine Stay In Your Urine?

When it comes to urine tests, they mostly focus on cotinine instead of nicotine. People who smoke an occasional cigarette don’t have much to worry about – cotinine usually clears out of urine in about three to four days. On the other hand, regular and heavy smokers can expect to test positive for up to three weeks after having their last cigarette.

How Long Does Nicotine Stay In Your Saliva and Hair Follicles?

Nicotine and cotinine don’t stay long in saliva – about the same as cotinine stays in the urine, which is four days for non-regular smokers. However, hair follicles are a different matter. It will depend on the test that’s used, but cotinine can be detected in follicles for three months and, in some cases, for a full year.

How Long Does Nicotine Stay In Your Blood?

There are two types of nicotine (cotinine) blood tests – qualitative and quantitative. Qualitative tests are used to check the presence of cotinine in your system; if there’s any there, they will return as positive. Depending on the test, it’s possible to discover as little as 50 ng of cotinine in someone’s system, which means that these tests are pretty reliable. Quantitative tests will tell you how much cotinine is in the system, which is useful when trying to ascertain whether someone is a light, regular, or a heavy smoker.

Word of warning – nicotine replacement therapy will also trigger these tests. That’s why health professional (when instructed) search for anabasine, which is a compound only found in the blood of those who smoke, and not in NRT users.

Mild Nicotine Overdose

Nicotine Overdose

Most smokers have experienced symptoms of nicotine overdose. Suffice it to say that they are not pleasant, but they are also not a cause for panic. When a nicotine overdose happens, it’s usually a question of smoking one cigarette or taking one extra vape puff too many in a very short period of time.

The symptoms of nicotine overdose are:

  • Nausea
  • Dizziness
  • Headaches
  • Vision and hearing changes
  • Abdominal cramps

The important thing is to stay calm and abstain from nicotine for a while. Mild nicotine overdose symptoms usually clear up in an hour or so. However, if they persist, or if loss of consciousness is experienced, then we’re not talking about an overdose, we’re talking about nicotine poisoning.

Nicotine Poisoning

Nicotine Poisoning

Nicotine poisoning is a serious matter that can end with fatal consequences. The most vulnerable groups are children and elderly people, so, if you vape, make sure to keep your vape juices out of reach. Nicotine poisoning symptoms include:

  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Severe blood pressure spikes
  • Severe arrhythmia
  • Loss of consciousness
  • Convulsions
  • Muscle spasms

If you, or anyone around you, is experiencing these symptoms after either smoking or handling pure nicotine, it’s important that you call the paramedics as soon as possible. There’s been a lot of debate about the fatal dose of nicotine. It was long believed that that dose is 60 mg, which would put nicotine on par with cyanide, as far as toxicity is concerned. However, the evidence didn’t add up since many poisoning cases included far larger dosages, yet with positive outcomes.

Bernd Meyer, a scientist, decided to investigate those 60 mg claims (which many reputable online sites still stick to) and he found that they trace back to a pharmacology textbook published in 1906 by Rudolf Kobert, a German toxicologist. His, rather dubious, research methods lead him to conclude that the LD50 (meaning that it kills roughly half of those exposed to that amount) of nicotine is 60 mg and the claim persisted for close to 100 years.

Newer research (along with recorded cases of nicotine poisoning) suggests that the more likely LD50 of nicotine lies somewhere between 500 and 1000 mg, which is significantly higher than the previous estimate.

Nicotine – A Collateral Victim of Smoking

With everything we’ve explored in this post, it becomes rather obvious that nicotine is taking a lot of heat for things that are predominantly caused by smoking and other chemicals contained in combustible cigarettes. We’re not saying that nicotine is healthy – the goal of every smoker should be to quit and to be completely rid of both cigarettes and nicotine.

However, further demonization of nicotine will not be beneficial to anyone. It will prevent smokers from trying NRTs and vaping as a substitute for smoking, and it will also hamper medical research into the medical benefits of nicotine.

Dangers of nicotine need to be put into perspective and weighted with overall negative consequences of smoking. After all, wouldn’t it be preferable to move smokers to alternative nicotine delivery systems than to have them keep smoking, raising overall healthcare, environmental, and other costs? That’s definitely food for thought, and we’d love to hear your take on it. Make sure to leave a comment below to let us know what you think!

After Content Chirs story
Published: February 2, 2018 Updated: August 8, 2019



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One comment on “Nicotine: Complete Guide
  • Paul Appleton
    April 30, 2019 at 10:34 am