Nicotine is naturally found in the roots and leaves of various plants especially those of the nightshade family. It is most commonly found in that of tobacco. Many people don’t know this but nicotine is actually very toxic, sometimes even more than cocaine and so it is highly controlled and regulated by the government. As little as 60mg of the substrate is enough to kill a person and ordinarily no one can just walk into a drug store and purchase that much quantity.
To achieve a lethal dose from cigarettes, for instance, one must smoke about 40 cigarettes at once or chew about 15 pieces of nicotine gum at once. The majority of the poisoning cases are in fact cases where children mistakenly reach for a pack of nicotine gum or liquid nicotine that people use in electronic cigarettes. For an adult, most cases are outright poisoning where an individual intentionally poisons someone else’s drink or something similar.
Most smokers and non-smokers alike consider nicotine a benign substance. With the thousands of chemicals present in tobacco products and the smoke they emit, the nicotine content is usually the last thing people consider when thinking of the dangers of smoking.
How Nicotine Is Ingested
When smoked, nicotine is absorbed into the bloodstream, urine, hair and skin. But to be ingested, someone would have to physically consume a cigarette, nicotine patch, e-liquid or other source of nicotine. This is most likely to happen in a household that has both small children and nicotine users. The child may get hold of some sort of nicotine product and start eating it.
While anyone can suffer the deleterious effects of nicotine ingestion, it is small children and sickly people who are most likely to suffer severe effects. Their immune systems are not as strong as the average adult, and they likely are not used to the effects of nicotine.
Ingesting nicotine is much like smoking numerous cigarettes or using a series of nicotine patches all at once. Most people who smoke or use these products are not going to suffer the same effects as someone who actually ingests them into their system.
Is Nicotine in Cigarettes Dangerous?
The health consequences of smoking are well documented. Cigarettes cause lung cancer, heart disease, and stroke. It causes lung infections, an increased risk of allergies and asthma, COPD, and numerous other health issues. But how many of these issues are caused by the nicotine?
Most of the tobacco’s dangers stem from the smoke and chemical additives found cigarettes and other commercial tobacco products. Nicotine, as a stimulant, may increase blood pressure. In general, however, it is not the most dangerous aspect of cigarette smoking. This is especially true in those who are not known to be sensitive to stimulants.
That said, nicotine is the substance which makes tobacco products so addictive, so it is the reason most people find it hard to quit, despite the negative health outcomes smokers face. Although, in moderate doses, nicotine is not lethal.
Nicotine and the Human Body
But how does this chemical work in the human body? It is absorbed into the bloodstream through popular delivery methods like smoking, chewing and ‘dipping’. When smoking tobacco, the nicotine easily enters the bloodstream through the lungs, and is acting on the brain within 8-20 seconds of an inhalation. Although smoking cigarettes is often seen as the most common way to get a nicotine fix, ingesting tobacco orally or through the nasal passages by chewing or snorting it disperses more nicotine than through smoking.
nicotine and dopamineOnce nicotine hits the brain, it immediately begins to act as a stimulant. Adrenaline quickly courses through the brain, kick-starting a huge array of chemical and physical reactions. The epinephrine secreted by the adrenal glands after nicotine exposure is the same exact epinephrine that the body naturally produces during times of fear, excitement, and stress. It can provide a short lived but powerful boost within the brain. Heart rate and blood pressure go up with this adrenaline rush, along with the output of glucose and higher respiratory rates.
Nicotine also has an extremely powerful effect on dopamine output in the brain. Dopamine has been called the ‘pleasure molecule’, and it speaks to humans on a deeply primitive level. Feelings of pleasure and motivation are followed by dopamine release in the brain, and although the brains truly enjoy the pleasure in a dopamine release, the addiction lies in the motivation aspect of it.
Once the dopamine wears off, the body wants to regain the pleasurable feeling. Thus, addictions of all types are born. Nicotine leaves the body very quickly, and once it does, that pleasure and reward system practically begs to be stimulated again. Over time, nicotine builds up in the system, and the nicotine addict has to increase the intake in order to satisfy the dopamine demands. Just like with drugs of abuse like heroin or cocaine, nicotine can easily ensnare a person into a vicious cycle of addiction. The dopamine receptors in the brain can actually begin to diminish, so that less dopamine is absorbed, causing the system to demand more and more.
The use of nicotine leads different people to feel different things. Despite the fact that nicotine is a stimulant, many people say that nicotine relaxes them, and can even have a sedative effect. Others may feel more aware or alert, and some have described it as a nearly euphoric feeling.
Although nicotine is not solely responsible for all of the negative health problems encountered in tobacco users, it remains one of the most powerful. It is the primary ingredient that feeds the hardcore addiction that so many people are trapped by. While scientists are still researching and collating data about nicotine and the human body, society continues to be the force that focuses and shapes popular opinion about the potent chemical.
What is Nicotine Poisoning?
While unlikely to occur from cigarettes directly, nicotine poisoning is a risk. Nicotine, like any drug, can be overdosed. The exposure limit will depend on body weight and sensitivity, and there are various places where one might acquire nicotine levels that are too high for their body to handle.
Most cases of nicotine poisoning occur with the use of some insecticides, which isn’t a common household risk for most. Other sources may include:
The nicotine in refills may contain high levels of the substance. According to a KPBS report, the safety limits cited by the CDC may be drastically overstated, and most e-cig refills do not contain enough nicotine to kill an adult who is vaping normally. However, they may pose a risk to young children, who may become exposed to the e-liquid. For these reasons, all nicotine-related devices and products should be kept out of the reach of children.
Nicotine Gums and Patches
If one piece of gum is good, then several must be better, right? Those who are using these nicotine replacement products to quit smoking should remember that nicotine gum is not the same as the gum you find on the candy aisle. Failure to follow package or your doctor’s instructions could lead to a nicotine overdose. These gums and patches are nicotine products, and therefore should also be kept out of the reach of children.
Symptoms of Nicotine Overdose
Nicotine poisoning tends to produce symptoms that follow a pattern. Nicotine poisoning symptoms are caused by extreme stimulation of nicotine in the central and autonomous system and the neuromuscular junction. At lower doses, nicotine causes stimulating effects on the receptors present there but at higher doses or more sustained exposure, the effects are inhibitory and can lead to neuromuscular problems.
The first symptoms are usually as a result of the stimulating nature of nicotine and these symptoms include things like vomiting, hypertension, headaches, excessive salivation and even seizures. After the first phase of symptoms, other symptoms from the depressor effects of nicotine follows and these symptoms may include things like muscular weakness, central nervous system depression, paralysis, coma, labored breathing and eventually respiratory failure.
Exposure to electronic cigarettes and liquid nicotine is also fast becoming a major issue. In 2014, more than 50 percent of nicotine poisoning cases occurred in children under the age of 6. Children and toddlers who come in contact with e-cigarettes and liquid nicotine become very ill very quickly and they exhibit all the symptoms. It is harmful to them and adults should be extremely careful where they keep or place these products.
According to Medline, nicotine overdose may present many potential symptoms. These can include:
- Nausea and abdominal pain
- Restlessness or agitation
- Irregular breathing – either rapid breathing or difficulty breathing
- Burning sensation in the mouth
In severe cases, the person may stop breathing. Seizures and coma have also been reported.
How Much Nicotine Does It Take To Overdose?
Unfortunately, only 60mg is enough to be lethal. When we think about the vast variety of tobacco products, such as cigarettes, e-cigs, pipes, and nicotine patches, nicotine poisoning seems more than real. Note that nicotine poisoning rarely occurs as a result of smoking. In fact, experts claim that to reach a lethal dose, one must smoke 40 cigarettes at once or chew 15 nicotine gums, such as Nicorette. That’s because smokers absorb only one-tenth of the nicotine in a cigarette, which is not more than 1mg. Of course, many factors, such as weight and age, also should be considered.
Preventing and Dealing with Nicotine Overdose
The best way to prevent nicotine overdose is to stay away from all nicotine containing products and substances. But the reality is that nicotine use is a part of the culture now and smoking alone accounts for most of the nicotine we consume. It is important to be very careful of the quantities that are consumed and avoid taking a combination of substances and products that all contain nicotine at varying levels. Also when it comes to electronic cigarettes that make use of liquid nicotine, the user should keep careful track of the quantities and concentration of nicotine that is used.
In the event of nicotine poisoning or overdose/exposure, there are specific first aid guidelines that can be followed before seeking immediate medical attention. Upon exposure of the eye to nicotine, you should immediately remove the source of nicotine and immediately wash the eyes with plenty of water for at least 15 minutes and then seek medical attention.
If nicotine has been ingested, remove the victim from the source of exposure and ensure that the victim’s airways are unobstructed. Do not induce vomiting and do not administer antacids. Alkaline conditions only improve the absorption of nicotine. The victim will vomit spontaneously. Hydrate the victim and monitor heart function and respiratory functions. Seek medical attention immediately.
If you or someone you know may have consumed dangerous levels of nicotine, contact the poison center for information on what to do. If symptoms have already begun, call 911.
Although rare in smokers or vapers, if you ever begin to experience nausea, headache, dizziness, or any of the other symptoms listed above while consuming nicotine containing products, stop all use at once and contact your doctor immediately.
In the case of nicotine poisoning, call 911. Do not hesitate and seek help. While you’re waiting, remove the source of nicotine, and try to prevent airway obstruction. Also, wash the face of the person to keep them conscious or give them water, but do not force them to walk, or vomit. In fact, do not administer antacids, usually used for stomach problems, as they lead to a quicker nicotine absorption. If possible, collect as much information as available, and determine what products the patient has consumed.
At the ER, activated charcoal, intubation, airway support, and IV may be applied. Medicines to treat agitation are also common. The sooner one gets help, the better the chance for successful treatment and recovery.
Data shows that the calls due to nicotine liquids (for e-cigs) rose to 215 per month (2010-2014). Sadly enough, 51.1% involved kids under 5 and 42% – young adults.
If you or someone else shows any signs of nicotine overdose, call a poison center or 911.
Nicotine Poisoning: In A Nutshell
To sum up, although tobacco products are available worldwide, nicotine is as dangerous as any other illicit or prescribed drugs. Nicotine poisoning can lead to some long-term effects and death. In fact, according to data from 2014, more than 4,024 cases of toxicity have been reported (only in the U.S.). Therefore, always keep your products stored properly and away from kids and pets. Of course, the safest option to prevent nicotine poisoning is to stay away from tobacco products and quit. Nicotine-free life means a safe future!