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Tobacco addiction signs, symptoms, and treatments

Reading time: 9 mins

Tobacco addiction is a compulsive need to keep using tobacco products, mainly cigarettes, even when a person is aware of the health problems they cause. As a substance use disorder, tobacco addiction is widely prevalent but poorly understood.

Symptoms of tobacco addiction range from cravings and withdrawal symptoms when not using tobacco products to mood changes. It’s not uncommon for persons with tobacco addiction to avoid people and situations that don’t allow tobacco use.

Besides biological causes that involve dopamine and reward center, other causes of tobacco addiction include peer pressure, environmental, and even mental health problems as well as other substance abuse disorders.

Tobacco addiction has a major impact on a person’s health and wellbeing. This addiction can increase cancer risk, cause heart problems, speed up the aging process, and also harm a person’s finances. 

Fortunately, it’s possible to overcome tobacco addiction with strong social support and a well-structured treatment that also includes counseling.

What is tobacco addiction?

Tobacco addiction is a type of substance use disorder characterized by a strong urge to consume tobacco products, regardless of the health consequences they cause. In most cases, people get addicted to tobacco through smoking.

A fact sheet on current cigarette smoking among adults in the United States from the CDC states that ​​there are currently 28.3 million adult smokers in the US, whereas more than 16 million adults have a smoking-related illness.

Tobacco addiction is among the “socially approved” addictions because these products are legal and easy to buy. For that reason, most people don’t even think their smoking habits are a problem. But, like any other addiction, this condition can have a significant impact on the health and wellbeing of an individual.

What are the causes of tobacco addiction?

The causes of tobacco addiction can be attributed to various factors, which may be biological, psychological, or social in nature. The causes of tobacco addiction are listed below.

  • Biological causes: Tobacco use induces neurochemical changes through stimulation of nicotinic acetylcholine receptors, which prompt the release of neurotransmitters that produce pleasure and satisfaction, according to the third chapter of the book Neurobiology of Addictions published in 2016 by the Oxford University Press . Dopamine is one of these receptors and it influences the brain’s reward system. With repeated use, these receptors weaken meaning a person needs to use more tobacco products to feel the same effects. This paves the road to tobacco addiction. 
  • Psychological causes: High levels of negative emotions such as anxiety, depression, and anger are linked to smoking behaviors. Many people turn to tobacco when dealing with these symptoms in the hope they will become calmer and more relaxed. Eventually, this can lead to habit, reduced expression of receptors, higher use, and eventually, dependence.
  • Social or environmental causes: Growing up in a household or family where tobacco use is considered normal or even encouraged can lead to tobacco addiction. Socializing with persons who smoke or use other tobacco products and peer pressure are also some of the causes of tobacco addiction.

What are the effects of tobacco addiction?

The effects of tobacco addiction are numerous and show the true scope of this form of substance abuse. These effects of tobacco addiction are listed below:

  • Physical effects: weakened immune system, cardiovascular problems, impaired eye health, sexual problems such as erectile dysfunction, respiratory diseases, bad breath
  • Psychological effects: worsening of mental health problems such as anxiety, depression, ADHD
  • Short-term effects: relaxation, improved mood and concentration, decreased stress and anger
  • Long-term effects: strained relationships due to tobacco addiction and avoidance of situations or events that don’t allow smoking, severe health problems such as lung cancer, problems with mental health and wellbeing. Fertility-related difficulties and pregnancy complications are also common effects of tobacco addiction, a 2018 article titled, “Nicotine Addiction: What You Need to Know” from Healthline reports.

What are the signs and symptoms of tobacco addiction?

Signs and symptoms of tobacco addiction tend to be more visible than manifestations of other substance use disorders. That happens because this type of addiction is more difficult to hide. The most common signs and symptoms of tobacco addiction are listed below.

  • Inability to stop using tobacco products, despite making attempts to quit
  • Continuing using tobacco products despite health problems
  • Strong cravings for tobacco
  • Withdrawal symptoms when trying to quit
  • Giving up activities or refusing to attend events/places where tobacco use is not allowed
  • Using tobacco products to deal with stress or feel normal
  • Gradually increasing tobacco use
  • Spending most of the time during the day using tobacco products, at home, work, and other places

Tobacco products are legal, easily obtained, and people can consume them in public. That’s why the symptoms of tobacco addiction are easily noticeable but tend to be overlooked or ignored. Other possible tobacco addiction symptoms include:

  1. Using tobacco to deal with negative stimuli in life e.g. stress and anxiety
  2. Unsuccessful attempts to quit due to withdrawal symptoms
  3. Continuing with tobacco use despite health problems 
  4. Prioritizing tobacco use over people, places, or situations that don’t allow them.
tobacco addiction signs and symptoms

How to overcome tobacco addiction?

In order to overcome tobacco addiction, a person needs strong social support, an article on nicotine dependence from Mayo Clinic explains. A person with tobacco addiction needs encouragement from their family, friends, and even coworkers. This is particularly important to remember. Tobacco addiction is like any other form of addictive behavior and an affected individual shouldn’t be judged or criticized.

Persons with addiction to tobacco have a lot of options to overcome their condition. Joining support groups is one of them. Support groups allow people with the same problems to share their experiences and offer support to one another. 

Nicotine Anonymous is a good choice. Today, many groups on social media platforms are also available to persons with tobacco addiction. Joining online groups is useful for extra support between the NA meetings.

A healthy lifestyle is also an important aspect of overcoming tobacco addiction. Regular exercise and a well-balanced diet help improve physical and mental health. It’s also useful to identify triggers or circumstances when the need for tobacco intensifies. Then, it’s easier to avoid or reduce exposure to those situations.

What are the risk factors for tobacco addiction?

The risk factors for tobacco addiction encompass different aspects of a person’s life that may contribute to the development of the condition. The risk factors for tobacco addiction are listed below.

  • Age: a person is more likely to develop tobacco addiction if they start using products like cigarettes at a young age
  • Slow nicotine metabolism: According to a 2006 study by Karp et al., published in the Tobacco Control journal, persons with slow nicotine metabolism are more likely to become tobacco-dependent.
  • Mental illness: Depression, anxiety, and other mental illnesses make a person more likely to become addicted to tobacco. For some people, smoking is a way to cope with anxiety, depressive symptoms, and other manifestations of mental illnesses.
  • Genetics: Addiction to tobacco or nicotine has a genetic component, a 2010 study on the role of genetics in nicotine dependence from the Current Cardiovascular Risk Reports confirmed. An individual is more likely to develop tobacco addiction if their family members also have it. 
  • Substance abuse: Persons who abuse other substances such as drugs or alcohol are also more likely to become dependent on tobacco.
  • Marketing and media exposure: High exposure to ads, promotions, and the presence of tobacco products in media can increase the risk of addiction, particularly among younger persons.

How do you treat tobacco addiction?

Treating tobacco addiction involves a combination of behavioral treatments and medications, according to an article titled, “What are treatments for tobacco dependence?” from the National Institute on Drug Abuse. Behavioral treatments that work for tobacco addiction and smoking cessation include cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), motivational interviewing (MI), and mindfulness. 

The main purpose of CBT is to help patients identify triggers and teach them coping mechanisms to resist cravings or prevent relapse. On the other hand, MI helps persons with tobacco addiction explore and resolve the ambivalence regarding smoking cessation. This therapy also increases motivation to make healthy changes.

Mindfulness is based on increasing awareness and detachment from thoughts, sensations, and cravings that could lead to relapse. Behavioral treatments, i.e. therapies, are provided in individual or group settings. 

It’s also useful to mention that telephone support or quitlines and web-based services are also helpful for persons with tobacco addiction. Medications for tobacco addiction include nicotine replacement therapy (NRT) and antidepressants or other drugs to treat underlying mental health disorders.

Some NRTs are available in the over-the-counter form (patch, lozenges, spray) whereas others require a doctor’s prescription. They work to stimulate the brain receptors that respond to nicotine. As a result, these agents reduce the severity of cravings and other withdrawal symptoms.

Medications are not used on their own. Again, the combination of behavioral treatments and medications works best for the treatment of tobacco addiction.

Why is using tobacco addictive?

Using tobacco is addictive because it contains nicotine, the main chemical in tobacco plants. Tobacco is a common name for plants in the Nicotiana genus of the Solanaceae family. Leaves of the tobacco plants are dried, which is why the plant is used for smoking or chewing.

The main advantage of tobacco is that it may provide a sense of relaxation. There are a lot more disadvantages. Relaxation is only short-term. All forms of tobacco are harmful and may jeopardize a person’s health and wellbeing. 

According to an article titled, “Nicotine Is Why Tobacco Products Are Addictive” from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, nicotine in tobacco is highly addictive because it changes the way the brain works and causes cravings for more of it.

Nicotine is quickly absorbed and causes an adrenaline rush, but also triggers the release of dopamine. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that regulates mood and behavior; it stimulates the brain’s reward center.

Tobacco products also contain acetaldehyde, which increases the addictive effects of nicotine, evidence such as a 2007 paper by Talhout et al., from European Neuropsychopharmacology confirms. In other words, tobacco and its products contain other chemicals that make nicotine even more addictive.


When is tobacco addiction counseling necessary?

Tobacco addiction counseling is necessary when a person realizes they are unable to quit smoking on their own. Many persons with tobacco addiction believe quitting is easy and try to do it without anyone’s help, but these efforts tend to be unsuccessful.

Persons with addiction to tobacco should consider counseling when they acknowledge the existence of a problem and need healthy coping mechanisms to make the treatment successful. Counseling is a great way to improve mental health and use the learned skills to resist cravings.

It also helps a patient learn more about the underlying factors that aggravated their tobacco addiction.

What are the symptoms of tobacco addiction withdrawal?

The most common tobacco addiction withdrawal symptoms include intense cravings, headache, nausea, and dizziness. Other after-effects of tobacco withdrawal include feelings of irritability, anxiety, and anger. Some people may feel frustrated or depressed. 

Symptoms of tobacco addiction withdrawal tend to vary from one person to another. The frequency of use and the amount of nicotine in tobacco products determines the severity of withdrawal symptoms, according to an article on nicotine withdrawal from Cleveland Clinic

Difficulty sleeping and concentrating are also among the after-effects of tobacco addiction withdrawal. Other symptoms include tiredness, restlessness, boredom, increased appetite and weight gain, constipation or diarrhea, chest tightness, cough, sore throat, nasal drip, and dry mouth.

Tobacco addiction withdrawal symptoms begin a few hours after the last use of tobacco products. Their intensity is at its highest two to three days after. The withdrawal symptoms may last a few days or up to a few weeks in some people. 

The most important thing is that the intensity of symptoms tends to decrease every day, particularly after day three.

The first day without smoking is an emotional rollercoaster full of ups and downs. While motivated to keep going, strong cravings tend to make it difficult. This is also the time when people regain their appetite. Some people also have headaches or feel dizzy and tired at this time.

And how does it feel after two days of not smoking? Withdrawal symptoms are intense at this point. A person may feel strong cravings, irritability, anger, and frustration. Headaches are also common at this time. However, 48 hours of not smoking also increases the sense of smell and taste. While two days of not smoking can be intense, it’s useful to bear in mind it gets better after that.

How does tobacco addiction damage the human body?

Tobacco addiction damages the human body due to nicotine and other chemicals found in tobacco products. For example, smoking can damage the airways and alveoli (small air sacs) thereby causing lung damage, according to a fact sheet on the health effects of cigarette smoking from the CDC.

Due to its invasive impact on the lungs, tobacco addiction can lead to respiratory illnesses and lung cancer. Besides lung cancer, tobacco addiction can increase the risk of other forms of cancers including those affecting bladder, blood, cervix, stomach, pancreas, liver, kidneys, larynx, esophagus, colon, just to name a few.

Nicotine in tobacco products constricts blood vessels and impairs blood flow. This puts a person at a higher risk of cardiovascular diseases. Appearance also suffers due to tobacco addiction. A person with this problem tends to have bad breath and their clothes and hair also smell like tobacco. Plus, tobacco addiction speeds up the aging process and contributes to dry and dull skin complexion.

Does tobacco addiction affect a person’s financial aspect?

Yes, tobacco addiction affects a person’s life in financial aspects, too. The average cost of a pack of cigarettes is $6.28. That means a person who buys one pack of cigarettes a day spends $188 every month or $2,292 annually. Doing so for 10 years means a person with tobacco addiction spends around $22,920.

The problem becomes even worse if we bear in mind that one pack of cigarettes a day is not enough for most individuals with tobacco addiction. Tobacco addiction is a major economic burden.

The health topic on tobacco from the CDC reports that the annual cost of smoking-related ailments in the United States exceeds $300 billion. This includes approximately $156 billion in lost productivity and over $225 billion for direct medical care for adults.

What is the difference between tobacco and nicotine?

The main difference between tobacco and nicotine is that the latter is the main chemical in tobacco plants. Tobacco products contain other ingredients too, besides nicotine. They include acetone, acetic acid, ammonia, arsenic, butane, benzene, cadmium, lead, formaldehyde, methanol, tar, and toluene,  according to an article titled, “What’s In a Cigarette?” from the American Lung Association.

In other words, nicotine is the main active ingredient in tobacco. Tobacco is a plant whose leaves are made for making cigarettes and other products. These products can contain other compounds. Nicotine addiction is widespread due to easy access to cigarettes.

What are the benefits of quitting tobacco addiction?

The benefits of quitting tobacco addiction include a better relationship with friends and family, a rich social life, and improved finances.

Quitting tobacco also improves both physical and psychological health and wellbeing. As a person overcomes this addiction, their risk of cardiovascular diseases drops. In addition to improved cardiovascular health, quitting tobacco addiction aids in diabetes management, strengthens the immune system, and reduces the risk of sexual dysfunctions and pregnancy complications.

In cancer patients, quitting tobacco addiction may improve prognosis and overall outcomes. At the same time, quitting smoking reduces cancer risk in those who do not have it.