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What to Expect - Withdrawal Symptoms

"When you come to the end of your rope, 

tie a knot and hang on."
--Franklin D. Roosevelt


The short answer is NICOTINE--the chemical that causes you to become addicted to cigarettes.  Nicotine affects your brain, changes your mood, and causes you to want more and more.  When you smoke, your body immediately responds to the nicotine, but this "high" only lasts about 10 seconds!!  Because it is so addictive, nicotine also causes unpleasant withdrawal side effects when you try to quit.  HOWEVER, most of these symptoms will not last long and they should all be gone within a few weeks. 

In addition to the physical chemical addiction, smokers may rely on smoking to fill social needs.  Can you imagine not having something to do with friends on work breaks, when you are driving in the car, or when you drink your morning coffee? You might feel like smoking helps you stay slim, relieve stress, and prevent boredom.  If this is true for you, TIPS can help you find healthy alternatives and coping skills.

In order for you to gauge your dependence and predict how you will respond to quitting, it might be helpful for you to take the Fagerstrom Test for Nicotine Dependence .

Below are some typical withdrawal symptoms, along with ways you can handle them!


Why You Feel It

How Long It Might Last


Feeling grumpy, irritable, anxious, nervous, restless, tense, shaky

Nicotine is leaving your system

A few weeks

Deep breaths; Count to 10; Exercise; Get Plenty Rest; Avoid caffeine; Be easy on yourself & patient with others; Warn others it is a withdrawal symptom; Keep your hands busy

Cough, Dry/Sore throat, Nasal drip

Excess tar, mucus is being cleared from your lungs

A few days

Drink more fluids (water); use hard candy/cough drops; focus on having clean lungs

Inability to concentrate/pay attention/focus; Feeling spaced out or in a fog

You are not getting stimulation from nicotine; Carbon Monoxide is leaving your system

A few weeks (worst in the first 3 days)

Breathe deeply; Plan ahead; Make notes/reminders; Get plenty rest; Take breaks; Work for short intervals; Use caution when driving

Fatigue; Feeling weak; No energy

No longer having a stimulant drug in your system

A few weeks

Deep breaths and exercise to energize; Get extra rest

Feeling light-headed/dizzy; Headaches

More oxygen is reaching your brain

A couple weeks

Get fresh air; Drink plenty water; Sit down when feeling dizzy; Rest

Trouble sleeping/Insomnia

Nicotine alters the brain and affects sleep patterns

A few weeks

Avoid caffeine after noon; Get more exercise; Do relaxation exercises before bed; if you can't fall asleep, don't just lie in bed, get up & do something until you feel drowsy

Constipation; Gas; Stomach pains

Decreased intestinal activity

A couple weeks

Increase fiber (fruit, veggies, bran/whole grains) in your diet; Drink lots of water

Increased hunger

Nicotine is a synthetic appetite suppressant; the urge to smoke sometimes mimics hunger

Up to several weeks

Learn healthy eating habits; Snack on healthy foods; Distract yourself; Recognize these feelings may not be due to hunger; Exercise; Drink water

Cigarette cravings

You just want another cigarette-early on it might be an urge to curb withdrawal symptoms; at any time during recovery it may be out of habit or be triggered by a situation in which you used to smoke

Each craving only lasts 3 to 5 minutes! You may have cravings every now and then for months, but they are more frequent in the first few days

Take deep breaths; Distract yourself; Know that these CRAVINGS WILL PASS QUICKLY!

Adapted from: American Psychiatric Association: Diagnostic & Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fourth Edition: Text Revision. Washington, DC, American Psychiatric Association, 2000.


Many women have other withdrawal symptoms besides the physical ones. This is because for many people, smoking is a way to relieve stress or deal with unpleasant feelings such as anger, boredom, loneliness, sadness, or anxiety.  It may seem that smoking is the ONLY or BEST way to relieve stress. TIPS would encourage you to consider and attempt the following alternatives for dealing with stress.

  • Practice relaxation exercises, such as: deep breathing, stretching, progressive relaxation, meditation, guided imagery.

  • Make time for YOU: pamper yourself, make yourself a priority, do things that make you happy.

  • Start a journal: writing down your feelings and experiences is a very helpful way to work through anger, anxiety, sadness, and other emotions.

  • Take a walk or exercise.

  • Talk to a friend or others in your support network.

  • Read a book.

  • Listen to music.

  • Take a bath.

  • Squeeze a TIPS stress ball.

  • Make lists and practice time management: write down things you need to do or that are making you stressed. Decide which things need immediate attention and prioritize your list. Don't let worrying about the small stuff overwhelm you or your schedule.

  • Laugh: it releases "feel good" chemicals in your brain.

  • Boost your self-confidence and practice being assertive. Feel good about who are you and do not be self-critical!  Repeat affirmation such as, "I am strong, and my baby and I are worth it!"

  • Get plenty of sleep.

  • Practice good nutrition: the food we put in our bodies affects how we feel.

  • Focus on the present moment: this is the only thing you can influence in your life. Worrying about the future or the past does nothing to change it, but it does do something to change the present--it makes it unpleasant.

  • Plan something enjoyable to do EVERY DAY.


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