Nicotine dependence — also called tobacco dependence — is an addiction to tobacco products caused by the drug nicotine. Nicotine dependence means you can’t stop using the substance, even though it’s causing you harm.
Nicotine produces physical and mood-altering effects in your brain that are temporarily pleasing. These effects make you want to use tobacco and lead to dependence. At the same time, stopping tobacco use causes withdrawal symptoms, including irritability and anxiety.
While it’s the nicotine in tobacco that causes nicotine dependence, the toxic effects of tobacco result from other substances in tobacco. Smokers have much higher rates of heart disease, stroke and cancer than nonsmokers do.
Regardless of how long you’ve smoked, stopping smoking can improve your health. Many effective treatments for nicotine dependence are available to help you manage withdrawal and stop smoking for good. Ask your doctor for help.
Nicotine is the chemical in tobacco that keeps you smoking. Nicotine is very addictive when delivered to the lungs by inhaling tobacco smoke. It increases the release of brain chemicals called neurotransmitters, which help regulate mood and behavior. One of these neurotransmitters is dopamine, which may improve your mood and activate feelings of pleasure. Experiencing these effects from nicotine in tobacco is what makes tobacco so addictive.
Nicotine dependence involves behavioral as well as physical factors. Behaviors and cues that you may associate with smoking include:
- Certain times of the day, such as first thing in the morning, with morning coffee or during breaks at work
- After a meal
- Drinking alcohol
- Certain places or friends
- Talking on the phone
- Stressful situations or when you’re feeling down
- Sight or smell of a burning cigarette
- Driving your car
To overcome your dependence on tobacco, you need to deal with the behaviors and routines that you associate with smoking.
In some people, using any amount of tobacco can quickly lead to nicotine dependence. Signs that you may be addicted include:
- You can’t stop smoking. You’ve made one or more serious, but unsuccessful, attempts to stop.
- You experience withdrawal symptoms when you try to stop. Your attempts at stopping have caused physical and mood-related signs and symptoms, such as strong cravings, anxiety, irritability, restlessness, difficulty concentrating, depressed mood, frustration, anger, increased hunger, insomnia, constipation or diarrhea.
- You keep smoking despite health problems. Even though you’ve developed problems with your lungs or your heart, you haven’t been able to stop.
- You give up social or recreational activities in order to smoke. You may stop going to smoke-free restaurants or stop socializing with certain family members or friends because you can’t smoke in these locations or situations.
When to see a doctor
You’re not alone if you’ve tried to stop smoking but haven’t been able to stop for good. Most smokers make many attempts to stop smoking before they achieve stable, long-term abstinence from smoking.
You’re more likely to stop for good if you follow a treatment plan that addresses both the physical and the behavioral aspects of nicotine dependence. Using medications and working with a tobacco treatment specialist will significantly boost your chances of success.
Ask your doctor to help you develop a treatment plan that works for you or to advise you on where to get help to stop smoking.