Cravings (the urge to have a cigarette) and withdrawal symptoms are a normal part of giving up any addictive drug and can be quite severe. They are the main reason that most ‘cold turkey’ quit attempts fail in the first week.
As a smoker, you get used to having a certain level of nicotine in your body. You control that level by how much you smoke and how deeply you inhale. When you quit, cravings develop when your body wants nicotine. Also, when you see people smoking or are around other triggers, you may get nicotine cravings.
Cravings can begin within an hour or two of your last cigarette. Each craving only lasts 2-3 minutes, although that may feel like forever! Cravings get weaker and less frequent over time but can last for many years.
Nicotine withdrawal symptoms are also mainly due to a lack of nicotine. They are at their worst in the first 2-3 days and typically last 2-4 weeks. It is helpful to see these as recovery symptoms, a sign of the body healing itself, and to remind yourself that they will soon settle.
Common withdrawal symptoms are:
- Irritability, frustration or anger
- Difficulty concentrating
- Increased appetite and weight gain (tends to be long lasting)
- Depressed mood
- Disturbed sleep (especially waking through the night or intense dreams)
Some people also get
- Mouth ulcers
- Head cold symptoms: cough, sore throat, runny nose, sneezing, headache, fever
- Cravings for sweet foods
Cravings and withdrawal symptoms can usually be treated successfully with anti-smoking medication and behavioural strategies:
All the anti-smoking medications work by reducing cravings and withdrawal symptoms to keep you comfortable while you focus on breaking the smoking habit. Medications usually give good relief, but if symptoms continue to be troublesome, you may need a larger dose or a combination of medications. The symptoms are not always fully controlled but are usually manageable. Click here to learn more about medication.
- Behavioural strategies
A variety of techniques are available to help with cravings, such as distraction (thinking and doing something else), avoiding situations or people that trigger cravings, delaying a cigarette and escaping from a difficult situation. Click here for more about behavioural strategies.
1) American Psychiatric Association. DSM-5. Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed). 2013
2) Hughes JR. Effects of abstinence from tobacco: valid symptoms and time course. Nicotine & Tobacco Research 2006
3) McRobbie H. The relationship between smoking cessation and mouth ulcers. Nicotine & Tobacco Research 2004
4) Ussher M. Increases in common cold symptoms and mouth ulcers following smoking cessation. Tobacco Control 2003
5) Hajek P. Stopping smoking can cause constipation. Addiction 2003
Last Modified: 31-05-2017