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A Profile of Nicotine

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Updated June 27, 2014

Written or reviewed by a board-certified physician. See About.com's Medical Review Board.

What Nicotine Is:

Nicotine is a colorless, poisonous chemical, derived from the tobacco plant. Nicotine is highly addictive.

How Nicotine is Used:

Nicotine is used medicinally in nicotine replacement therapies such as the nicotine patch and nicotine gum. Nicotine is also used as an insecticide.

How Nicotine Affects Brain Chemistry:

When a person inhales cigarette smoke, the nicotine in the smoke is rapidly absorbed into the bloodstream and starts affecting the brain within 10 seconds. This results in a number of chemical reactions that involve hormones and neurotransmitters such as adrenaline, dopamine and insulin. Within minutes, the nicotine level in the blood drops and the smoker begins to experience feelings of nicotine withdrawal, prompting the urge to light up again. Smoking "pleasure" in reality is simply the relief felt when the nicotine level in the bloodstream is replenished.

How Much Nicotine is in Tobacco Products:

The nicotine content in tobacco products varies widely. A manufactured cigarette contains approximately 10 milligrams of nicotine, while a typical cigar has 100 to 200 milligrams of nicotine. Some premium cigars have as much as 400 milligrams of nicotine in them. People who use smokeless tobacco (chew), absorb three to four times the amount of nicotine as do their smoking counterparts, on average.

Nicotine is Extremely Poisonous:

One drop of pure nicotine is enough to kill a person. Smokers receive much smaller doses than that in tobacco products, however. For instance, a cigarette contains approximately 10 milligrams of nicotine, but only one or two milligrams is inhaled directly by the smoker.

Nicotine poisoning most often occurs in young children who accidentally chew on nicotine patches or gum.

Symptoms of Nicotine Poisoning:

Symptoms of nicotine poisoning include:
  • Muscular twitching
  • Weakness
  • Convulsions
  • Coma
  • Fainting
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Rapid breathing
  • No breathing
  • Abdominal cramps
  • Vomiting
  • Drooling (increased salivation)
  • Burning sensation in mouth
  • Rapid and pounding heartbeat followed by slow heart rate
  • Elevated blood pressure followed by decreased blood pressure
  • Confusion
  • Depression
  • Headache
  • Agitation, restlessness, or excitement

What To Do if You Suspect Nicotine Poisoning:

If you suspect nicotine poisoning, call your local hospital emergency room, or 1-800-222-1222 anywhere in the United States. This national hotline number will put you in touch with experts in poisoning who can advise you about what actions to take.

This hotline is a free and confidential service. All local poison control centers in the United States use this national number. If you have any questions about poisoning or poison prevention, don't hesitate to call. It does not need to be an emergency. You can call for any reason, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

Sources:

NIDA Research Report Series - Tobacco Addiction. 2006. National Institute on Drug Abuse.

Nicotine. 19 January, 2007. Medline Plus.

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