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Can you overdose on nicotine?

Despite growing preventive campaigns against tobacco use, this habit claims more than eight million deaths each year.

One of the main factors responsible for this addiction is nicotine. Here we review what the science says about this substance and we explain what effects it can cause in your body.

Nicotine is an alkaloid, that is, an organic compound that can be found in many plants, such as tomato, eggplant, pepper, potato, or cauliflower.

However, the best-known variant that is found in the highest concentration is that of the tobacco leaf (Nicotiana tabacum), which constitutes about 5% of the weight of the plant and 3% when it is dry.

Tobacco can be smoked, either in cigarettes, cigars, or pipes, or chewed, using products such as snuff (which can also be snorted), dip or snus.

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Another form of consumption that brought the new millennium with it is electronic cigarettes, a system created in China in 2004 that uses a battery to heat a liquid solution and turn it into vapor.

Approximately 41 million people use e-cigarettes. | Photo: IStock

Using any of the above options, the body is exposed to nicotine, which, due to its addictive effects, makes it difficult to quit.

When this substance enters the body, it is quickly absorbed into the bloodstream, where it begins to stimulate the adrenal glands to release the hormone epinephrine, better known as adrenaline.

This causes an overstimulation of the nervous system and certain physiological effects:

  • Release of dopamine in the pleasure and motivation areas of the brain, for this reason, it is often said that an effect is felt similar to that which occurs when people take other types of drugs, such as cocaine or heroin.
  • It increases heart rate, heart muscle oxygen consumption, and blood pressure levels, which is linked to an increased risk of heart attacks and strokes.
  • It is related to an increased risk of diabetes, since it affects the production of insulin by the pancreas, favoring “spikes” in blood sugar.
  • It can increase the levels of beta-endorphin, a hormone that acts as a pain moderator, reducing the transmission and effectiveness of sensory stimuli. This would also help relieve anxiety.
  • Because it increases the activity of the neurotransmitters acetylcholine and norepinephrine, it is believed that it could improve memory and concentration. However, that feeling of alertness or wakefulness can trigger euphoria.

Another little-known effect of nicotine is the possibility of causing an overdose.

This occurs when a person uses too much of a drug and undergoes a toxic reaction that causes serious harmful symptoms or even death.

In the case of nicotine, it can occur when chewing gum or nicotine patches used to stop smoking or ingesting the liquid from electric cigarettes.

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For this reason, nicotine overdose is more common in young children who use it accidentally. Its symptoms include:

  • Increase or decrease in heart rate.
  • Fainting.
  • Weakness.
  • Trouble breathing
  • Headache.
  • Vomiting

If someone is suspected of having nicotine poisoning, a healthcare professional should be consulted as soon as possible.

How to treat addiction

Although health professionals encourage users to stop using tobacco, many agree that cutting out abruptly would not be the best solution.

Different studies find that this can enhance withdrawal symptoms: anxiety, cravings, depression, irritability, bad mood, feeling empty or uneasy, and trouble concentrating.

For this reason, health authorities recommend opting for a combination of behavioral treatments, such as self-help books, professional care or group therapies, and medications, such as bupropion (Zyban®) and varenicline (Chantix®).

There are also nicotine replacement therapies, in which the aforementioned transdermal patches, inhalers, lozenges and nasal sprays are used.

These products work by releasing a small, controlled dose of nicotine, with the goal of gradually relieving withdrawal symptoms.

Sources consulted: US Food and Drug Administration (FDA), US National Library of Medicine, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Mayo Clinic, National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) .

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