Smoking Nicotine

Nicotine, an organic liquid comprised of hydrogen, carbon, nitrogen and sometimes oxygen, is a compound that occurs naturally in the tobacco plant. The medical community has deemed nicotine a drug due to its addictive properties, as well as its negative effects on the body. Although the amount of nicotine a given tobacco product contains will vary from product to product, on average, a cigarette tends to include anywhere from 8 to 20 mg of nicotine. Of this, about 1 mg enters the body.

While many of us know that nicotine is one of the primary addictive components in tobacco products, fewer of us are aware of precisely how nicotine affects and damages the body.

How Nicotine Enters the Body

Nicotine can enter the body in any of the following three ways:

  • through the lungs
  • through the mucous membranes, namely the gums and nasal cavity
  • through the skin.

The way nicotine enters your body depends on the type of tobacco product you use.

For example, while cigarettes transport nicotine to the body via the lungs, chewing tobacco allows nicotine to infiltrate the body through the mucous membranes (i.e. the gums). Similarly, nicotine patches transfer nicotine to the body through the cell receptors on the skin’s surface. Of these three options, the lungs remain the most common way that people ingest tobacco and nicotine, meaning that cigarettes are the most popular type of tobacco products.

How Nicotine Works in the Body

Once nicotine has entered the body, it immediately gets into the bloodstream, giving it access to all of the major organs of your body, including your brain. In fact, about 10 to 15 seconds after the first puff of a cigarette, smokers will usually start to feel the effects of nicotine.

What tobacco users feel when they ingest nicotine is the result of their bodies’ releasing the adrenaline hormone, which causes:

  • fast, shallow breathing
  • high blood pressure
  • increased heartbeat.

The increased presence of adrenaline in the blood also triggers the release of stored glucose, providing tobacco users with a short-term energy boost. Simultaneously, nicotine suppresses the pancreas’ release of insulin, preventing the body from re-storing released glucose. This ultimately suppresses tobacco users’ appetites.

Another biological effect of nicotine lies in its ability to slightly raise your “at rest,” or basal, metabolic rate. Although some may, as a result, see using tobacco as a quick way to loose weight, keep in mind that nicotine has a vast number of associated negative side effects that far outweigh any possible weight loss benefit.

Given the dramatic ways in which nicotine alters the body chemistry, it’s no wonder that the nicotine in tobacco is so habit forming. Anyone who has been around an irritable tobacco user who can’t get a nicotine fix has seen just how powerful the physical addiction to nicotine can be.

Nicotine Addiction

In addition to being habit-forming, nicotine is also a type of drug that the body can build up a tolerance for. In simple terms, the longer a person uses nicotine, the more nicotine he needs to ingest to get the same physical and psychological effects.

Similarly, nicotine affects the body’s chemistry, changing the way that cells respond. This means that habitual tobacco users physically need nicotine for proper biological functioning. Once a person has broken his nicotine habit, his body will adjust and re-learn how to properly function without the need for nicotine.

How the Body Gets Rid of Nicotine

After ingesting nicotine, traceable amounts of this drug will remain in the body for about 6 hours. During this time, the body disposes of nicotine by:

  • excreting it through urine
  • filtering the blood through the kidneys
  • metabolizing it in the lungs
  • processing it in the liver.

As nicotine levels drop in the body, addicts will reach for another cigarette or more of their preferred tobacco product to boost the nicotine levels in their bodies once again.

The only way to break your physical and psychological dependence on nicotine is to quit using tobacco.


Meeker-O’Connell, Anne (n.d.). How Nicotine Works. Retrieved January 2, 2008 from the HowStuffWorks Website: