Nicotine is the addictive substance in tobacco, cigarettes, and vapes or e-cigarettes.
When someone smokes a cigarette, their body absorbs up to 90 percent of the nicotine. Traces of nicotine will linger long after individuals no longer feel the effects.
In this article, we look at how long it takes for the body to remove nicotine, and whether it is possible to get nicotine out of your system faster.
How long does nicotine stay in the body?
Tobacco, cigarettes, and e-cigarettes contain nicotine.
Two hours after ingesting nicotine, the body will have removed around half of the nicotine. This means that nicotine has a half-life of around 2 hours.
This short half-life means that the immediate effects of nicotine go away quickly, so people soon feel like they need another dose.
When nicotine enters the body, it is broken down into more than 20 different substances, including cotinine, anabasine, and nornicotine. People eventually excrete these by-products in their urine.
Doctors can use nicotine tests to measure levels of nicotine and its by-products in a person's:
According to the American Association for Clinical Chemistry, it can take over 2 weeks for a person's blood to reach the same cotinine levels as someone who does not use tobacco. It takes several more weeks for the urine levels to become very low.
Traces of nicotine may stay in the hair for longer, though people are rarely asked to do a hair test unless they are taking part in research.
The more someone smokes, and the higher the frequency of smoking, the longer nicotine takes to leave the body.
The exact length of time it takes for nicotine to clear differs between people:
- Nicotine may stay in the body for longer in adults aged over 65 years.
- Women tend to process nicotine more quickly than men, especially if they are taking birth control pills.
- The body will take longer to remove nicotine in people who have smoked more frequently and for longer.
How long does nicotine withdrawal last?
The severity and timescale of physical withdrawal symptoms will vary, depending on how much an individual smokes.
A paper from 2010 suggests that people who smoke five or fewer cigarettes a day may not have intense physical symptoms because their bodies are less dependent on nicotine. However, they may still have emotional ties to smoking.
Symptoms of nicotine withdrawal are at their worst a few days to a couple of weeks after smoking. The first week is usually the most difficult, and symptoms gradually reduce over the following few weeks.
The physical and psychological effects of nicotine withdrawal include:
- anxiety or stress
- trouble sleeping
- difficulty focusing
- increased appetite
Once the physical symptoms are gone, and all nicotine has left a person's body, they may still feel a psychological desire to smoke. Often, this is often because they are used to the habit of smoking.
The desire for nicotine may be worse in triggering situations. Examples of these may include times of stress or when having drinks with friends. Over time, these triggers become much less powerful.
Smoking vs. vaping
Studies on inhaled nicotine levels from vapes are currently inconclusive.
Nicotine tests can also detect nicotine in the body when people have used an electronic cigarette or a vape.
Vaping is a relatively recent invention, and so little research has looked into its short- and long-term effects. Researchers do not yet know whether the body processes nicotine differently from cigarettes or vapes.
The current research has produced mixed results. Some studies say that vaping delivers less nicotine than cigarettes, while others say that the levels of cotinine and nicotine might be higher in people who use vapes.
Also, it is difficult to tell how much nicotine people inhale from vaping. This is because vape solutions contain different quantities of nicotine. Furthermore, labeling has shown inaccuracy with a -89 to 28 percent variance between the label and the actual nicotine content.
Researchers are continuing to study the following factors that may determine how much nicotine people ingest when using a vape or e-cigarette:
- The amount of nicotine in the vaping solution.
- The efficiency with which vaping devices deliver nicotine.
- Differences in how people use vaping devices, including frequency and length of inhalation.
Testing methods for nicotine
Testing of people for nicotine is sometimes done for insurance or job-related reasons. Nicotine tests measure a person's exposure to nicotine, and if they have been exposed, by how much. These tests look for traces of nicotine and other related substances, such as cotinine.
Cotinine is a more reliable measure of tobacco use because it stays in the body for much longer. The half-life of nicotine is 2 hours, while the half-life of cotinine is approximately 16 hours.
Testing can use the following different parts of the body for tissue samples:
Can you clear nicotine from the body?
The best way to pass a nicotine test is to avoid nicotine for up to 10 days before the test, as blood tests can still detect cotinine for 10 days.
There is no sure way to flush the body of nicotine quickly, but people may try maintaining a healthy lifestyle so that their body works efficiently.
The following methods may help clear nicotine from the body:
- Drink plenty of water to flush waste products from the kidneys and liver.
- Exercise to get the blood moving, boost circulation, and release waste products through sweat.
- Eat a healthful diet rich in antioxidants to help the body repair itself.
Some commercial products and herbal remedies claim to speed up the body's ability to clear nicotine from the system, but regulators have not usually tested them scientifically.
The rate at which nicotine leaves the system is affected by:
- how much nicotine a person uses and how often
- how long a person has been using tobacco products
- the person's overall health and age
It is not yet clear whether people who vape clear nicotine from their systems more rapidly than regular smokers.
Giving up nicotine can be difficult, but it is worth the challenge. The American Lung Association report that in 2015 there were 52.8 million former smokers, meaning these people no longer smoke. Hence, more people are enjoying the benefits of living a nicotine-free life every day.