About withdrawal

When you quit smoking, the absence of nicotine can create withdrawal symptoms. You may become irritable, have trouble concentrating or sleeping, or even experience physical symptoms such as headaches, nasal congestion, and constipation.

Remember: These symptoms generally lessen after a couple of weeks. Hang in there! If you feel like giving up or if the symptoms persist or worsen, consult your doctor or pharmacist. For more advice or support, you can call the iQuitnow helpline at 1-866-527-7383. And don't forget that there are also apps that can help you get through this period.

The following advice was provided by iQuitnow helpline counsellors in answer to Challenge participants’ questions in past years.

How long does it take for the desire or urge to smoke to disappear?


The obsessive desire to smoke is usually more frequent during the first two weeks after quitting and then has a tendency to fade out. This doesn’t mean you won’t ever have a desire to smoke again, but with time, the need will be weaker and appear easier for you to control.

To succeed in stopping the desire to smoke, it is good to know the things that trigger the desire: seeing tobacco products, seeing people smoke or being with friends who smoke, being in situations of stress, fatigue, conflict, emotional situations, etc. The fact that you know these triggers should help you work out and apply strategies that help you face situations that make you more vulnerable.

Here are some suggestions to allow you to control or reduce the intensity and duration of desires to smoke:

  • React quickly (in less than 10 seconds) when a desire arises to limit the intensity. Remember that desires to smoke come in waves, are brief and, as a result, they don’t last.
  • Get over it! A desire to smoke never killed anyone.
  • Repeat slogans over and over. For example: “I am now a non-smoker.” or “Cigarettes are no longer a part of my life.”
  • Review your list of reasons for quitting smoking: the benefits related to not smoking and the inconveniences of smoking. This will be even more effective if your list of reasons is placed in a frequently-used location such as a work desk or on the fridge, and it could be stored in your purse or wallet.
  • Visualize yourself in pleasant situations such as on vacation, in relaxing or successful situations, moments with family and loved ones...
  • Self-encouragement: Be proud of yourself when you resist and celebrate small victories by rewarding yourself.

I quit smoking and I’m experiencing some really disagreeable heartburn. To make things worse, I always feel as if I have phlegm stuck in my throat and I feel sick to my stomach. Is this normal?


Heartburn is a common symptom of withdrawal. The following suggestions can help reduce it until your digestive system returns to normal:

  • If possible, avoid greasy, spicy or acidic foods.
  • Avoid large meals. Try more frequent, smaller meals.
  • Eat slowly: take the time to chew everything well and don’t overload your stomach.
  • Reduce your consumption of alcohol and never take alcohol on an empty stomach.
  • The secretions that are causing you discomfort are related to the detoxification that starts as soon as you quit smoking. In fact, the bronchial passages are covered with small cells which secrete mucus that traps polluting agents, in the same way that sticky paper catches flies. To get this mucus to rise in the trachea, a system of vibrating lashes beats in rhythm to shift the mucus, as if on a moving carpet. When we smoke, these lashes are paralyzed, the mucus builds up and its evacuation can only take place through coughing, which is often associated with smoking. When we quit smoking, these lashes begin working again to clean out the lungs by moving the mucus toward the trachea and producing the disagreeable feeling of having a blocked throat.

Drink a lot of water to help the detoxification or make yourself a thyme infusion if your throat is irritated. Finally, tell yourself these symptoms won’t last forever and that they are a sign your body is cleansing itself, adapting to your new life as a non-smoker.

Since I quit smoking I’m impatient and I find everyone is a pain... I’m just not the same person anymore!


You are not the only person to show irritability as a withdrawal symptom. Many people feel touchy, more easily provoked and have an ever-diminishing amount of patience. Some are even tempted to start smoking again, just to avoid looking like someone who is always on edge and about to explode.

Don’t give in! Remember that these intense reactions are only normal: a part of the process to free you from cigarettes. Ask those close to you or your colleagues to be patient and mention that your behaviour, due to a lack of nicotine, is only temporary and should improve within two or three weeks.

Here are some suggestions to help you return to being a calm person:

  • Ask yourself what the cause of your irritability is and find a safety valve other than the cigarette. Express your feelings. For example: share your experience with someone in whom you have confidence.
  • Move, walk, dance. In short: find ways to reduce your tension.
  • Do things for yourself and reward yourself often.
  • Take deep breaths or practice 4-4-8 breathing several times (breathe in through the nose for 4 seconds, hold your breath for 4 seconds, and exhale through the mouth for 8 seconds).
  • Make time to relax.

Keep in mind the reasons why you quit smoking. Tell yourself it’s only a rough period to get through and that you will soon return to your behaviour of earlier times, but without the cigarettes.

I’ve had insomnia since I quit smoking... Is this normal and how long can I expect it to last?


Some people have trouble sleeping or dream a lot more than usual when they quit smoking. Nicotine has a direct effect on the central nervous system and especially perturbs the sleep cycle. When you quit smoking, the body may be disturbed for several weeks before resuming its normal cycle.

Even if these symptoms last a short time, there’s nothing pleasant about them. Be patient and reassure yourself with the knowledge that studies have shown that non-smokers or ex-smokers have a deeper sleep that is more refreshing than do smokers. Thus, within a short time you will be more rested and have more energy to do things than before.

Here are some suggestions to help you sleep better:

  • Enjoy a relaxed atmosphere before going to bed.
  • Only go to bed if you feel tired.
  • Practice a physical activity during the day, ideally not too close to your bedtime.
  • Eat and drink moderately in the evening and avoid taking stimulants such as coffee, soft drinks with caffeine and alcohol.
  • If you use patches, verify the dosage with your pharmacist or healthcare professional. Insomnia may be caused by an overdose of nicotine.

Other factors may also be at play, so if your sleep problems persist or intensify, by all means consult a physician.

Is it normal to feel a little down when quitting smoking?


In fact, the way nicotine works on the brain could very well be the reason. In short, nicotine interferes with the brain’s reward system and generates an additional dose of dopamine. This dopamine surplus has a direct effect on a person’s humour and on the ephemeral feeling of well-being that a smoker gets with each cigarette. We can compare the effect to that of a roller coaster: when you are at the top you feel the excitation and anticipation of pleasure, and when you are at the bottom you only aspire to climbing back up and no longer feeling the pain of withdrawal.

To diminish the unpleasant state related to tobacco withdrawal, the ex-smoker has to relearn to produce dopamine naturally, without needing nicotine to do it. Physical exercise, creative or comforting activities, or simply pleasing yourself with a reward could play this role.

Here are some useful questions to help you find rewards that work for you:

  • What are my major interests?
  • What are my hobbies?
  • What would I like to receive as a gift?
  • Who do I like to be with and what do I like to do with them?
  • What do I do to relax, to have fun?

You can even concoct a calendar of rewards, a way to stimulate your little daily dose of well-being, feeling good. So stop holding back, give yourself some pleasure and do things you enjoy. It can only brighten your day and make you feel better.