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Nicotine replacement therapy

Nicotine replacement therapy involves the use of products that provide low doses of nicotine but do not contain the toxins found in smoke. The goal of therapy is to relieve cravings for nicotine and ease the symptoms when someone stops using cigarettes and smokeless tobacco.

In general, nicotine replacement therapy benefits moderate-to-heavy smokers (people who smoke more than 15 cigarettes a day) the most.

Facts about using nicotine replacement therapy:

  • By not cheating on the very first day of nicotine-replacement use, you can increase the chance of quitting permanently by tenfold.
  • The more cigarettes you smoke, the higher the dose of nicotine replacement you may need at the start of therapy.
  • Adding a counseling program will make you more likely to quit.
  • Do not smoke while using nicotine replacement. It can cause nicotine to build up to toxic levels.
  • Nicotine replacement helps prevent weight gain while you are using it. However, people are still at risk for gaining weight when they stop using all nicotine.
  • The dose of nicotine should be slowly decreased.


Nicotine supplements come in several forms:

  • Gum
  • Inhalers
  • Lozenges
  • Nasal spray
  • Skin patch

All of these work well if they are used correctly. People are more likely to use the gum and patches correctly than other forms of nicotine supplements.

Nicotine Patch. All nicotine patches are placed and used in similar ways:

  • A single patch is worn each day and replaced after 24 hours.
  • Place the patch on different areas above the waist and below the neck each day.
  • Put the patch on a hairless spot.
  • People who wear the patches for 24 hours will have fewer withdrawal symptoms.
  • If wearing the patch at night causes odd dreams, try sleeping without the patch.
  • People who smoke fewer than 10 cigarettes per day should start with a lower dose patch (for example, 14 mg).

Nicotine Gum or Lozenge. You can buy nicotine gum (Nicorette and others) or lozenges (Commit and others) without a prescription. Some people prefer lozenges to the patch, because they can control the nicotine dosage.

Tips for using the gum:

  • If you are just starting to quit, chew 1 - 2 pieces each hour, but no more than 20 pieces a day.
  • Chew the gum slowly until it develops a peppery taste. Then tuck it between the gum and cheek and store it there so that the nicotine can be absorbed.
  • The goal is to stop using the gum by 6 months. Although using nicotine gum long-term is probably safer than smoking, research is needed to confirm this.
  • Wait at least 15 minutes after drinking coffee, tea, soft drinks, and acidic beverages before chewing a piece of gum.
  • People who smoke more than 25 cigarettes per day have better results with the 4 mg dose than with the 2 mg dose.

Nicotine Inhaler. The nicotine inhaler looks like a plastic cigarette holder. The nicotine inhaler requires a prescription in the United States.

  • Insert nicotine cartridges into the inhaler and "puff" them for about 20 minutes, up to 16 times a day.
  • The inhaler is fairly quick-acting, about the same as the gum and faster than the 2 - 4 hours it takes for the patch to work.
  • The inhaler satisfies oral urges.
  • Most of the nicotine vapor does not go into the airways of the lung. Some people notice mouth or throat irritation and cough.

Using the inhaler and patch together can be very helpful when quitting.

Nicotine Nasal Spray. The nasal spray satisfies immediate cravings by providing quick doses of nicotine.

  • It may be used along with the patch. Levels of nicotine peak within 5 - 10 minutes after using the spray.
  • The spray can irritate the nose, eyes, and throat. These side effects often go away within the first few days.


Any of these nicotine products may cause side effects. Patients using very high doses are more likely to have symptoms. Reducing the dose can prevent these symptoms. Side effects include:

  • Headaches
  • Nausea and other digestive problems
  • Problems getting to sleep in the first few days, most often with the patch. This problem usually passes.


Nicotine patches pose no danger for people with heart or blood circulation problems. However, the unhealthy cholesterol levels (lower HDL levels) caused by smoking do not get better until the nicotine patch is stopped.

Nicotine replacement may not be completely safe in pregnant women, although no real harmful effects have been reported. The unborn children of women who use the patch may have a faster heart rate.

Keep all nicotine products away from children, especially small children. Nicotine is a poison.

  • A parent should call a physician or a poison control center right away if a child has been exposed to a nicotine replacement product, even for a short time.
  • Parents should watch for any symptoms, including stomach upset, irritability, headaches, a rash, or fatigue.

Alternative Names

Smoking cessation - nicotine replacement; Tobacco - nicotine replacement therapy


American Cancer Society. Guide to Quitting Smoking. January 2011. Accessed February 21, 2011.

Burke MV, Ebbert JO, Hays JT. Treatment of tobacco dependence. Mayo Clin Proc. 2008;83:479-483.

Moore D, Aveyard P, Connock M, Wang D, Fry-Smith A, Barton P. Effectiveness and safety of nicotine replacement therapy assisted reduction to stop smoking: systematic review and meta-analysis. BMJ. 2009;338:b1024.

Hays JT, Ebbert JO, Sood A. Treating tobacco dependence in light of the 2008 US Department of Health and Human Services clinical practice guideline. Mayo Clin Proc. 2009;84:730-735.

Update Date: 2/21/2011

Updated by: David C. Dugdale, III, MD, Professor of Medicine, Division of General Medicine, Department of Medicine, University of Washington School of Medicine. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, A.D.A.M. Health Solutions, Ebix, Inc.

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