Looking to the future: Is nicotine bad for you?

Medically reviewed by Laura Angers Maddox, NCC, LPC
Updated March 26, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team
Content warning: Please be advised, the below article might mention substance use-related topics that could be triggering to the reader. If you or someone you love is struggling with substance use, contact SAMHSA’s National Helpline at 1-800-662-HELP (4357). Support is available 24/7. Please see our Get Help Now page for more immediate resources.

Some teens and young people who are exposed to nicotine may feel like they want to try experimenting with it. Despite widely available information on how nicotine addiction affects the body and various warnings from the Surgeon General, US Food and Drug Administration (FDA), US Department of Health and Human Services, and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), some young people choose to engage in this activity anyway. While rates of tobacco smoking and smokeless tobacco use have been declining over the past several decades, electronic cigarettes (otherwise known as e-cigarettes or vaping products), have risen in popularity.

Not only can such habits involving nicotine cause harmful effects to the developing adolescent brain and long-term health damage to the human body, but nicotine use can also have a significant impact on mental health, possibly leading to lifelong addiction. It’s important to keep a perspective on the future when you’re growing up, especially when it comes to potentially harmful substances. The effects of nicotine can harm a developing brain, limit a person’s quality of life, and impact their emotional well-being. Looking to the future, many young adults make the choice to never engage with this highly addictive toxic substance at all. You may consider doing the same.

Are you experiencing an addiction to nicotine?

What is nicotine?

Nicotine, a highly addictive drug, works as both a stimulant and a depressant in the body through nicotinic acetylcholine receptors. For many people, nicotine increases heart rate and boosts blood pressure and blood flow within the body. These changes can make a person feel more energetic, or like their body has a “buzz.” Some people experience a rushing sensation through their bodies or a jolt of increased enthusiasm. Addiction to substances such as nicotine and depression is a mental health challenge that can take time and treatment to address. Nicotine and depression are inextricably linked. This rushing sensation is normally only experienced by early nicotine smokers, or after a period of withdrawal.

Is nicotine bad for you?

Nicotine can have a negative impact on a person’s physical and mental health. Some of the harmful side effects of continued nicotine use are increased risk of digestive issues, appetite suppression, poor circulation, and damage to the heart, lungs, and brain. Whether through smoking regular cigarettes or flavored e-cigarettes, nicotine can significantly increase risk of health problems and decrease a person’s life expectancy and quality of life.

It’s normally difficult to quit using nicotine once a person is addicted, and some mental health conditions, such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), can make quitting even more difficult. The hormones that are released while ingesting nicotine can trick a person’s brain into thinking they need more. After a period without nicotine, the body often goes through a “slump.” During this time, a person may feel moody and lethargic. When someone is addicted to nicotine, the brain sends signals that more nicotine is needed to get rid of those physical sensations, also known as withdrawal. 

Vaping vs cigarette smoking

Vaping and e-cigarette use among teens has become more common than cigarette smoking in recent years. Though many teens choose to use vape products or e-cigarettes rather than smoke traditional combustible cigarettes, they are still just as at risk of developing an addiction to nicotine. The nicotine that’s released when vaping may not smell dangerous, but it is. Though it may sometimes feel like you’re only smoking a puff here or there when you use vape pens, in reality, you’re putting a lot of nicotine into your body, which can lead to nicotine dependence.

Vaping devices, e-cigarettes, and regular cigarettes can be bought in stores by people over the legal age limit, but that doesn’t mean they’re not dangerous. Having a physical and mental dependence on any substance, even a legal one, can make life more challenging. Addiction changes the brain’s cognitive function and can cause people to make decisions they otherwise wouldn’t if it weren’t for their cravings.

The stigma around smoking traditional cigarettes, along with increased education on the topic, has helped lower the number of teens that start smoking. It’s important to continue to keep teens informed on the dangers of using all nicotine products, including e-cigarettes and vapes.

Why do teenagers try vaping?

In decades past, high school students were at risk of being pressured to try traditional cigarettes. Smoking cigarettes was seen as a way to relax, as well as demonstrate a teenager's independence and rebellious side. Furthermore, the tobacco industry was able to market smoking as a cool activity that would help someone make friends and increase their social status.

Now we know better. We know smoking leads to many health conditions and can significantly reduce your quality of life. That’s one of the reasons why e-cigarettes were invented. People were looking for a safer alternative to cigarettes that would still allow them to enjoy the experience. The e-cigarette was meant to be a revolutionary way of smoking without health hazards. It was supposed to help smokers reduce their nicotine use without giving up their smoking habit.

High school students are prone to e-cigarette use for the same reasons their parents were susceptible to smoking regular cigarettes. First, vaping is seen as a cool activity that can make teenagers feel more relaxed. No matter the generation, product, or activity, peer pressure is often a major force in why teenagers make certain choices. Second, e-cigarette use may be seen as a way to demonstrate independence and autonomy from their parents. Finally, the e-cigarette industry has convinced both high school students and adult smokers that vaping is “safe.” Just like the combustible tobacco industry, the vaping and e-cigarette industry has mastered marketing to imply that e-cigarettes are not full of addictive substances.

Getty/MoMo Productions
Though e-cigarettes have fewer toxins than regular cigarettes, they are still dangerous to both the users and the non-smokers around them.

E-cigarettes are still tobacco products, meaning they contain nicotine. They also contain other toxins that may pose health risks to those who use them. These toxins emit from the e-cigarettes in aerosol form, meaning that people around them can also be exposed. Therefore, in many ways, e-cigarettes are just as harmful as traditional ones.

Health risks associated with smoking and nicotine addiction

According to the Centers For Disease Control And Prevention, e-cigarettes are seen as safer than regular cigarettes. However, all tobacco products contain nicotine and toxins that are incredibly harmful to the body. Nicotine is one of the most addictive substances, and the other chemicals and toxins found in tobacco products can cause numerous diseases and other health concerns.

Whether using an e-cigarette or a traditional cigarette, there are numerous health hazards associated with nicotine use and addiction. According to the Indian Journal of Medical and Paediatric Oncology, these risks and hazards include:

  • Heart disease and other heart health risks

  • Lung cancer

  • Cardiovascular disease

  • Issues with the central nervous system

  • Development of gastrointestinal disorders

  • Impaired brain development

  • Constriction of blood vessels

  • Increased blood pressure

  • Carbon monoxide in the blood (especially when burning tobacco incompletely)

What about the risks to non-smokers who are exposed to cigarette smoke? It is common knowledge that smoking and secondhand smoke can be dangerous to innocent bystanders who don’t smoke themselves. Just by being around smokers, a person can be exposed to unhealthy levels of nicotine as well as the other toxins and carcinogens found in tobacco smoke. The harmful effects of nicotine can also be passed to breastfeeding infants through breast milk.

However, these effects are not just witnessed in those exposed to secondhand cigarette smoke. Nicotine is also released through aerosol in e-cigarettes. Research has found that this aerosol contains just as much nicotine as cigarette smoke, and, therefore can be just as harmful to non-smokers.

Even though non-smokers do not use tobacco themselves, the nicotine exposure from e-cigarettes and regular cigarettes is enough to put them at risk for certain cancers (such as lung cancer) and other health conditions (such as cardiovascular disease).

Furthermore, people with chronic exposure to cigarette smoke or e-cigarette aerosol can experience symptoms that are very similar to withdrawal symptoms. This research suggests that nonsmokers may experience nicotine withdrawal when not near a smoker even if they have never smoked themselves.

How to face your addiction

There are many different ways to approach nicotine addiction. People with more severe physical addiction symptoms may experience stronger feelings of withdrawal. It’s important to recognize these effects for what they are and to know that they are temporary. 

For many people, finding an incentive that’s motivating for them is the most effective way to quit using nicotine products. For some, that incentive could be keeping track of how much money they save by no longer purchasing cigarettes or vape cartridges. For others, measuring improvements in their physical health since quitting works powerfully. 

There are many methods of quitting nicotine use, for both traditional smokers and e-cigarette users. For teens, it’s important to seek out support. Quitting any addiction is often much more difficult when trying to do it alone. Having friends, family, and a therapist on your team can help you quit for good.

Nicotine replacement therapy

One way that many people successfully quit smoking is through nicotine replacement therapy (also known as a smoking cessation program). Nicotine is one of the most addictive substances, so it is rare for someone to be able to stop smoking “cold turkey.” Most people succeed in quitting smoking by slowly reducing the amount of nicotine they consume, which is where a treatment center focused on cessation can help. 

In the early stages of smoking cessation, tobacco users reduce their nicotine exposure by switching to tobacco products that contain smaller amounts of nicotine, such as nicotine gum or patches. In this process, the patient still receives enough nicotine to reduce their withdrawal symptoms, but begins to lessen the impact of nicotine toxicity on their body. Eventually, the patient completely stops using nicotine. By then, they are used to only exposing themselves to a small amount, so the withdrawal symptoms are often much easier to bear.

Less than a third of smokers and tobacco users utilize these methods to quit smoking. However, using these methods and slowly reducing nicotine exposure is one of the most successful ways to quit using traditional or e-cigarettes.

Are you experiencing an addiction to nicotine?

Online therapy with BetterHelp

If you’re having trouble overcoming an addiction to nicotine on your own, an online therapist might be able to assist. Therapists at BetterHelp are specialized in helping tackle various kinds of addiction and dependence issues, including those related to smoking cigarettes or e-cigarettes.

Sometimes people turn to harmful substances to cope with the stressors of life. As a result, people who feel overwhelmed with work, finances, parenting, or some other aspect of life may develop an addiction. If you’re already feeling behind on time when taking care of everyday responsibilities, therapy for your addiction may not seem attainable. But with online therapy, you can connect with your therapist through the phone, over video chat, or using an in-app messaging feature. Counselors are available 24/7, meaning you can find care when you need it most.

Online therapy can be a viable treatment method for those trying to heal from an addiction. One study found that a web-based therapeutic intervention for those trying to quit smoking was “effective in promoting the use of nicotine replacement therapy.” 


Nicotine is a dangerous and often addictive drug that can have lasting impacts on the mind and body. In fact, most young people who report tobacco use also report that they want to quit smoking and have made multiple attempts to do so. Once a person is addicted to nicotine, it can take a very long time to quit, and the addiction may last for a lifetime. Though using nicotine recreationally may seem harmless at first, it doesn’t take long to form an addiction. With proper support and treatment from an online therapist, a person with a nicotine addiction can overcome their addiction and increase their quality of life.
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