How Dangerous is Nicotine?

When many people talk about the dangers of vaping, many of the studies seem to revolve around the effects of nicotine on the body rather than the effects of vaping itself. When vaping is compared directly to smoking, it is connected via the nicotine contained within both. No matter which angle you look at the subject from, nicotine plays a whole part in the discussion of the effects both good and bad. However the way nicotine is portrayed in the media, in studies and most importantly in the perception of vaping itself is often quite negative. It may not be good for you in any way, to what extent however is it bad for you? How does it affect you and what side effects come from using it? What I wanted to do is take a look deeper into the subject and see if we can break down the real dangers of nicotine and to why that is the case. To truly understand vaping ourselves, we have to understand all parts of it, whether they may be good or bad. We all use nicotine on a daily basis so the true identity of what it actually is may well be educational for us all.

What is Nicotine?

Nicotine in essence is a drug, an addictive substance that has long been connected to smoking and to a different extent now, vaping. It is the reason it was so hard to quit smoking in the first place and it is the reason why we vape now, whether we like to admit it or not, for our addiction. It is defined as a stimulant, which is sourced from the nightshade family of plants. It is a natural substance that is found in many different plants under the nightshade umbrella from tobacco to potatoes, with some species containing larger amounts of nicotine. In tobacco it represents anywhere between 0.6% to 3% of the dry weight for the crop and in a significantly lesser amount in other food style planets such as potato, tomatoes and eggplants. It is extracted for its more common uses such as pesticides or NRT (nicotine replacement therapy) that you may have heard of including patches and gum.

How does Nicotine work?

Nicotine works by stimulating our nervous system to release specific chemical messengers (hormones and neurotransmitters) that affect different parts of our brain and body. One hormone that nicotine affects is epinephrine, also known as adrenaline. When nicotine is inhaled, the buzz you feel is the release of epinephrine which stimulates the body and causes your blood pressure and heart rate to increase, and makes you breathe harder. Nicotine also activates a specific part of your brain that makes you feel happy by stimulating the release of the hormone dopamine. The release of dopamine when nicotine is inhaled is thought to be the source of the pleasurable sensations you experience when smoking, which can include relaxation, a buzz, and relief of tension.

Once inhaled, nicotine is rapidly distributed throughout the brain within 10 seconds. The enjoyable feelings you experience from smoking occur very quickly, but after you’ve smoked a few times nicotine begins to weaken your ability to feel pleasure, causing you to need more nicotine in order to sustain the good feelings.

How Nicotine affects the Brain

Despite the negativity that gets associated with nicotine, it does offer positive effects when inhaled into the body and none more so than the brain. How it works however is quite interesting when you really get into it.

How nicotine works in the brain is in which it allows the brain to almost manipulate what it does to create positive reactions. It mimics several neurotransmitters which essentially send signals into the brain itself. From there it activates dopamine signals which which where the pleasurable experiences come from. The brain is essentially sending happy signals to itself which is why you enjoy using it so much. By itself this all sounds fine but the truth is, the brain can adapt to such activity and as such, develops a tolerance to it. Over time, the brain starts to develop less acetylcholine signals which then means you need to supply it with more to maintain that good feeling that it gives you. Once your brain associates happy signals with the effects of nicotine, it can be very difficult to adjust that, which is where the withdrawal symptoms come into play. Despite this, it is normally one of the last parts of the body that you will notice this change happen, with the lungs and heart proving to be the more noticeable ones.

Long term is can cause cognitive degeneration in older people with many older smokers suffering from memory loss or becoming more forgetful. When you consider this research from 2012 , it was shown that the biggest drop in cognitive function came from middle aged male smokers when compared to both female and non smokers. So we can really see the long term negative effects from a dependency to nicotine, especially factoring in how so many people smoke more as they grow older due to the effects of it.

How Nicotine affects the Heart

We have taken a look at the brain, the control centre for the body and how nicotine can influence that so the next step is to look at the heart. It is the literal thing keeping us alive so any negative effects to that should surely be looked at right? Nicotine itself can affect the heart by increasing heart rate, increasing your blood pressure and narrowing your arteries. The effects are a by product from the main brain changes but as a result it can have a knock on effect further down the body.

What has been found is that Nicotine can cause plasma epinephrine to increase by up to 150% which as a direct consequence can increase your BPM anywhere from 7 to 15 BPM in a given day depending on nicotine consumed. This effect also increases your blood pressure throughout the day by a rate of 5-10mm Hg which again is directly connected to the influence of nicotine. One of the biggest effects it can have however is the narrowing of arteries which again have a knock on effect to the body. It can leave you with colder fingertips in the skin vessels, impaired wound healing, macular degeneration and even placental dysfunction during pregnancy. Finally it can lead to an increased chance of heart failure especially when combined with a cigarette due to myocardial remodelling in the heart. 

How does Nicotine affect the Lungs?

Nicotine in the lungs is rather less severe as the previous two mentioned due its role as a catalyst rather than a direct cause of many different issues. It can cause shorter breaths, change the way the nodes within the lung operate and cause airway resistance In a more extreme case. The big difference in talking about how it affects the lungs is to take into account the ingredients of smoke that normally come with it when inhaled which cause damage like nothing much else out there.

How nicotine affects the lungs is through stimulating the vagal reflexes and parasympathetic ganglia which causes airway resistance often referred to as bronchoconstriction. When combined with the brain, it was found that there was both an increase / decrease in frequency of bursts and amplified / shallower rapid rhythm in respiration. 

It seems that more of the significant effects that nicotine plays is through a combination of smoking and its effects within the lungs rather than a direct cause and effect from nicotine alone.

Nicotine as a Substance

We have explored the effects that nicotine has when inhaled but what about when you handle nicotine itself? What are the dangers there in using nicotine as a product?

Nicotine in its purest form is classed as a poison and depending on its strength, can be quite potent. Nicotine can come in various forms, from the 18mg amount that is used for nicotine shots for shortfalls, all the way to what is known as pure nicotine at 72mg base. The risk in both is similar but the higher you go, the more dangerous it can be. In a nicotine shot form ,it acts much like an E-liquid itself, so on touch it can be quite harmless beyond a small amount being absorbed into the skin. If you ingest the nicotine then it can cause some more serious complications within the gastro system and the poison aspect of the substance comes into effect, even at a lower risk compared to the higher strength amounts. Even at the lower strengths, you must never ingest nicotine and if you accidentally do then you must seek medical help.

As for the higher strength purer nicotine, the dangers increase 10 fold when using it so extra precautions have to be taken. If any is ingested, even a small amount it can have significant issues when inside your body so immediate help is required. The higher strength nicotine can absorb into the skin at a much larger rate and can lead to serious side effects due to the effect of nicotine overdose, which we will cover below.

Therefore you must always use protective equipment and always wash your hands after handling nicotine no matter the strength or amount.

Nicotine overdose

Although this sounds serious, nicotine overdose can be a naturally occurring thing. If you are chain vaping 6mg E-liquid for too long for example you may experience this to some extent. What nicotine overdose is in a nutshell is taking in nicotine much quicker than the body can process it, giving you almost a high of sorts but at the same time causing some negative effects.

There are a multitude of different symptoms when it comes to nicotine overdose but what I want to look at are the more common ones that you may experience, so you know the signs to slow down for a little while. One of the big ones for too much nicotine in the body is through the effect of a headache. This can be a symptom of dehydration whilst vaping also but if you are vaping a lot then it is more likely to be caused by the nicotine itself. Simply slow down and drink more water to counter act this. Another noticeable sign of nicotine overdose is nausea, which can be triggered by a combination of too much nicotine and the flavourings you are using. Again simply slow down, have a drink and wait for it to go naturally and you will be fine. At the more extreme that you may experience you may suffer dizziness or tiredness, with more serious side effects almost none existent when vaping.

So we have looked at some of the effects of Nicotine on the body and some of the side effects when it comes to using it in vaping. So let’s now dispel some of the myths about nicotine that you may hear, to put the record straight about it.

Nicotine Myths

Nicotine causes cancer- This is a complete myth, as the cancer causing carcinogens are in the other ingredients in tobacco rather than the nicotine itself.

Nicotine withdrawal increases stress- This is again not true and it has been found that quitters or vapers have reduced stress levels when compared to a smoker.

Nicotine is highly toxic- When inhaled this is not true at all. Although it is a drug and in liquid form it can be toxic, when inhaled it has not been found to provide any toxicity in the body.

Nicotine alone is addictive- This one is two fold. We know it is addictive when used in a routine such as smoking or vaping. However by itself, in NRT for example people find it much easier to stop using them rather than maintaining an addiction similar to their former habit. The correct term is dependants when you apply it to using it in either vaping or smoking form.

Nicotine is tobacco- This one although a very loose one is often used in negative vaping articles. The truth is, nicotine itself is a natural substance that can be found outside of the tobacco plant so it has no tobacco components.

Nicotine is as addictive as Heroin- although often compared, there is no actual basis for this. E-cigarettes have proven that people can reduce amounts used and quit entirely if they so wish, with no addictive elements due to lack of currently known damage caused. It is more comparable to Caffeine rather than a class A drug.


We have explored how nicotine works in this article not to offer up a scare story for anyone who vapes but simply to highlight the effects it has on the body. It is often confused with tobacco entirely and although this is not true, it has led to comparisons between smoking and vaping. Nicotine has no positive health benefit for it being used as it is a drug at the end of the day but the risks involved reduce dramatically when used in vaping compared to smoking. It is easy for us to champion the benefits of vaping but sometimes we have to look at it subjectively as well, we can’t preach the 95% safer without looking at the other side and consider what could be negative. The truth is, Nicotine acts more like a drug such as caffeine rather than something much worse and as has been proven so many times over the years, when used in vaping it seems to be less addictive compared to smoking. This speaks volumes about the potential danger of using it as once you remove the tobacco out the situation, you lose many harmful elements that would otherwise have affected you at some point.

Nicotine is not completely risk free, much like drinking too much coffee or energy drink does not come without risks. However in moderation and handled correctly, it is proven to offer a much lower risk and health issue when used in vaping. Therefore take heart that your tank has nicotine, although it is still the same old stuff, it is doing far less harm to you without the tar/arsenic/carbon monoxide mixed in.

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