Nicotine does not achieve a “high” in the same way as other drugs that affect the brain, also known as psychoactive substances. However, it does trigger an adrenaline release that may feel temporarily pleasurable.
Nicotine is the substance in cigarettes that makes them habit-forming. While nicotine does not cause a high, there is a brief “kick” that occurs straight after consumption.
This article explains whether nicotine can get a person high and the effects of nicotine on the body.
Nicotine causes a very short, subtle feeling of pleasure after smoking a cigarette or consuming nicotine another way. However, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), this lasts far less than the high that people traditionally feel when taking other drugs.
NIDA describes the effects of nicotine as providing “a sense of well-being and relaxation.” Some people may interpret this as a high.
However, cigarettes deliver nicotine during every puff. NIDA estimates that smokers take about 10 puffs on every cigarette they consume. Therefore, a pack-a-day smoker who consumes 20 cigarettes would receive 200 quick nicotine kicks every day. Across a day of smoking, this may feel like a high.
Nicotine effects vs. other drugs
The experience of a drug high is individual and difficult to test scientifically. However, a small 2017 study looked at how tobacco and cannabis interact. Participants in four groups smoked “joints” with different ingredients, including placebos:
- cannabis with psychoactive levels of delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and tobacco with nicotine
- low THC, nonpsychoactive cannabis and tobacco with nicotine
- cannabis with psychoactive levels of THC and tobacco without nicotine
- low THC, nonpsychoactive cannabis and tobacco without nicotine
In a memory recall test, the group who smoked active cannabis and tobacco found that tobacco reduced the high effect of cannabis on working memory. The group who smoked active tobacco with inactive cannabis saw that working memory improved.
While this study does not directly test a high, it suggests that nicotine works differently than other psychoactive drugs.
Nicotine levels peak after just 10 seconds but also wear off extremely quickly.
However, in that time, the body quickly sends it to the brain. Here, it increases levels of the feel-good brain chemical dopamine in the part of the brain that rewards particular activities. Over time, nicotine changes how sensitive the reward center is to dopamine and affects parts of the brain linking to stress, learning, and self-control.
How nicotine creates addiction without causing a high
The effects of nicotine may not feel like a high for long, if at all, but its effects are extremely addictive. The rapid loss of a nicotine kick can lead to withdrawal symptoms such as irritability, cravings, anxiety, and feelings of depression.
This can fuel a cycle of trying to prevent withdrawal by smoking another cigarette, even if nicotine does not provide a noticeable high. The body also builds up a tolerance to nicotine, meaning that a person needs to smoke more to achieve a similar kick over time.
In short, nicotine increases heart rate, blood pressure, and breathing speed. This applies even to products that do not contain tobacco, such as e-cigarettes and nicotine pouches. As many of these are relatively new technologies, such as vapes and nicotine pouches, studies have yet to look at the long-term effects of pure nicotine on the body.
- heart disease
- lung conditions, including chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder (COPD)
Some of these chemicals also mean the body absorbs more nicotine, creating a cycle of tobacco use that can be challenging to break.
Quitting smoking means learning to live without nicotine’s quick kick, and nicotine’s effects on the brain’s reward center can make quitting difficult. According to 2022 research, 30–50% of people who smoke in the United States try to stop every year, and
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that quitting smoking may add
Various support options are available for those who wish to stop smoking. These include:
- smoking cessation counseling
- free phone coaching or counseling at 1-800-QUIT-NOW
- free online services from institutions, including the CDC’s
Quit Smokingpages or the Department of Health and Human Services Smokefree.gov facilities
- free text services for help quitting, such as SmokefreeTXT
- apps such as
Learn more about ways to give up smoking.
Nicotine does not cause a high but can cause a fleeting sense of pleasure. As it interacts with the brain’s reward centers, nicotine can lead to a cycle of withdrawal and reduced sensation when smoking. This means a person may smoke more to feel the same kick they used to.
While tobacco-free nicotine products are available, their long-term effect is not yet certain. Quitting nicotine altogether is the best way to break the cycle of addiction and reduce adverse health effects.