For some people, smoking or consuming nicotine products, such as cigarettes or vapes, can elicit an allergy-like reaction. This can include watery eyes, runny nose, sneezing, and hives.

Nicotine triggers the stimulation of the central nervous system and the release of the excitatory hormone adrenaline. This has different effects in the body, including:

  • increased saliva production
  • heightened mood
  • alertness
  • increased heart rate and blood pressure
  • suppressed appetite

Read on to learn more about what a nicotine allergy is, its symptoms, and how to manage it.

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Nicotine can elicit an allergic response in individuals with a nicotine allergy. This occurs when a person’s immune system mistakenly attacks the body like it would with a bacteria or virus.

Having a nicotine allergy is relatively common. According to a small 2018 study, 7% of smokers and 20% of non-smokers were found to have a nicotine allergy. However, this study only included 30 participants.

In some cases, a nicotine allergy can worsen existing health conditions. For example, if a person with a nicotine allergy wears a nicotine patch, it may trigger contact dermatitis.

A person who develops a nicotine allergy can experience symptoms ranging from mild to severe. The severity can depend on the amount of allergen they come into contact with and their sensitivity to nicotine.

The symptoms a person with a nicotine allergy may notice include:

In some cases, a person may experience more severe allergic reactions.

Anaphylaxis is a severe allergic reaction involving a combination of allergy responses. These can include itching and swollen hands, eyes, lips, or feet. Anaphylaxis requires immediate medical attention.

Certain types of tobacco are more likely than others to cause severe reactions. According to research from 2018, nicotine from unprocessed tobacco causes a stronger allergic response than nicotine from commercial cigarettes.

Anaphylaxis: Symptoms and what to do

Anaphylaxis is a severe allergic reaction that can be life threatening. The symptoms develop suddenly and include:

  • hives
  • swelling of the face or mouth
  • wheezing
  • fast, shallow breathing
  • a fast heart rate
  • clammy skin
  • anxiety or confusion
  • dizziness
  • vomiting
  • blue or white lips
  • fainting or loss of consciousness

If someone has these symptoms:

  1. Check whether they are carrying an epinephrine pen. If they are, follow the instructions on the side of the pen to use it.
  2. Dial 911 or the number of the nearest emergency department.
  3. Lay the person down from a standing position. If they have vomited, turn them onto their side.
  4. Stay with them until the emergency services arrive.

Some people may need more than one epinephrine injection. If the symptoms do not improve in 5–15 minutes, or they come back, use a second pen if the person has one.

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The most common method of determining if a person has an allergy to nicotine is a skin prick test. This involves exposing a patch of skin to a small quantity of the allergen through a skin prick.

Symptoms of an allergic response to nicotine can appear similar to other, more serious complications.

Nicotine overdose

It is possible to overdose on nicotine. When a nicotine overdose occurs, it can appear similar to an allergic reaction. However, an overdose is often more serious and requires immediate medical attention.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 50–60 milligrams (mg) of nicotine is a fatal dose for an adult weighing 150 pounds.

Typically, there is approximately 1 mg of nicotine per commercial cigarette. As a result, it would be difficult to overdose by smoking alone.

However, the risk may be higher for people who vape. One pod of vaping fluid can contain as much nicotine as one pack of commercial cigarettes.

Symptoms of a nicotine overdose include:

  • nausea
  • headache
  • heavy, labored breathing
  • loss of appetite
  • shallow breathing
  • slow heart rate
  • diarrhea

Drug interactions

Some prescription medications can interact with nicotine.

However, in most cases, nicotine reduces their effectiveness. This can occur with medications such as:

  • acetaminophen (Tylenol)
  • naproxen (Aleve)
  • ibuprofen (Advil)
  • benzodiazepines, such as diazepam (Valium)
  • warfarin (Coumadin)

The most effective way to treat a nicotine allergy is to avoid nicotine. Stopping smoking, inhaling vapes, or wearing nicotine patches is the healthiest way to prevent symptoms of a nicotine allergy.

If a person experiences severe symptoms from a nicotine allergy and is sensitive to secondhand smoke, they should consider carrying an Epi-Pen. This can help prevent life threatening reactions, such as anaphylaxis.

A person should contact an allergist if they notice any of the following symptoms of nicotine allergy:

  • frequent congestion
  • difficulty breathing
  • signs of asthma
  • other allergy symptoms

If a person notices allergy-like symptoms while smoking or after exposure to nicotine products, they may have a nicotine allergy. An allergist will need to perform a diagnostic test to determine if nicotine is the cause of their symptoms. This may involve a skin prick test.

Avoiding nicotine products is the healthiest and easiest way to prevent symptoms.