As a vaper, should you be concerned about nicotine? What are the symptoms of a nicotine overdose? This article outlines the facts about nicotine and nicotine poisoning that every vaper needs to know.

Nicotine is found naturally in tobacco plants, and is the pesky chemical that is responsible for the addictive quality of cigarettes.

During the massive rise in popularity of e-cigarettes as an effective way to help people quit smoking traditional tobacco, the volume of horror stories in the media about nicotine has risen right alongside.

“Nicotine causes cancer!”

“Nicotine is more dangerous than arsenic and cyanide!”

“Liquid nicotine in e-cigs is killing children!”

These are the kind of scaremongering headlines that are deterring smokers from making the switch to vaping; despite all the evidence about how much safer vaping actually is when compared to smoking.

As responsible vaping advocates, we always want to ensure our customers have a balanced view of any dangers associated with e-cigs, whilst debunking any wildly untrue claims that are made in the media.

So, what are the facts about nicotine? How easy is it to overdose on nicotine? What are the symptoms of nicotine poisoning? What should you do if you, or a family member, consumes a dangerous amount of nicotine? This article aims to answer all of these questions, and more, in order to keep you informed.

Does nicotine cause cancer or heart disease?

In the levels found in e-liquids, nicotine itself is not very harmful. Normal side effects of nicotine consumption include raised heart rate and blood pressure, and local irritant effects. However, crucially, it is not carcinogenic (cancer causing).

In fact, none of the three main causes of death from smoking (lung cancer, COPD, and cardiovascular disease) are principally caused by nicotine.

Tobacco Harm Reduction

These facts were established in 1976 when Professor Michael Russell worked on the Tobacco Harm Reduction public health strategy.

He famously stated that, “people smoke for nicotine, but they die from the tar.”

Nicotine Safety and Toxicity

In 1998, Neal Benowitz, M.D., produced one of the definitive works on the effects of nicotine on health. Entitled Nicotine Safety and Toxicity, the publication outlined that nicotine is not a significant cardiovascular threat; nor is it carcinogenic when used on its own.

This backed up the theory used by Russell et al in the Tobacco Harm Reduction strategy that changing the combustible tobacco method of nicotine delivery could greatly reduce (if not remove) the harm of smoking.

Why does nicotine get such bad press?

The Royal Society of Public Health in the UK published the results of a 2015 study showing that 90% of the UK population mistakenly views nicotine as the harmful element of cigarettes.

Growing up in the 80s, I have vivid memories of my school teacher showing us the Health Education Council (HEC) anti-smoking campaign videos.

Who else remembers the dastardly character, Nick O’Teen, offering free cigarettes to unsuspecting school children, before the hero, Superman, would swoop in to apprehend him?

Nick O'Teen - the anti-smoking campaign character from 1982

These types of campaigns led to the public perception that nicotine is the dangerous part of smoking.

So, are you saying nicotine is harmless?

Absolutely not! I’m simply saying that nicotine is not as black as it is painted.

Nicotine is addictive – there is no doubt about that. Without nicotine, nobody would get hooked on the hideous death sticks; and if nobody was addicted to cigarettes, we’d have no need for nicotine replacement (like vaping) to help people quit.

Yet here we are – and the problem is that whilst we continue to believe the negative press about nicotine, it can deter us from making the switch to nicotine replacement for the good of our health.

How easy is it to overdose on nicotine?

Many sources are reporting that incidences of nicotine exposure requiring medical attention rose in the years from 2010 to 2015. This is directly linked to the rise in the number of people using e-liquid containing nicotine.

Nicotine poisoning is still relatively rare in adults. The rise in cases is mainly connected to children.

Before the prevalence of liquid nicotine, reported cases of nicotine poisoning in children were due to them eating tobacco. However, with e-liquid the risk is increased because the nicotine can be inhaled, swallowed, or absorbed through the skin.

Simply put, nicotine poisoning happens when you have too much of it in your body. The amount that causes overdose depends on factors such as body weight. Obviously this means that children (and animals) are at greater risk.

How much nicotine is too much?

The Center for Disease Control (CDC) states that 50 to 60 milligrams (mg) of nicotine is a deadly dose for an adult who weighs about 150 pounds. However, most of the available research today suggests a lethal amount is likely a lot higher. A widely accepted 2014 study by Bernd Mayer revises the estimated lower limit of a lethal dose of nicotine to between 500 and 1000 mg.

To put this into the context of vaping, even at the extremely unlikely lower level of 50mg, you would need to vape 4ml of 12mg nicotine strength e-liquid. However, the body processes nicotine really quickly (your blood nicotine levels decrease by roughly half after two hours) so the whole 4ml would have to be vaped in one very quick sitting; a tall order for even the most ardent vaper.

Using Bernd Mayer’s more realistic lethal limits, in order to get 500mg of nicotine into your system you would need to vape 40ml of 12mg e-liquid before your body had the chance to process it. In reality, that just isn’t going to happen!

What are the symptoms of nicotine poisoning?

As we’ve already discussed, the chances of vaping enough nicotine to kill you are nigh on impossible; however, that doesn’t mean that a heavy sesh on the e-cig won’t be without consequences.

Symptoms of nicotine poisoning follow a bi-phasic pattern. This means that you will initially feel some stimulatory symptoms which include nausea and vomiting, excessive salivation, abdominal pain, sweating, hypertension, tachycardia, headache, and dizziness.

After the initial stimulatory phase, a later period of depressor effects can occur and may include symptoms of hypotension and bradycardia, muscular weakness, and difficulty breathing.

How many vapers are affected by nicotine poisoning?

From September 1, 2010 to December 31, 2014, there were roughly 5,970 e-cigarette calls to US poison control centres. The ten most frequent adverse effects to e-cigarettes and e-liquid reported during these calls were vomiting (40.4%), eye irritation or pain (20.3%), nausea (16.8%), red eye or conjunctivitis (10.5%), dizziness (7.5%), tachycardia (7.1%), drowsiness (7.1%), agitation (6.3%), headache (4.8%), and cough (4.5%).

If you start to feel sick, stop vaping!

Nausea and vomiting are by far the most common signs that you’ve got too much nicotine in your body. The main reason that the number of reported cases for the more serious symptoms of nicotine overdose is much lower is that, as sensible adults, when we start to feel sick, we simply have a break from vaping. As we’ve already discussed, our bodies process nicotine really quickly so you’ll soon be feeling better if you knock it on the head for a few hours.

What to do if you suspect a nicotine overdose

Although ingestion is unlikely for adult vapers, children are a different matter. Because kids are smaller, it takes less nicotine to poison them (or pets, for the same reason). There’s enough nicotine in a cigarette butt to make your little one sick if they decide to eat one out of the ashtray. With e-liquid containing nicotine, as little as 1 teaspoon (5ml) can be harmful to the average two stone toddler.

The TPD regulations in the UK go a long way to helping ensure minimum risk of nicotine poison to children. Child-proof lids on all e-liquid bottles, 10ml restrictions on bottle sizes, plus maximum limits on nicotine levels all help. Obviously you should still also do your best to ensure your children and pets can’t get their hands (or paws) on your e-liquids and take an inquisitive swig.

If the worst does happen, however, you can get poisons advice from your general practitioner, or by telephoning NHS 111 (England), NHS 24 (Scotland) or NHS Direct (Wales).

If the symptoms are severe, you would be best advised to go to your local accident and emergency department. The NHS lists the following poisoning symptoms as being serious enough to warrant phoning 999 or going to A & E:

  • Vomiting
  • Dizziness
  • Palpitations
  • Breathing difficulties
  • Uncontrollable restlessness or agitation
  • Seizures (fits)
  • Drowsiness or loss of consciousness

What if e-liquid is spilled onto skin?

First and foremost, wash it off as soon as you notice. As long as it isn’t on the skin for too long, there shouldn’t be the chance for too much nicotine to be absorbed into the bloodstream.

However, if after a spillage any of the symptoms we’ve already discussed appear, then follow the advice above.

Nicotine risks in summary

In conclusion, nicotine can be dangerous but it isn’t nearly as harmful as the press would have you believe. With proper care and attention over the storage of your e-liquids you can minimise the risks to your loved ones; and by recognising when you’ve vaped too much, you can minimise the risks to yourself.

As with any poisonous substance, you should take the risks seriously and be aware of the symptoms of overdose. However, you shouldn’t let the small risk of harm deter you from the far greater benefits that can be gained from switching from smoking to vaping.

Source: Vape UK