You've heard of a drug overdose like with pain pills or some illicit drug. Well a nicotine overdose is a little different. It doesn't really come from inhaling too much nicotine while smoking. Luckily, smokers only absorb some where around 10% of the available nicotine found in tobacco leaves. Imagine what would happen if 40, 50 or even 100% of the nicotine was absorbed? Then you might have a real case of overdose on your hands. I suppose if that were true, the huge number of cases of nicotine poisoning would eventually lead to the outlaw of tobacco.
So if smokers can't poison themselves with nicotine, then why do we care? Well, nicotine poisoning is a big problem - just not among smokers (although chain smokers could be in a class by themselves regarding this topic - check with your doctor on that one). Rather, most of the people who suffer actual poisoing are folks who work the tobacco farms or come in close contact with the actual tobacco leaves themselves. Every once in a while, you'll hear a story about someone almost dying because they weren't wearing personal protective equipment (PPE) while working with tobacco. As a result, they suffered nicotine poisoning and overdose.
Nicotine Overdose Symptoms
The amount of nicotine exposure is what is important. Overdose symptoms usually occur in two phases - early and late. The early phase of nicotine poisoning is characterized by stimulation and generally starts within 15 - 60 minutes after exposure. The late phase is then best described with the term inhibition, and can begin as early as 30 minutes after exposure. However, it may take as long as four hours.
With mild exposure, the duration of signs and symptoms may last roughly one or two hours. A severe exposure may see the symptoms lasting up to 24 hours. Severe exposures do have the ability to kill the victim within one hour. Yes, it is very dangerous.
Emesis or vomiting is the most common symptom of nicotine overdose and takes place in 50% of all symptomatic victims. If the exposure was a low level concentration, the victim may also suffer from increased heart rate, respiratory rate and have tremors in the extremities. Think of a quadruple shot of caffeine. You are the true definition of a 'nervous cat' with a raised sense of alertness.
Short term exposures, those less than eight hours, are thought to provide these types of symptoms. However, if the level of contact with nicotine is more intense during a short period of time, the overdose risk increases dramatically.
The more extreme exposures, in terms of either time or quantity, will produce more dramatic symptoms. Severe poisoning may cause uncontrolled twitching, irregular heart beats and rhythms, and seizures. The victim may feel lethargic and weak. Next, the heart rate may slow and the blood pressure may fall leading to cardiovascular failure. Even respiratory muscle paralysis may occur causing respiratory arrest. Death may result if the victim progresses to these levels of cardiopulmonary failure. It is doubtful someone will smoke themselves into nicotine poisoning, but I suppose it's good to know what the symptoms are in case you happen to be touring a tobacco farm in North Carolina.