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Medications to help you quit smoking

Quitting smoking won't be easy. But using medication can help you become a full-time nonsmoker.

You've heard of quitting while you're ahead. How about getting ahead while quitting?

If you're a smoker, you can. You may be able to double your chances of really, truly quitting smoking if you use one of the medicines approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to help with smoking cessation.

It's always a good idea to talk to your doctor if you're ready to quit smoking. He or she can help you decide on the right medicines for you, and prescribe them if need be. If you have a heart condition or if you're pregnant, it's especially important to check with your doctor. Nicotine replacement could be dangerous for you or your baby.

Here's a rundown of what's available:

Bupropion hydrochloride. An antidepressant that eases nicotine withdrawal symptoms.

  • Availability: Prescription.
  • Side effects: Insomnia, dizziness, dry mouth.
  • Precautions: Not recommended for people who have a history of seizures or eating disorders, or who are taking other antidepressant medications.

Varenicline tartrate. A drug that affects the nicotine receptors in the brain, mimicking some of the effects of nicotine and blocking the effects of nicotine if a person smokes.

  • Availability: Prescription.
  • Side effects: Nausea, changes in dreaming, headaches, vomiting, gas, changes in taste, insomnia.

Nicotine gum. Gum that releases nicotine as it's chewed.

  • Availability: Over the counter in 2 milligram (mg) and 4 mg doses.
  • Side effects: Upset stomach, sore mouth, sore throat, mouth sores, hiccups, racing heartbeat, nausea, jaw discomfort.

Nicotine lozenge. A lozenge that releases nicotine as it dissolves in your mouth.

  • Availability: Over the counter in 2 mg and 4 mg doses.
  • Side effects: Upset stomach, trouble sleeping, heartburn, headaches, gas, hiccups, coughing.

Nicotine inhaler. Cartridge that looks like a cigarette and releases a vapor of nicotine when you inhale. (These are not the same as e-cigarettes, which are not approved as a quit smoking aid by FDA.)

  • Availability: Prescription.
  • Side effects: Irritated mouth and throat, upset stomach, coughing.

Nicotine nasal spray. Nicotine delivered in a spray to each nostril.

  • Availability: Prescription.
  • Side effects: Irritated nose, irritated throat, sneezing, coughing and watery eyes.  
  • Precautions: Before taking a nicotine nasal spray, let your doctor know if you have a lung or breathing disease, diabetes, a history of seizures, or heart problems.

Nicotine patch. Patch worn on the skin that releases nicotine into the body.

  • Availability: Over the counter.
  • Side effects: Skin reactions, insomnia, headaches, racing heartbeat.

There are also some medications that can be used off-label. This means that the medicines have been approved for some purpose, but not for quitting smoking. They aren't an option for everyone, but they may be recommended for people who cannot use any of the approved medicines, or who have tried those medicines but found them unhelpful.

Before you use any of these products, read the label carefully. Follow the directions exactly, and ask your doctor or pharmacist about anything you don't understand. Some studies have shown that combining two products—such as a nicotine patch and nicotine gum—can be more effective than using just one. If you're considering using more than one nicotine replacement product, check with your doctor first.

It's also best to include a behavioral component, such as a support group, with any of the above medications. Pairing nicotine replacement with this type of support can boost your chances of success, according to the American Cancer Society.

Although the goal is to wean yourself off these therapies once you have quit smoking, some people may find that they've weaned themselves from one nicotine habit only to become dependent on another. Use nicotine replacement therapy only as long as you need it, as prescribed by your doctor. Ask for help if you’re having trouble stopping the therapy.

reviewed 4/17/2020

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