Anti-smoking advocates highlight the long-term health effects, like cancer and emphysema, that result from a lifetime of smoking or chewing tobacco -- but these maladies are the result of chemicals in cigarettes other than nicotine. Unfortunately, the fact that nicotine alone is an extremely toxic poison often goes unmentioned. Not many people realize that nicotine is also sold commercially in the form of a pesticide! And every year, many children go to the emergency room after eating cigarettes or cigarette butts. Sixty milligrams of nicotine (about the amount in three or four cigarettes if all of the nicotine were absorbed) will kill an adult, but consuming only one cigarette's worth of nicotine is enough to make a toddler severely ill!

What happens to people after ingesting nicotine? Nicotine poisoning causes vomiting and nausea, headaches, difficulty breathing, stomach pains and seizures. Each of these symptoms can be traced back to excessive stimulation of cholinergic neurons. People poisoned by organophosphate insecticides experience the exact same symptoms. With organophosphates, acetylcholine builds up at synapses and overstimulates the neurons. Because nicotine is so similar to acetylcholine, and binds to cholinergic receptors, nicotine in excess produces the same overstimulation and toxicity. The more nicotine binding to the nicotinic cholinergic receptors, the more acetylcholine is subsequently released and free to activate other subsets of cholinergic receptors.

The treatment for nicotine poisoning has two goals:

  1. Keep the victim breathing and keep the heart pumping until nicotine is broken down by the body.

  2. Prevent any more nicotine from reaching the bloodstream.

    There are several options to get rid of nicotine that has been ingested:

    • Syrup of Ipecac - induces vomiting
    • Activated charcoal - binds nicotine in the stomach and keeps it from being taken up into your bloodstream

For more information on nicotine and related topics, check out the links on the next page.

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