What Is Smoker’s Flu?

Table of Contents
View All
Table of Contents

Smoker’s flu is a set of symptoms that people may experience when they stop smoking tobacco or using nicotine. The symptoms of withdrawal from nicotine and tobacco can include symptoms like coughing, fatigue, headache, and sore throat that are associated with the common cold or influenza.

About 90% of people who smoke are addicted to nicotine, and most of them will experience some symptoms of withdrawal when they stop using nicotine. Symptoms of smoker’s flu can be even more prominent if you quit cold turkey. Withdrawal symptoms, including smoker’s flu, tend to peak within one week of quitting but can linger for up to a month. 

Although smoker’s flu can be unpleasant, it’s not dangerous. Unlike withdrawal from other substances, like alcohol or opioids, withdrawal from nicotine isn’t harmful to your health. If you can power through the symptoms, there’s no harm in suddenly stopping your use of nicotine.

Here’s what you should know about smoker’s flu. 

person speaking with healthcare provider

FatCamera / Getty Images

Smoker’s Flu Symptoms

The main symptoms of nicotine withdrawal are headache, depression, irritability, anxiety, and craving cigarettes. However, some people also experience symptoms of smoker’s flu, including:

  • Cough
  • Sore throat
  • Chest tightness
  • Dizziness
  • Insomnia
  • Dry mouth
  • Sore gums
  • Stomach pain or upset
  • Trouble concentrating

About half of smokers experience four or more symptoms of nicotine withdrawal when they stop smoking. You may experience all of the above or only a few.

Causes

Smoker’s flu is caused by the body withdrawing from nicotine. When you regularly use a chemical like nicotine, your body becomes used to having it. With nicotine, this means that there are receptors in your brain that are used to being fulfilled by a certain amount of nicotine each day. When the receptors get nicotine, they release the neurotransmitter dopamine, which makes you feel good.

Having nicotine in your body becomes your normal way of functioning. Your brain becomes accustomed to the nicotine and the dopamine hit that it provides. When the nicotine is suddenly removed or reduced, your body must adjust to operating without it. This can cause a range of symptoms, including smoker’s flu. 

Your Body Regaining Its Health

Nicotine withdrawal isn’t the only cause of smoker’s flu. In fact, smoker’s flu symptoms—like cough—can actually be a sign of your body returning to a healthier state. When you smoke, the tiny cilia (hair-like projections) in the lungs are paralyzed. After you quit, the cilia begin moving again, clearing mucus and contaminants from your lungs. This can cause a cough, but is good for your health long term. 

Diagnosis

Smoker’s flu is something that you can usually diagnose yourself, without seeing a healthcare provider. If your cold- or flu-like symptoms begin in the days after you quit smoking, they’re likely to be related. If the timing lines up, it’s likely your symptoms are caused by withdrawal from cigarettes and nicotine, rather than a virus.

Do You Get a Fever With Smoker’s Flu?

People with smoker’s flu don’t have a fever. If you do spike a fever, you might want to reach out to your healthcare provider, particularly if your symptoms worsen.

Treatment

The symptoms of smoker’s flu will resolve themselves with time. Unfortunately, that could take two weeks or more. While you’re coping with the smoker’s flu, you can focus on treating the symptoms. This might include:

  • Over-the-counter medications: Using over-the-counter medications like pain relievers and cough drops can help you cope with the symptoms of smoker’s flu. Talk with your healthcare provider before using cough suppressants. Some coughing can be helpful for clearing out mucus and debris, so your healthcare provider might advise you to let coughing happen. 
  • Lifestyle adjustments: When you’re dealing with smoker’s flu, do anything that makes you feel more comfortable—besides reaching for a cigarette. You might find that a warm bath or hot cup of tea helps to relieve symptoms. Other people find that exercise is beneficial, especially since it releases feel-good endorphins that can help balance some of the mood implications of nicotine withdrawal.
  • Distraction: The first week after quitting smoking is when people are most likely to relapse. If you’re experiencing symptoms of withdrawal or smoker’s flu, you might be tempted to pick up a cigarette, especially if you’re mulling over how miserable you feel. Instead, try to stay busy. Ask other people to check in on you, go for a walk, or play a game. Anything that distracts you from your cravings can help keep you on course for a healthier life. 

Prevention

You may be able to avoid smoker’s flu by gradually reducing the amount you smoke, rather than stopping suddenly. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends nicotine replacement therapy. This includes patches, lozenges, sprays, and chewing gums that contain nicotine (but not the other harmful substances associated with cigarettes and cigars).

Over time, you wean yourself onto lower and lower doses. As you reduce your nicotine intake, your body adjusts to functioning with less nicotine and does not produce withdrawal symptoms. 

Nicotine replacement therapy can assist with the symptoms of smoker’s flu that are associated with withdrawal from nicotine. However, they won’t address all of the causes of smoker’s flu. For example, you might still experience coughing as your cilia begin clearing your lungs. 

Summary

Unlike a cold or flu—which are illnesses—smoker’s flu is actually a sign that your body is becoming healthier. Your brain is adjusting to life without nicotine, and your lungs are returning to normal, healthy functioning after being paralyzed by smoking. Embracing the symptoms of smoker’s flu as signs of your return to health might make it easier to navigate the symptoms. 

A Word From Verywell

Focus on the positives that happen when you stop smoking. Within a day your risk for a heart attack goes down, and within two days your senses of taste and smell are returning. Two weeks can seem like a very long time when you’re dealing with symptoms, but before long you’ll be over the worst of withdrawal. You just need to hang on until then, in order to start living a healthier, smoke-free life.

Was this page helpful?
Article Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Smokefree.gov. Understanding withdrawal

  2. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Managing withdrawal. Updated March 23, 2020.

  3. Quit.org.au. Nicotine addiction explained. Updated 2021.