Dizziness When Smoking: Why Does it Happen?

When you smoke, your brain fights to recover the oxygen that you're denying it. This is one of the reasons why you might feel dizzy when smoking.
Dizziness When Smoking: Why Does it Happen?

Last update: 18 September, 2022

Have you just started smoking tobacco and feel dizzy when you smoke? Do you wonder why it happens? In reality, it’s linked to the effect that tobacco has on your respiratory system, but also with other certain physiological effects we’ll explain in this article.

People who’ve just started to smoke are more likely to experience this kind of lightheadedness. Also, those who quit smoking cold turkey (and face withdrawal symptoms), or who have underlying respiratory illnesses.

The effects of nicotine

Nicotine is an organic compound. It’s an alkaloid found in the tobacco plant (Nicotiana tabacum). This substance generates great physical and psychological dependence. In addition, it’s a highly toxic substance. In fact, the World Health Organization has declared that frequent tobacco use is one of the world’s leading causes of disability and premature death.

At low doses, nicotine generates an increase in cholinergic activity. This causes an increase in levels of activation and alertness. Hence, it’s classified as a psychostimulant drug. Raising the dose generates sensations of pleasure. That’s because it helps to activate the limbic system through the synthesis of dopamine.

It also has an effect on cortisol, ACTH, prolactin, vasopressin, and growth hormone levels.

Due to these processes, many regular smokers feel that tobacco ‘relaxes’ them, so they tend to smoke more when they’re nervous. However, there are experts who claim that this is due to the deep breaths they take when smoking, and not the substance itself.

brain with smoke

Feeling dizzy when smoking

Dizziness in people who smoke is quite common, especially in those who’ve only just started. It’s also common in people who quit smoking long ago and relapse, and in people who quit smoking radically. The causes of this kind of dizziness are diverse.

On the one hand, smoking involves repeatedly inhaling a substance that enters directly into the lungs. It’s a substance that’s both toxic and irritating. It makes it hard for the respiratory system to function optimally. More specifically, it makes it difficult for the respiratory system to send a sufficient level of oxygen to the brain. Thus, the reason for feeling dizzy when smoking is linked to a lack of oxygen.

On the other hand, nicotine has a vasoconstrictor effect, and its immediate effect results in the compression of blood vessels. Thus, the blood moves faster than usual, which can cause hypertension.

Intoxication and other substances

Another reason for feeling dizzy when smoking is intoxication. For example, in the event that the substance consumed is excessive and the body can’t tolerate it. In addition, when other substances are consumed together with tobacco, dizziness can be intensified.  For instance, when consuming alcohol, which is an extremely common practice.

This occurs, in many cases, due to the interaction between tobacco and other toxic substances. After all, the body is accustomed to a certain internal balance, and, by introducing certain substances into it, that balance is altered, resulting in dizziness and other symptoms.

Dizziness when smoking: who’s more vulnerable?

It’s not only people who’ve just started to smoke who feel dizzy when doing so. As we mentioned earlier, people who suffer from lung disease, even if they smoke regularly, can also experience dizziness when smoking. It’s directly related to the damage done to the respiratory system every time the smoker inhales and exhales this toxic substance to the lungs.

Several studies have shown that the genetics of the individual – more specifically the genes of the neuronal nicotinic receptor (CHRN)-, have been associated with a variety of behaviors related to smoking. The most important is the subjective response to tobacco during early experimentation. For example, the number of cigarettes smoked per day, the dependence on nicotine, as well as the experience of dizziness from the first cigarettes smoked, among others.

Therefore, we can confirm that dizziness when an individual first starts smoking is also associated with their genetic structure.

Nicotine withdrawal

On the other hand, people who’ve smoked for a long time and who’ve acquired tolerance to nicotine, if they stop abruptly, can suffer withdrawal symptoms. Among the symptoms they might experience is dizziness.

This is related, as we mentioned earlier to an imbalance in the body, which is used to something that’s suddenly taken away from it. Changes also occur at the brain level. In fact, as with any withdrawal syndrome, the brain gets used to a substance that it suddenly ‘needs’ to function. If it’s denied that substance, it reacts with dizziness and other symptoms such as:

  • Physiological symptoms. Decreased heart rate, increased peripheral circulation, weight gain, decreased adrenaline, and sleep disorders.
  • Mood symptoms. Irritability, anger, anxiety, depression, hostility.
  • Other symptoms. Drowsiness, restlessness, cravings, concentration difficulties, headaches.
Man with dizziness from smoking

Final thoughts

We’ve explained some of the reasons for feeling dizzy when smoking. However, there are more related phenomena at the physiological and biochemical levels. At a generic level, we can say that, when smoking, the brain fights to get the oxygen it needs and that tobacco ‘takes it away’. On the other hand, dizziness also appears due to an overload of smoke in the lungs.

Finally, there are other factors related to dizziness when smoking. These include an increase in the release of dopamine (remember that nicotine is a psychostimulant substance). Furthermore, an increase in blood pressure narrows blood vessels.

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  • Pozuelos, J.; Martinena, P.; Monago, L.; Viejo, D. y Pérez, T. (2000). Farmacología de la nicotina. Medicina Integral, 35 (9): 409-417. Elsevier
  • Stahl, S.M. (2002). Psicofarmacología esencial. Bases neurocientíficas y aplicaciones clínicas. Barcelona: Ariel.