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How do medications that help me quit smoking work?

Joseph I. Miller Jr., MD
Thoracic Surgery (Cardiothoracic Vascular)
Medications work by several different mechanisms depending on the medication. Some mimic the effect of nicotine on the body and offer a way to supplement its effects. Two others work through non-nicotine pathways to lower the urge and desire to smoke.
Dr. Michael Roizen, MD
Internal Medicine
Medications that help you quit smoking fall into two main groups:
 
- Bupropion (Zyban, Wellbutrin), a prescription antidepressant, reduces symptoms of nicotine withdrawal. It works by acting on brain chemicals related to nicotine craving.

- Varenicline (Chantix), a prescription drug that works by blocking nicotine receptors in the brain. Take this drug and nicotine is no longer effective, plus it reduces symptoms of nicotine withdrawal.

Both drugs work best if you start taking them about a week before your nicotine quit date.
Varenicline (Chantix), which does not contain nicotine, works in 2 ways. It targets nicotine receptors in the brain, attaches to them, and blocks nicotine from reaching them. It is believed that this medication also activates these receptors, causing a reduced release of dopamine compared to nicotine. Bupropion (Zyban), which also does not contain nicotine, works by inhibiting the neuronal uptake of epinephrine and dopamine in the brain. 
Dr. Mehmet Oz, MD
Cardiology (Cardiovascular Disease)

You became addicted to smoking because nicotine in tobacco acts on the brain in a way that makes lighting up a pleasant, soothing experience. It's no surprise, then, that stop-smoking medications act on the brain too.

Two oral medications approved as smoking-cessation aids are: bupropion (Zyban) and varenicline (Chantix). Bupropion reduces the desire to smoke. In truth, no one is really sure how it works, but scientists believe bupropion controls cravings for tobacco by altering levels of certain brain chemicals.

Varenicline is a newer medication. It prevents nicotine from doing its thing to the brain, making smoking less pleasurable. Doctors may prescribe certain other medications for controlling nicotine addiction.

Nicotine-replacement therapy (NRT) is another approach many people use when quitting smoking. NRT is designed to reduce withdrawal symptoms, which helps people resist the urge to smoke. NRT is available in many different delivery systems, including skin patches, chewing gum, lozenges, inhalers and nasal spray.

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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.