What are e-cigarettes?

You might want to read other separate leaflets in this series called Tips To Help You Stop Smoking, The Benefits of Stopping Smoking and Smoking - How Addicted Are You?

What is nicotine addiction?

Nicotine is a substance that is inhaled from tobacco. It gets into the bloodstream and stimulates the brain. Most regular smokers are addicted to nicotine.

If you are a regular smoker, when the blood level of nicotine falls, you usually develop withdrawal symptoms such as restlessness, increased appetite, inability to concentrate, irritability, dizziness, constipation, nicotine craving, or just feeling awful. These symptoms begin within a few hours after having the last cigarette. If they are not relieved by the next cigarette, withdrawal symptoms become worse. If you do not smoke any more, the withdrawal symptoms peak after about 24 hours and then gradually ease over about 2-4 weeks.

So, most smokers smoke regularly to feel 'normal' and to prevent withdrawal symptoms.

About 2 in 3 smokers want to stop smoking but, without help, many fail. The main reason why so few smokers succeed, even though they want to stop smoking, is because nicotine addiction is strong and difficult to break. This is where e-cigarettes and other forms of nicotine replacement therapy (NRT) can help.

What are e-cigarettes?

E-cigarettes (electronic cigarettes) are devices designed to create the sensation of smoking without involving the use of tobacco. They are also known as 'e-cigs' and 'cigalikes'. They were invented in China in 2003 and have become increasingly popular all over the world. They have a container which acts as a reservoir and is filled with liquid. There is a tiny battery at the bottom. The battery powers a coil which heats up a liquid that produces a vapour. The idea is to suck on the mouthpiece of the device to inhale the vapour. This is then breathed out (exhaled) in what is supposed to look like smoke (although in reality it resembles a cloud of steam). Smoking an e-cigarette is often referred to as 'vaping'.

The liquid used to fill the reservoir of an e-cigarette usually contains nicotine, flavourings, and other chemicals. In addition to those that resemble cigarettes (e-cigalikes) there is an increasing variety of types, including tanks, boxes and atomisers. The main difference is that some (mainly the cigalikes) are disposable whilst others are refillable. More recently, variable voltage batteries have come on the market which can control the concentration of the vapour,

Liquid refills can be bought separately and come in every conceivable flavour from aniseed to rhubarb and custard. Some people buy non-nicotine liquids, presumably because they just like the taste.

You may also see the term 'dripping' which basically means removing the heating coil from a device and dripping the refill liquid directly on to it. This provides denser vapour clouds which some people feel provide a more intense sensation, particularly at the back of the throat.

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Dr Laurence Knott
Peer Reviewer:
Dr John Cox
Document ID:
29456 (v1)
Last Checked:
15 July 2017
Next Review:
14 July 2020

Disclaimer: This article is for information only and should not be used for the diagnosis or treatment of medical conditions. Patient Platform Limited has used all reasonable care in compiling the information but make no warranty as to its accuracy. Consult a doctor or other health care professional for diagnosis and treatment of medical conditions. For details see our conditions.