Nicotine Overdose and Vaping: What All Vapers Need to Know

How many times have you heard someone say something like this?

“Nicotine is more poisonous than cyanide!”

“Just half a teaspoon of e-liquid could kill a child!”

“Nicotine is highly toxic in any form!”

I lost count a long time ago, but statements like this still bother me.

The implication is clear: vaping delivers nicotine to users, and nicotine is highly poisonous.

It’s the sort of thing that makes vapers concerned about nicotine poisoning or nicotine overdose from vaping, and may make smokers wary about switching to vaping.

So should vapers be worried about nicotine overdose? What are the symptoms of nicotine poisoning you should look out for? And if the worst does happen and you’ve consumed a dangerous amount of nicotine, what should you do?

The Toxic Dose of Nicotine: Shattering the Myth

The first port of call in any discussion like this is to address a long-standing myth.

Even today, many high-profile sources list the toxic dose of nicotine (the LD50 – or the dose that will kill about half of people exposed) as between 30 and 60 mg.

To put this in context of vaping, this would be about 4 ml of 12 mg/ml e-liquid. Your body does process nicotine quite quickly (your blood nicotine levels will decrease by about half after two hours), so you’d need to consume it all basically in one go, which makes it still quite a tall order.

However, as Bernd Mayer details in an interesting short paper, this value for the toxic dose is utterly indefensible.

In the paper, he details several cases in which people consumed much larger amounts of nicotine with only minimal symptoms. On top of this, the lowest amount of nicotine found in the blood of people who died from nicotine was about 20 times higher than existing guidelines. Mayer revises the LD50 of nicotine to an estimated 500 to 1000 mg (or 0.5 to 1 g) on the basis of these results.

The remaining question is where did the “30 to 60 mg of nicotine will kill you” claim come from?

Mayer followed “circular and often misleading references” for a while and eventually hit on the source: a 1906 textbook from a German toxicologist.

On this basis alone, it’s clear that there are probably some issues with trusting this as a source. He was a respected toxicologist at the time, but medical knowledge has advanced massively in the century since it was published, so it isn’t surprising that repeating this claim verbatim with no further analysis isn’t the best idea.

The textbook cited some self-experiments performed in the 19th century, in which experimenters had the equivalent of a few cigarettes’ worth of nicotine and reported seizures and loss of consciousness. It goes without saying that there was probably some error in measuring out the dose: otherwise chain-smokers would regularly lose consciousness and have seizures.

So is nicotine more toxic than cyanide? No!



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