Is it Possible to Overdose on Nicotine By Vaping?

By Lindsay Fox Posted April 15, 2014

nicotine overdose


Numerous sources will tell you that nicotine is three times as poisonous as arsenic, and that it only takes 60 mg to kill an adult, but is it really something vapers need to be concerned about? Could you vape your way to a fatal nicotine overdose? Or would you have to possess a superhuman pair of lungs and be vaping high-strength nicotine base through a fog machine to even stand a chance?


With the recent study investigating the nicotine delivery from first generation and new generation devices and some updated information regarding the toxicity of nicotine, it’s possible to make a tentative estimate of just how much chance there is you can overdose on nicotine through vaping.


The Toxic Dose of Nicotine


The 60 mg figure (or even as low as 30 mg) for the dose of nicotine that has a 50 percent chance of killing a human is still quoted by numerous sources and can be found in a wide range of text books, but it’s probably just plain wrong. Bernd Mayer investigated the source of the claim and eventually found his way to an old text book containing a fairly speculative paragraph based on some experiments conducted in the nineteenth century. The basic procedure involved the experimenters giving themselves between 1 to 4 mg of nicotine and documenting the effects. Along with things like increased salivation, nausea and vomiting that are to be expected from nicotine poisoning, the experimenters reported seizures and loss of consciousness. The problem is, 4 mg of nicotine is the equivalent of smoking around two cigarettes, and if seizures and loss of consciousness were common from this small a dosage, smoking areas would be quite literally littered with convulsing smokers.


So, that is the source of the 60 mg estimation for the toxic dose, which has been fairly unthinkingly repeated ever since. Mayer estimates (based on reported plasma nicotine concentrations from people who did die from a nicotine overdose, as well as large doses that people have survived) that the true toxic dose is more likely to be between 500 mg and 1000 mg for an average sized adult, corresponding to a dose of 6.5 to 13 mg/kg. In terms of plasma concentration, the old estimate would have been 0.18 mg/L and the new estimate is 4 mg/L.


How Much Nicotine do Vapers Absorb?


The only other thing we need to know to make an estimate of how likely it is for vapers to suffer a nicotine overdose is how much nicotine we actually get from vaping. The study from Dr. Konstantinos Farsalinos mentioned earlier, comparing the nicotine delivery from first generation e-cigs in comparison to mods, provides this information for ten puffs taken over the course of five minutes. For the higher-powered mod, the plasma nicotine level reached 6.59 ng/ml, or (converted to mass per liter) 6.59 μg/L, after 10 puffs of an 18 mg/ml liquid in five minutes. A μg is a microgram, which is 1/1000 of a milligram (mg), and from this point alone (bearing in mind Mayer’s estimate of 4 mg/L for toxic dose) it should be quite clear that an overdose on nicotine through vaping is highly implausible.


So How Much Would You Have to Vape to Overdose?


If we simplify matters a little by assuming that 20 puffs of an 18 mg liquid produces twice the plasma nicotine concentration 10 puffs would, 40 puffs produces four times the concentration and so on, we can make an estimation of just how much you’d need to vape to overdose. The assumption that it would increase at the same rate is unrealistic (from the study you can clearly see the rate of increase getting smaller during the “ad-lib” usage period), so will undoubtedly result in an underestimation of the true value, but it illustrates the lack of an issue very clearly.


Given that 4 mg/L is 4000 μg/L, the plasma nicotine concentration from 10 puffs over the course of five minutes is 607 times lower than a lethal dose. Since we’re drastically simplifying, we can just assume that you’d need to take those 10 puffs 607 times to approach fatal nicotine levels, so 6,070 puffs. If you took this many puffs over the course of a week, it would equate to over 860 per day, and to consume 6,070 puffs in 24 consecutive hours you’d need to take around four puffs a minute (without sleeping, that is).


If we were to use the current estimate of 60 mg as a toxic dose of nicotine, which is 0.18 mg/L (180 μg/L) plasma nicotine, it would take around 273 puffs to overdose. This is at least more feasible in terms of actually inhaling that much – and is around the amount of puffs vapers have per day – but still hardly presents a risk. The big problem is that nicotine has a half-life of around 2 hours, meaning that within two hours, half of the nicotine consumed will have been metabolized into cotinine. Therefore, to realistically overdose you’d need to be consuming the toxic amount within an hour, and even then some of it will have been turned into cotinine by the body. For the lower dose, that would be four and a half puffs per minute for the whole hour.


So, taking into account that you’d have to do it quickly and using the larger, likely much more accurate nicotine toxicity estimate, you’d need to have 6,070 puffs in about an hour, or over 100 puffs per minute. In other words, it’s not really possible. If you were vaping some strong 36 mg/ml juice (and assuming this creates twice the blood nicotine levels 18 mg/ml juice does), then it’d be 50 puffs a minute. Given that the average puff length is about 4 seconds, there just isn’t enough time in a minute to even approach that number. And that’s before you even consider the mounting, highly unpleasant side effects that would occur. You’d have to be one dedicated vaper to keep going through vomiting, nausea, stomach pain and more.


Is Nicotine Poisoning Nothing to Worry About, Then?


Granted, it would be highly unlikely that you would vape your way to an overdose (barring the superhuman lung, high-strength nicotine juice vaped from a fog machine scenario), but that doesn’t mean that nicotine poisoning is no concern at all. If you have a 30 ml bottle of 18 mg e-liquid, that’s 540 mg in total, which is at the lower end of the revised toxic dose for adults. If you act like an idiot and drink it, you may have a very, very bad time indeed. Additionally, nicotine can be absorbed through the skin, so if you were to spill e-liquid (especially high-strength nicotine used for DIY mixing) on yourself, then again there is a very real chance that it could be fatal. That’s why you have to not act like an idiot when you’re dealing with nicotine.


However, any concern about nicotine overdose in vapers – outside of the e-liquid spillage/chugging competition situations – is strongly misplaced. For children or pets, the concern is more justified (less weight means less nicotine for a fatal dose), but for us consenting, sensible adult users, nicotine overdose through vaping is effectively impossible.


Photo Credit: Dai Sugano/Bay Area News Group


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  • Charles Chalfant

    Great article, as usual.
    Appreciate all that you do for vapers.

  • Adah James

    I have actually never heard of anyone having a toxic reaction to vaping. Our body will know when its enough and will regulate how much we want to vape. As long as you are not overdosing and applying your common sense, there is no need to worry I guess. Moreover, your body will start sending you signals which means it’s time to stop nicotine intake. For me, I started with 24mg and during those days I use to get nausea which is an early sign of overdose I guess. But after about 8 months I have cut to 9mg.

    • zakaria chefi

      i have been vaping 3 month now , and sudenly i have some thing realy wired , i dont feel nicotine when time vaping , next 5 min from when i stop vaping then i feel nicotine ,and some time incrase heart bits and daisy if i vape litle bit lot is that our body absorb nicotine late ? or just me

      • Claire

        Yes, it takes longer to ‘work’ with vaping. I read that it was approx half an hour as opposed to the instant nicotine hit you get with smoking cigarettes.

  • Cassandra Martinez

    To much of anything is bad though
    Think of how much people vape with mods
    And its not the nicotine to worry about its all those weird flavors and stuff they add
    And the amount people smoke that shit
    Every one says it doesnt have as much as cigs in it but unless you make your own organic juice how do you know that?
    The stuff they put in it can be just as bad
    Just look up titanium dioxide in unicorns milk
    Dude put that in there just to make it pink yet it causes cancer

    • Andres Capacho

      Well, first of all, you don’t smoke anything. You vaporize it. Different compounds and structure than actual smoke. Second, the juices bought in the U.S. are much reliable and safer than the ones imported or made from China. Thirdly, the juice bottles tells the exact ingredients that are organic. Fourth, nicotine alone doesn’t cause cancer. Many people believe so because its highly associated with cigarettes. But the fact of the matter is that even tomatoes, eggplants, etc. have some level of nicotine.

      • Cassandra Martinez

        Litteraly after ding two minutes of research one could find numerous medical sites that have done studies that show nicotine is carcinogenic. I dont know where you got your information since you didnt source anything – and expect me to believe you when i have conversations with people who have PHDs in biology and chemistry everyday. And the mere amount of “juice” you are putting in your blood is harmful in long term – and dont tell me its been proven that it doesnt because there is no long term studies yet which could later find some problem.
        Just like when cigarettes came put every one thought they were fine, but then people started dying. People dont realize how much nasty dirt and debris gets on there wick, amplies and then enters their blood stream. And to tell you the truth, quiting vaping (with a mod) was 10x harder then quiting cigarettes, good luck trying with your attitude seems like youll be addicted to nicotine for the rest of your life

        • Rob Sland

          Nicotine on its own is 100% not a carcinogen. Anyone can find something on the internet that will agree with their own personal opinion. And many suckers will be taken in by it. Especially those slightly less intelligent than than average.

  • Cassandra Martinez

    Maybe i do know i was in the nursing program and vaped myself and am throwing opinions out there based on what i experienced – but your to stubborn and bias to look any other way. Just like when ciggarettes were viewed this way. Most professionals in the medical field? Thats a bold statement because i know a LOT of people in the medical field – my step mom is a nurse i was in the nursing program and i have a lot of friends who became nurses, my dear friend who recently passed was a retired doctor (Ben Feather) and all my professors had PHDs like Daniel Slutsky who has a PHD in the CNS. And also, i set the curve for the exam on the respiratory system – do you want proof i still have the exam? And the Marieb text and lab manual for it – and pictures of the cadavers i worked on to study gross anatomy of real lungs and histology of lung tissue. Also i could tell you the preasure changes and the entire cycle of the respiratory system. Maybe, just maybe i might know a little bit of what im talking about…

    • Rob Sland

      Just because one knows medical professionals and works as one does not mean one has superior knowledge. Only that one may be influenced by the opinion of ones peers. Also your spelling isn’t too hot for a medical profesional. I know a few dentists. I know nothing about teeth. I do know having stopped smoking and having turned to vaping it’s the one device to keep me off cigarettes. And you know what even if I do die from it at least its not only less offensive to me and not causing the obstruction in my lungs that the tar in cigarettes would. It’s also better for the people that surround me who won’t be offended by the smell or the passive smoke. Have an opinion but don’t try and ram it down others throats. You have not done a long term study on the affects of e-cigs. When you publish one then present facts. Not before. Oh and debris on wicks? I’ll call BS in that. How does one get particulates in the liquid from the wick to be transported too the Lung in a vapour form.

      • Cassandra Martinez

        If you have to ask how particulets enter the lungs – from a burning fucking couls on dirty cotton then that explains how little you know and you call it “vapors” you know nothing about chemistry, physics, or biology, and how that all plays into the respiratory system – im not going to sit here and explain it all to you since there are whole semsters (even careers) dedicated to the respiratory system
        And for you to be so indolent and act as if there is no harm invovled yet so naive into pushing your pro vape agenda you know nothing about is almost insulting to the medical community…
        You seriously have no clue what is in most unapproved juices – take a look at the majority of builds and they are black and disgusting yet you claim there is no harm in smoking disgusting black gross looking juice off of dirty black cotton… Its suprising how ignorant people can become yet how much they can pretend to know…
        Once again if you seriously have to ask how a heated coil brings debris on the cotton via the smoke into your body then you dont know enough about this to argue a dogmatic opinion
        See the difference between my argument and your is that mine is backed by known measured accurate science and is a general consensus in the medical community
        And your is off dogmatic bias views with no facts and no knowledge of how the body or chemistry actually works
        Yet you try to tell someone who does have experience in chemistry and biology and physics who can join the California
        nursing program based on the amount of chemistry and biology i know that your argument holds up
        I dont understand

        Why dont you take a look at the required courses to join the nursing program in California at any credited school – and get on that level of knowledge of bio and then come and talk to me
        Its really not that much but it does cover the whole body and general chemistry
        And if you dont know that you shouldnt try to argue with someone who does

        The info is most likely free online
        I used Marieb/Heohn 8th edition i think they on like the 12th but not much changed and the book covers the entire body and the respiratory system in complete detail i also had to take a dedicated course in physics and respiratory system because of how complicated it is – and worked on cadavers took lab praticals where you work with real lungs – did histology (slides) of lung tissue – this was one of the last things we did because of the complication so i dedicated about a year and a half of my life to understanding this
        You most likely havent
        And you argue with someone who has
        I dont understand…
        Like i said if you dont know simple basic concepts like how stuff enters your lungs im not going to explain it to you as you can see the respiratory system is pretty complicated and some peopme have their phds in that alone
        None of them are advocates for vaping…
        People like you with no medical background or experience or education who act like they know everything about it do…

        • Rob Sland

          It’s not Dogma, Research has proven e-cigs to be less harmful than cigarettes. Also I’ve never seen black cotton from e-cigs as when used correctly coils don’t burn. And I know a shit load about physics. I work as a chemist and I have also studied biology and medicine at university. You are a nurse. You can check a pulse and record medical stats, administer medication. You are not a medical expert nor researcher. Just an asshole with an opinion. Don’t assume I have no medical experience. I am certainly more qualified in the field than you. And don’t patronize me. Haha level of biology to get on a nursing program I had that when I left High school. Why do you think you know more than me? Your ignorant. You cant listen to opinions and your quoting bollocks you heard on the grapevine. Also do you think because someone has a PHD they are automatically correct? Honestly don’t bother to reply, your so far up your own ass no one will hear your screams….

        • Rob Sland

          Vapor (American English) Vapour (Unbastardised English). Get some culture before attacking my spelling.

          • Rob Sland

            “Yet you try to tell someone who does have experience in chemistry and biology and physics who can join the California
            nursing program based on the amount of chemistry and biology i know that your argument holds up
            I dont understand”

            This is your argument, you were deemed smart enough to enter a nursing program that you didn’t complete. You don’t know me, you don’t know my level of education. I guarantee I could walk over you on any subject.

        • Rob Sland

          Indolent means lazy, that word was used completely out of context, obviously English wasn’t a requirement to get in to nursing. You are insulting medical professionals by using the fact you spoke to a couple of them once to try and enforce your flawed thinking. I have no agenda, I just like to Vape. Also I pretend to know nothing and merely talk in facts so as to expose your idiocy..

    • Rob Sland

      when you say you was on the nursing program, does that mean you didn’t complete the nursing program. Sure sounds like it? And your pre-grad respiratory project is way below the level of evidence required to convince me that you know anything. BTW I studied the respiratory system to as I was a radiographer.

    • Rob Sland

      Just how many people have your friends treated in hospital as a direct result of E-cig related ailments???? And why would knowing a lot of medial people give you superior knowledge. I know lots of fisherman, does that mean I am a leading expert on fishing? You talk a lot of knowing people, not so much of knowing anything about the subject though.

  • Rob Sland

    I’d Like a full explanation of how these fibres are transported to the lung in a vapor and why if this did occur why the cilia in the lungs would not simply eject them..