What Is the Difference between Nicotine and Cotinine?

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  • Written By: H. Lo
  • Edited By: E. E. Hubbard
  • Last Modified Date: 12 September 2019
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The difference between nicotine and cotinine is that nicotine is an alkaline chemical and cotinine is the primary metabolite of nicotine. In other words, the body breaks down nicotine, and cotinine is the major substance, out of more than 20 substances, produced as a result. Using nicotine, or being exposed to it, increases the concentration of both nicotine and cotinine in the body. This relationship between nicotine and cotinine allows for tests that will confirm the use or exposure to nicotine. This measurement is possible through taking a cotinine test.

Nicotine itself is found in tobacco products such as cigarettes, tobacco chew, and nicotine patches or gums. It is an addictive substance and is poisonous in a large amount. In addition to addiction, some of the other substances within tobacco products, such as carbon monoxide or tar, are dangerous to the body and can lead to medical conditions such as emphysema, lung cancer, and heart disease. Also, studies suggest that there might be a connection between nicotine and anxiety, depression, and panic attacks. As a medication, nicotine can help tobacco users quit smoking by reducing withdrawal symptoms from nicotine addiction.


Cotinine is not a dangerous substance. Since it is only comes from metabolized nicotine, the amount of cotinine found in the body is a good measurement of the amount of nicotine that a person has had in his or her body due to tobacco inhalation or exposure. Those who do not smoke should not have any cotinine in their system, unless they breathe in smoke from other people’s use of tobacco. In some cases, however, a non-smoker might have cotinine in his or her system due to exposure of nicotine found in pesticides. The amount of cotinine in those who use tobacco varies individually, as the measurement depends upon different factors, including what a person smokes, how much he or she smokes, and how long ago he or she smoked.

Some people, whether they smoke or not, might need or want to get a cotinine test done. Even after nicotine is no longer present, this test can still provide a cotinine measurement because cotinine takes longer to leave the body. A cotinine test can be helpful in a variety of ways. In addition to ascertaining the amount of tobacco in a person’s system, it can confirm secondhand smoke, measure a person’s progress in quitting smoking, or verify nicotine poisoning. A cotinine test itself involves giving a blood sample or urine sample, although sometimes the test is done with a hair sample or saliva sample.


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