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How long does nicotine stay in your system?

High nicotine levels may affect your ability to get life insurance — and hike up your rates.

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As a tobacco user, finding insurance can be frustrating because the lowest rates go to nonsmokers. Smokers are classified as high-risk applicants, and insurers tend to charge higher rates to compensate for that risk. Here’s how long you’ll need to wait until nicotine fully leaves your system, opening up the possibility of passing your provider’s test.

How long can I expect nicotine to show up on a test?

Most blood tests will show if you’ve smoked within the last three weeks, depending on the test. It takes at least three days for nicotine to leave your blood, but insurance providers test for another compound — cotinine — that’s formed after nicotine enters your body. Cotinine can stay in your body for up to three weeks or longer.

Different tests are used to determine whether you have nicotine or cotinine in your system. Some are more sensitive than others, measuring the concentration of compounds in your system to determine whether you’re a smoker or simply live with one.

Types of nicotine tests

For a typical test, a medical professional takes a bodily sample to test for nicotine or cotinine. Here are four tests you might encounter.

  • Urine test. The most common, this test is used to gauge cotinine levels, detecting nicotine for up to a week after it was absorbed into your bloodstream.
  • Saliva test. Less common, a saliva test can detect nicotine over a longer period of time. Your medical professional may ask you to take this in conjunction with the urine test for more accurate results.
  • Hair test. A highly accurate test, this one’s expensive. Your insurer may ask you to take it only in special circumstances. It can detect nicotine one to three months after you’ve stopped smoking — and sometimes longer.
  • Blood test. Very rarely, your insurer will ask you to take a blood test. It’s extremely accurate as long as it’s given within its detection window — one to three days for nicotine and one to 10 days for cotinine.

Nicotine may stay in your system longer depending on your age, your health, how long you’ve been smoking and other factors.

How do nicotine levels affect life insurance?

Life insurance companies split applicants into two categories: smokers and nonsmokers. Since smoking is linked to other health complications, like heart disease, cancer and respiratory issues, smokers are considered riskier to insure. As a result, insurers charge more expensive rates to those who test positive for nicotine. The reason isn’t subtle: If you’re a nicotine user, there’s a higher probability that your insurer will have to pay out your policy.

How do insurers test nicotine levels?

When you apply for a traditional life insurance policy, you’ll most likely need to take a medical exam. This is similar to a standard physical, and as part of it, you’ll be asked for a blood and urine sample. Your insurer will then run labs to test your alcohol, drug and nicotine levels, and then use this information to set your rates.

If you use these tobacco products, your blood will test positive for nicotine:

  • Cigarettes
  • Chewing tobacco
  • Cigars
  • Smoking cessation products that contain nicotine

Does secondhand smoke show up on the nicotine test?

While secondhand smoke can affect your health, your body doesn’t absorb it to the same extent as other direct smoking methods. So, secondhand smoke won’t show up on the nicotine test.

Do occasional or celebratory cigars affect my health insurance premium?

If you only puff a cigar once in a while, you might wonder whether that makes you a smoker to your insurer.

Some insurers will give you the smoker’s rate if you smoke cigars, even occasionally. However, others will classify you as a “non–tobacco user” as long as you smoke under a specified number of cigars a month. For some companies, that’s one a month. When you’re comparing insurers, be sure to look into how lenient they are when it comes to celebratory cigars.

Is there a way to guarantee I’ll pass a nicotine test?

Unfortunately, the only way to guarantee passing is to quit smoking.

However, quitting your nicotine habit before applying for life insurance does not mean that you’ll pass a nicotine test. Your ability to pass depends on many factors that include your health, how long you’ve been smoking, your smoking frequency and your overall diet.

If you’re committed to staying tobacco-free, you might be able to help your body rid itself of nicotine and cotinine faster by embracing a few key changes to your diet and lifestyle. For example, consuming Vitamin C can help flush nicotine from your bloodstream. Plus, eating more fruits and vegetables might help decrease your cravings for cigarettes. Broccoli, spinach, kiwis and oranges are fine choices.

Can I test my own nicotine levels?

Yes. You can buy nicotine test kits to use at home. They’re fairly easy to use, because they just need samples of your urine. They also tend to be fairly inexpensive.

Though home test kits may not give you a definitive reading, they can give you more confidence that a medical exam won’t detect nicotine in your system.

What if I don’t pass a nicotine test?

If you have a strong feeling you won’t pass a nicotine test, you have two options:

  1. Apply for life insurance later. If you can manage without coverage, waiting a month or more will greatly increase your odds of passing a nicotine test — and getting a better health profile.
  2. Get a no-medical exam policy. You can skip the medical exam by applying for a simplified or guaranteed issue policy. These policies don’t require a medical exam, though you might still have to complete a questionnaire about your health and lifestyle. Just know that while these policies can open up coverage for high-risk applicants, they tend to be more expensive and capped at small amounts, like $100,000.

How upfront should I be about my nicotine use?

You should always tell the truth about your smoking habits when applying for life insurance.

First, it’s illegal to lie about your smoking when applying for life insurance. And second, you don’t want the awkward situation of a nicotine test giving you away after you’ve said you were tobacco-free.

If your insurer later discovers that you were a smoker when you claimed you weren’t, they could deny paying out your death claim benefit to your loved ones. Alternatively, they could choose to pay the death benefit that your premium payments would have purchased at the smoker’s rate — meaning your beneficiaries could end up with less money.

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Bottom line

Nicotine use is a red flag for insurers, so you can expect to pay more for coverage if you regularly use tobacco products. If you’re a former smoker or a smoker who would rather not take the nicotine test, you can hold off on applying for coverage or opt for a no-medical exam policy. Either way, learn more about life insurance for smokers and be sure to compare providers to get the best possible rate.

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