Quitting Cold Turkey

Quitting Cold Turkey

The Misconceptions and Dangers of Quitting Cold Turkey

Perhaps you drink too much or you’ve gotten hooked on that prescription drug you needed last year. Whatever it is, you need to quit. Maybe you think you can just stop without any professional help whatsoever. With so many treatment options for drug and alcohol abuse, though, is cold turkey the best way to end your addiction?

Everyone has tried to go cold turkey at least once, whether they wanted to get off caffeine or quit smoking. However, even relatively harmless habits are tough to break without some assistance. Imagine how much harder it is to end a habit that’s impacted every aspect of your life.

call today learn more view our programs

You might be wondering, “Should I quit cold turkey or get professional help for my drug or alcohol abuse?” We’re here to help you make the right choice.

What Does Cold Turkey Mean?

When you go cold turkey, you completely stop taking whatever it is you want to give up. There’s no tapering off or cheating. It’s an abrupt cessation. No one knows exactly where the term came from, but the most likely explanation makes the most sense: It’s an extension of the phrase talk turkey, which means to speak bluntly.

Many people think going cold turkey is the best way to break a bad habit because it only requires discipline and willpower. Besides, what’s the worst that could happen? There are two problems with this thinking. For one thing, your willpower is probably not a strong as your craving. Second, the worst that could happen is pretty serious:

  • You suffer withdrawal symptoms, ranging from nausea and vomiting to confusion and lack of concentration;
  • You give in to the craving and return to the addictive behavior;
  • You get dehydrated, you have seizures or your heart starts racing, any of which raises the risk of death.

As it turns out, these worst-case scenarios are common enough to make cold turkey far less effective than, say, entering a treatment program that uses medical and therapeutic means to end addiction.

What Happens When You Go Cold Turkey?

People decide to go cold turkey for all kinds of reasons. Some may be worried about the cost of a treatment program. Others may think detox medications are just as addictive as whatever they’re giving up. Still others that think sheer willpower will keep them clean and sober. It doesn’t take long before these people rethink their plans.

Frequent or long-term abuse of alcohol, painkillers, or other drugs damages your heart, lungs, kidneys, pancreas, liver and other vital organs, and it can decrease your sex drive or lead to infertility. One of the most insidious effects of addiction is the physical and/or psychological dependence it creates.

Many substances cause your nerve cells to release large amounts of dopamine, the hormone that creates feelings of pleasure. Eventually, your body stops producing dopamine on its own, so you need to keep taking that substance to produce these pleasurable feelings. What’s more, as your body builds up a tolerance to the drug, you need more and more of it just to feel balanced.

So, is cold turkey safe? Clearly, it’s safer than using drugs, but thanks to the symptoms of withdrawal, there’s nothing pleasurable about it. Plus, the further along you are in your addiction, the harder it is to stop taking whatever caused it, and the more severe your withdrawal symptoms will be.

Physical Symptoms

If you’ve become addicted to drugs or alcohol, your body has learned to live with the large amounts you take. When you quit cold turkey, it’s a shock to the system that manifests itself in a variety of ways, including:

Side Effects of Quitting Cold Turkey
Body aches
Wild swings in body temperature
Fever and excessive sweating
Heart palpitations
Chills and shivers
Nausea and vomiting
Runny eyes and nose
Dilated pupils

Some symptoms appear in the first few days; others show up later. As your body starts to adjust to sobriety, the symptoms get less severe. However bad they get, though, the physical symptoms of drug withdrawal are easier to manage than the longer-term psychological effects – unless you do it with professional help.

Psychological Symptoms

An addicted brain goes through as many changes as an addicted body. It may be euphoric and restless one day and anxious and paranoid the next. It also loses sight of everything else except when you can get high again. As you stop drinking or taking drugs, you’ll still go through these phases, as well as a few others, such as:

Phases of Quitting Cold Turkey
Insomnia or excessive sleepiness An inability to concentrate
Bouts of depression Irritation, agitation and anxiety
Hallucinations An inability to concentrate
Disorientation or confusion

Some people go through these psychological effects because of the addiction itself, while others may experience them because of untreated mental health issues that drove them to alcohol and substance abuse in the first place. In either case, it’s better to get help managing these effects than go through them all alone.

In nearly every case of drug withdrawal, the physical and psychological effects are uncomfortable and even painful, but they lessen over time and cause no damage to the former user. Some symptoms, however, are more severe and can start a chain of events that proves fatal.

Is Going Cold Turkey Dangerous?

Is going cold turkey dangerous?

This question comes up from time to time, particularly when we hear about someone passing away after giving up alcohol or drugs. A 2010 article in Psychology Today warned of the dangers of death during withdrawal from alcohol, opiates and benzodiazepines, but the incidence is far lower than the risk.

Addiction specialists Frederick B. Glaser and John C. Ball reviewed nearly 100 years of English and American research on opiate addiction. During that entire time, only 55 cases of death during withdrawal were ever documented. Glaser and Ball concluded that these deaths were caused by pre-existing conditions and treatment techniques, not the withdrawal itself. That doesn’t mean cold turkey is a safe option, though.

Over time, your body gets used to the drugs and alcohol you’re consuming. This means your body will eventually need these substances to maintain homeostasis, or a state of psychological stability. As the abuse continues, you’ll develop a tolerance for the substance and need more and more of it to achieve this stability. While most of the symptoms are temporary and not life-threatening, some of them are, including:

Delirium Tremens

Commonly known as DTs, delirium tremens are among the most severe consequences of alcohol withdrawal. Signs include global confusion, hallucinations, anxiety attacks and tremors. Although it only affects 5 percent of alcoholics, the mortality rate can be as high as 15 percent, even with proper treatment.


Quitting opiates or sedatives cold turkey can cause seizures, characterized by tremors, spasms and other involuntary movements of the body. While a seizure itself isn’t fatal, it could still lead to death if, for instance, it occurs while the sufferer is driving or swimming, or if he or she falls and suffers a head injury.


Drug and alcohol users tend to get dehydrated, but so can people who stop cold turkey. Withdrawal can cause you to lose fluids, from nausea and vomiting to sweating due to anxiety and panic attacks. If you don’t replace those fluids, your body will start to shut down, one function at a time.

Heart Attack

Nearly every drug that has ever been abused, prescription or illicit, has been shown to cause cardiovascular damage, so a user is already at a higher risk of heart attack. That risk is even higher during withdrawal – quitting cold turkey is a shock to the system, which can lead to cardiac arrhythmia.

Suicidal Thoughts

Some people started abusing drugs or alcohol to cope with the effects of an untreated mood disorder. Other long-time abusers might develop mood disorders as the abuse becomes an addiction. Either way, the physical and emotional impact of quitting cold turkey without professional help leads to mood swings, which either make people feel suicidal or actually attempt to kill themselves.

The potentially fatal consequences of going cold turkey are why we don’t recommend it, but there’s another reason to avoid it – it almost never works. A comprehensive treatment program that addresses all the causes and effects of alcohol and substance abuse is the only way to stay drug- and alcohol-free over the long term.

Is Cold Turkey the Best Way?

Even with the risk of death associated with quitting cold turkey, the method might have more support from addiction professionals if it actually worked from time to time. It doesn’t. Look at any website that covers addiction and recovery. None of them, including 12keysrecovery.com, cite cold turkey as a viable treatment. Even those articles that talk about withdrawal do so in the context of medically assisted detox.

The fact is, recovering from drug or alcohol addiction isn’t simple. Only 5 percent of smokers manage to stay smoke-free by going cold turkey, compared to a 20 percent rate overall. The relapse rate among those struggling with addiction in all types of recovery might be as high as 90 percent, so it’s hard to see how cold turkey could ever be successful.

There are many reasons why someone would start abusing alcohol or drugs, and none of them are addressed by simply stopping. Here are some of the reasons why a treatment program is better than the cold turkey approach.

Addiction Doesn’t Exist in a Silo

Alcohol or substance abuse doesn’t just happen.

Environment: Even if your family isn’t vulnerable to addiction, exposure to drug use can lead to future use. So can childhood abuse or violence, peer pressure or easy access. Growing up in a troubling environment increases your risk of developing a problem.Mental Illness: People with depression, bipolar disorder or schizophrenia may turn to alcohol and drugs to even out wild mood swings or to cope with hallucinations and delusions. They may also lack the judgment to control their intake, upping their risk of both building up a tolerance and overdose.

Factors that Cause Alcohol or Substance Abuse
Genetic Predisposition: Studies show that genetics account for 50 percent of your risk of becoming addicted. Two people can face the same circumstances, but one will struggle with addiction and the other won’t, all because one carries the gene and the other doesn’t.

Quitting cold turkey might keep you clean for a few days, but it does nothing to address these factors that might have led to the addiction in the first place. Without the right interventions, these factors will eventually come back and lead to a relapse.

It Takes More Than Willpower to Stay Clean

If you started using to cope with issues in your life, you’ll eventually develop a physical addiction that leaves you craving the stuff even if you don’t want it. If you got hooked because you were already predisposed to addiction, you may use enough to develop emotional and psychological effects that only continued use seems to manage. Either way, the addiction can become more powerful than your desire to quit.

The problem with going cold turkey is that you don’t learn how to address the factors that led to addiction, or how to respond to triggers that might make you want to use again. You can quit cold turkey to get clean. To stay clean, you also need other treatments, including:

Other Treatments You May Need To Stay Clean
detox Detox:
The only way to stay sober is to get rid of the physical craving for drugs or alcohol, and detox is the only way to do this. Some programs help you manage the symptoms of withdrawal during the first few days, while others may prescribe methadone or another drug over a longer period to lessen the cravings.
therapy Counseling:
Once your body has recovered, you need to address the emotional and psychological issues behind it. Many people do this at a residential facility, where they participate in numerous activities, including one-on-one therapy, to help them understand the causes and effects of addiction and acquire the tools needed to maintain a long-term recovery.
medical1 Medical Treatment:
Not all addictions have a psychological basis. Many people get hooked on painkillers after suffering an injury or having surgery, or start using to cope with the effects of untreated mental health issues. A comprehensive rehab program helps these clients find alternative solutions to these issues.
group Social Support:
Long-term recovery is only possible with a strong support system. For some, this means regular meetings with a support group. For others, it means reaching out to friends, relatives and coworkers when they need help. Either way, it means not going through recovery alone.

Quitting a Substance Doesn’t End Addictive Tendencies


It’s not uncommon to look for something to fill up the time you used to spend drinking or getting high. In fact, developing or rediscovering a hobby is a great way to maintain your sobriety. Quitting cold turkey creates the time, but it doesn’t squash the addictive part of your personality – it simply leaves room to develop another addiction.

If you quit drinking, you might take up smoking. A recovering heroin addict might go online to gamble when they get the urge to use. Someone else might throw themselves into work to avoid using painkillers. You spend more and more time on this new activity, and before you know it you’ve replaced one addiction with another.

Substitute addictions can occur even in therapeutic sessions, but they’re a definite risk when you quit cold turkey. Sudden withdrawal doesn’t give you the tools to cope with the cravings you’ll feel from time to time, nor does it teach you how to live a medium life without drugs or alcohol. The only way to address the addictive aspects of your personality is to confront it head-on through therapy and other emotional support.

So, is cold turkey the best way to overcome addiction? Based on the statistics and the unintended consequences, it’s not even a good way.

Should I Quit Cold Turkey? The Final Analysis

Quitting cold turkey is never a good idea. At the very least, it leads to severe withdrawal that can be physically and emotionally wrenching. At worst, it leads to death. Even if you don’t look at it in terms of “is cold turkey safe” or “is cold turkey dangerous,” the approach does nothing to help you resolve the factors that may have led to the addictive behavior in the first place.

Going cold turkey assumes you can just stop abusing drugs and alcohol and be done with it. If it were that simple, there would be no such thing as addiction. The best way to quit – and the only way that leads to long-term sobriety – is to commit to a program that offers the medical, social and emotional support you need to put addiction behind you once and for all.

When you’re ready to rid yourself of drugs and alcohol, don’t do it alone – call 12 Keys Recovery today and take your first step to a life without addiction.

The Dangers of Quitting Cold Turkey at Home

One of the least effective types of drug rehab is the kind that happens at home with no professional supervision. Yet many people still see it as a viable alternative to inpatient recovery. Some may be put off by the costs of rehab or don’t want to be away from work or family for months. Others might think drug abuse is just a question of willpower and believe they can quit cold turkey.

The fact is, rehab is difficult and takes a lot of work — even with the support of counselors and other professionals. When going through it alone, the odds of long-term recovery are close to zero. Here are the biggest reasons why at-home drug rehabilitation is ineffective and dangerous:

There’s no safe way to manage the physical symptoms of drug detox at home.

After quitting cold turkey, many people suffer debilitating withdrawal symptoms, from nausea and vomiting to tremors and hallucinations. These symptoms can last hours, days or even weeks, and they can be so overwhelming that the addict starts using again just to ease the pain.

It’s possible to minimize these effects using medically-assisted detox, but this should only be performed under the supervision of an experienced detox professional. If you attempt to manage the symptoms of withdrawal at home, your efforts could be ineffective, dangerous or both.

Drug detox at home doesn’t help the user address the causes and effects of addiction.

Even after the body has overcome its dependence on drugs, the factors that led to the abuse don’t go away. The stresses of work and family don’t disappear, and you may still face situations where the desire to use is overwhelming. Unless you find a way to manage these stressors during rehab at home, they may undermine any attempt to get clean and sober.

Going through withdrawal doesn’t prepare you to lead a life in recovery – that only comes from meeting regularly with counselors in one-on-one and group sessions.

Family and friends don’t have the capacity to provide the necessary support.

Of course, friends and family are there to support your path to recovery. Their support, however, may not be the support you need to stay clean over the long term. At-home drug rehabilitation requires you to do everything yourself, whether you have the skills and training or not.

By contrast, a licensed rehab facility provides the services and resources your need to go through the recovery process. Skilled counselors work at these facilities and help addicts achieve and maintain a life without drug abuse. They’ll also help you manage the challenges that arise along the way.

Rehab at Home is Dangerous – Let Us Help

Regardless of the issues stemming from your alcohol abuse, they won’t go away with drug rehab or detox at home – nor will the factors that led to the abuse be easier to manage. You need a tailored recovery process to assure sobriety now and over the long term.

12 Keys Rehab provides this support with a blend of counseling, activities and therapies that heal your mind, body and spirit. When you’re ready to live a life free of addiction, call us at 1-800-338-5770 for a personal, confidential consultation.

Get Addiction Help Now
We've changed 1000s of lives

call today learn more view our programs

The Addiction Blog