Substance Use

Going Cold Turkey

TABLE OF CONTENTSTable of Contents

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Quitting Cold Turkey – What Can Happen?

When someone mentions they are “quitting cold turkey,” you know what they intend. This brief phrase means to stop doing something completely (or at least attempt to). Whether it’s smoking, alcohol, drugs, or unhealthy eating, quitting cold turkey can refer to any habit you wish to discontinue. 

In some cases, this approach will work. However, quitting cold turkey can be dangerous in others, such as when you abruptly stop drinking after a physical dependence develops. Substance abuse and dependence are complex. Based on your substance of choice, your medical history, and mental health, you may require specialized treatment throughout the withdrawal process. Ongoing treatment is also critical, requiring individualized support — especially when underlying mental health conditions are of concern. 

Whether you or your loved one are planning to quit cold turkey, to give up an addictive substance that you have become dependent on, you must understand what that means and the risks involved. This guide covers what you can expect, so you can take proactive steps to protect your well-being and ongoing recovery. 

What Does Cold Turkey Mean?

As discussed above, cold turkey means the immediate quitting of a habit. Although not always, this expression often refers to overcoming an addiction. The actual origin of “cold turkey” has sparked much debate. This expression first appeared in the context of quitting in a 1921 edition of The Daily Colonist. The content described patients going before a particular doctor to receive the “cold turkey” treatment. 

Most likely, this figurative phrase came from the expression “talk cold turkey,” meaning to be straight up and honest with someone. However, several possible explanations exist, including one that stems from the withdrawal symptoms experienced by addicts who stop using. Since those in withdrawal can experience chills, goosebumps, and pallid skin, these symptoms are likened to a cold, uncooked bird. 

Regardless of this expression’s origin, in the context of addiction, quitting cold turkey means to stop using a drug abruptly. When you use a substance for prolonged periods or take high doses, you will develop a dependence. At this time, you can expect withdrawal symptoms to develop when you no longer take that substance your body and brain are used to getting. 

Cold Turkey Symptoms

The symptoms you experience when going cold turkey will depend on the substance of abuse. For example, withdrawal from heroin will create different symptoms than those associated with benzodiazepines or antidepressants. Although there may be some overlap, each class of substances will cause unique withdrawal symptoms when attempting to go cold turkey.

Some of the common withdrawal symptoms following sudden cessation of drugs and alcohol include:

  • Sleep issues 
  • Mood changes 
  • Irritability and increased anxiety 
  • Hallucinations 
  • Nausea 
  • Fatigue 
  • Aches and pains
  • Flu-like symptoms

More severe symptoms may also include tremors, disorientation, paranoia, and seizures. For example, the mortality rate for patients who experience delirium tremens is between 1% and 5%.

If you plan to cut out alcohol after a period of prolonged consumption, this “cold turkey” approach means you will begin to experience mild withdrawal symptoms within hours of your last drink. In this case, your central nervous system becomes reliant on alcohol because of extended exposure to ethanol. By the 12-hour mark, moderate symptoms can develop, including seizures and hallucinations. Approximately 50% of patients who experience a withdrawal seizure will progress to delirium tremens, a severe and potentially life-threatening symptom. 

Since alcohol withdrawal can be a hazardous process, you must seek a calm, controlled environment. The goal is to reduce the progression of your symptoms and monitor your condition as you complete the withdrawal process. When a professional medical team supervises you, they can effectively intervene to ensure the highest levels of comfort and safety.

This recommendation applies to any substance of abuse. However, some are more dangerous than others. In addition to alcohol, opiate and benzodiazepine withdrawal symptoms can be deadly under certain circumstances. Attempting to quit cold turkey or at home unsupervised can be very dangerous. For example, benzodiazepines can also lead to fatal seizures and severe psychological withdrawal symptoms. If you have an underlying mental health condition, panic attacks and depression can be overwhelming during the withdrawal process. 

If you often combine substances of abuse, the withdrawal process will become even more complicated. To ensure your safety, you should seek an individualized assessment. That way, an expert team can make sure you have everything you need to overcome the initial withdrawal period. Once your body has physically eliminated substances of abuse, you can then focus on the next steps. 

Is Going Cold Turkey Safe?

The answer to this question is not black and white since quitting cold turkey refers to many habits and substances. Under certain circumstances, “cold turkey” is highly effective, such as for smoking cessation. Research shows that for nicotine, those who prefer gradual cessation are less likely to be successful at quitting. Participants who quit abruptly were more likely to be abstinent at four weeks than those who chose gradual cessation.

Although nicotine withdrawal symptoms are uncomfortable, they are not life-threatening, like those experienced during alcohol or opiate withdrawal.

So, cold turkey is safe under certain circumstances. Still, this approach also poses a higher risk when attempting to withdraw from select substances of abuse — especially if you suffer from preexisting health conditions.

Alcohol is one of the most dangerous substances to withdraw from abruptly, as shown throughout the research. The events and disease processes accompanying acute alcohol withdrawal can cause significant illness and death. If you were to quit cold turkey unsupervised, one of the most significant concerns should be seizures. Delirium tremens, characterized by mental confusion and hallucinations, are also concerning. Psychiatric complications can also be problematic among those suffering from severe co-occurring mental health conditions, such as severe depression.

After long-term use, the heart is often a major site of alcohol-induced organ damage. Sadly, some individuals may experience increased sudden cardiac death due to alcohol-related arrhythmia complications. The alcohol withdrawal process is complex and significantly varies from one individual to the next.

If you plan on withdrawing from alcohol, it is highly recommended you seek the support of a professional clinical team. That way, you will be monitored throughout the withdrawal period. Quitting cold turkey at home can be dangerous.

How to Prepare If Going Cold Turkey

The most crucial step to take when preparing to go cold turkey is understanding the risks. Educate yourself on what the withdrawal process entails based on your substance of choice. Also, be realistic about what that means for your immediate health and ongoing recovery process. Is there a risk of severe complications? If so, you need to decide to protect yourself. 

As discussed above, many complications are possible, including life-threatening withdrawal symptoms. Since there is no one-size-fits-all treatment plan available, what worked for someone you know may not be ideal for you. Remember, you are a unique individual, and you need to consider many variables before committing to the withdrawal process. 

The number one goal is to stay safe. So, if you plan to quit cold turkey, it’s recommended you seek the advice and support of a professional treatment facility. By seeking professional help, you will not only be able to navigate withdrawal symptoms more comfortably and safely, but you will also reduce your risk of relapse thanks to ongoing, structured support. Having a stable environment will help you address cravings so that you do not continue to reenter a cycle of abuse. 

For example, when working with a professional support team, you will learn to identify your triggers, whether they are social, emotional, or habitual. Of course, it is challenging to avoid triggers altogether, but when you have the support of an expert team, you will learn how to cope with certain situations while actively improving your mental health. Remember, overcoming addiction takes more than willpower. There is a solid biological basis concerning addiction that involves changes in the brain — and for some, the recovery process takes months, even years. You don’t need to attempt that journey alone. 

If you are worried that you’re becoming dependent on a prescription drug, speak to your doctor about your current needs and dose. If you are ready to enter a tapering plan and are not suffering from any underlying mental health concerns, you may be able to effectively work with your physician to gradually and safely lower your dosage. However, in many cases, it isn’t this simple. You may feel as though you have lost control over your drug use. If so, the best thing you can do is ask for help. 

Regardless of the substance you’re addicted to, or the circumstances surrounding your addiction, the most critical step to take is to make a plan. Setting goals is an essential part of the recovery process. Realistic short- and long-term goals will help guide you. For example, your short-term goals may be participating in group therapy twice a week and individual therapy once a week. You may also want to focus on your well-being, commit to walking three times a week, make changes to your diet, and begin to practice meditation

Your long-term goals may include:

  • Remaining drug-free for a year
  • Having sober friends that will support your journey
  • Rebuilding relationships that were negatively affected by your drug or alcohol use

Again, you can discuss this with your care team or physician. 

When to Call for Help

If you decide to quit cold turkey at home, be prepared for the worst. Have someone at home that supports your recovery. This support may be a sober friend or family member that have your best interests in mind. Before you begin the detoxification process, invite that support person to attend a doctor or counselor appointment. That way, they know what to expect and can take action during the worst-case scenario. It’s better to overprepare than under prepare. You need to be honest about your level of use so that your healthcare provider can determine whether you should be admitted to a supervised medical center. 

When you seek outside support before an at-home detox period, you can gain access to medications and advice — both of which could save your life. For example, when withdrawing from alcohol, your physician may prescribe a diazepam regimen to reduce your risk of severe withdrawal symptoms, including seizures and delirium. Doses of oral thiamine may also be prescribed to help prevent Wernicke’s encephalopathy — an acute neurological condition — since a vitamin B1 deficiency is common among those with alcohol dependence.

Before you consider detoxing at home, discuss the precautions with a clinical professional, especially if you have concerns about:

  • A serious underlying illness
  • Thoughts of suicide
  • A history of withdrawal seizures 
  • A lack of support during this time (e.g., not having access to a support person or safe housing during the first few days)

It’s also essential to understand the risks of a possible fatal relapse. If you recently quit using a substance or plan to quit cold turkey, your tolerance for that drug of choice will drop. If you relapse and take the same dose you did before quitting, you can more easily overdose. Again, that is why it’s so valuable to have a support team in place, especially if you have struggled with drugs and alcohol for years. An inpatient treatment center will allow you to overcome the withdrawal period and recover in a safe, structured environment.

So, when do you call for help?

As discussed, you should seek help before you start the withdrawal process. That way, you have the support needed to ensure your safety. If you need assistance during the withdrawal process, you need to have contact information readily available, whether for your physician, a substance abuse treatment facility, or emergency services. 

If you begin to experience unwanted mental health effects or dangerous physical effects, do not hesitate to call for help. 

You Are Not Alone

Although quitting cold turkey at home is possible, this approach isn’t generally recommended. If you have been using drugs and alcohol for an extended period or taking high doses, you are at risk of severe withdrawal symptoms.

You don’t need to begin this journey alone; help is available. Call a professional substance abuse and mental health facility like Zinnia Healing to discuss your options today.