The Risks of Quitting Cold Turkey

Going Cold Turkey: Is It a Good Idea?

The Risks of Quitting Cold Turkey

Written by Valiant Living Recovery on Saturday, December 19th, 2020

From an old American idiom referring to a straightforward, no-frills manner of speaking, ‘cold turkey’ has come to mean taking a similarly direct approach to addiction: simply stopping one’s use of drugs, alcohol, or any other addictive substance. This method can have lasting benefits but can also come with dangerous side effects and increased hazards of withdrawal and relapse.

The alternative approach is to gradually cut down on usage and wean oneself off an addictive substance over time. Each method comes with pros and cons. Ultimately, however you choose to handle your recovery, getting professional help can make a world of difference in successfully getting sober and staying sober.

Understand the Risks

Going cold turkey comes with risks. Even before considering the daily challenge of resisting the urges of addiction, you’ll have to prepare for withdrawal symptoms and the side effects of detox. Depending on the substance, withdrawal symptoms can include tremors, nausea, depression, anxiety, hallucinations, fatigue, and paranoia.

It is often unadvisable to quit cold turkey if the substance in question is alcohol, a benzodiazepine, or an opiate. Detox from these substances typically includes severe withdrawal symptoms that can even cause irreparable mental and physical harm to a person seeking to break their dependence.

Quitting alcohol cold turkey can cause the body to go through delirium tremens, or ‘shaking frenzy.’ Also known as the “DT’s”, this condition includes a collection of severe withdrawal symptoms in alcohol users, including seizures, heart palpitations, and hallucinations.

These symptoms can kill you if you’re not in an environment prepared to help you manage them properly.

Be Prepared in Case of Relapse

Another risk of going cold turkey is the increased risk of relapse. Upon stopping your use of a substance, your body’s tolerance for it will quickly drop. If you do end up relapsing, your lowered tolerance means you’re at a much greater risk of overdose by taking the same amount you’ve taken in the past.

Gradually cutting down your usage doesn’t invite quite as much risk of overdose. However, it does still come with chances of relapse. In this case, relapse means returning to unmeasured substance usage, without regard for your recovery plan.

Relapsing even one can bring feelings of shame, guilt, and frustration. It may also mean starting the entire weaning-off process from the beginning.

No matter which approach you take, it’s best to be prepared with a plan in case of relapse so that if it does occur, you won’t be stranded in dismay with no clear path forward.

The Gradual Approach

Slowly tapering down can be a safer tactic if the substance is highly addictive and dangerous in higher doses, alcohol or opiates. As mentioned above, weaning yourself off can lower your risk of dramatic withdrawal symptoms, medical complications, and accidental overdose in the event of a relapse.

Simultaneously, counting on your own resolve to correctly manage your gradual decrease in substance use is a tricky business. One clear danger of the incremental approach is that you’re combating your ingrained desire to increase your dosage each time you use. It’s often extremely challenging to stick to a planned taper. In some cases, it may even be downright impossible.

Quitting Under Medical Supervision

It’s been established that people who quit using an addictive substance cold turkey are more successful if they do so in a supportive environment. Most addicted people need help to get them through the complicated process of withdrawal and restabilization.

Going cold turkey at home leaves you pitted against the physical and mental agonies of withdrawal without medical assistance. As such, this method has a much higher chance of short-term relapse, along with health complications arising from withdrawal symptoms.

Going cold turkey in a recovery center or treatment facility means you’re armed with professionals who can monitor your progress.

These experts can also administer tremendously helpful medication as things get rough and offer you the emotional support and encouragement to make it through the acute stages of withdrawal.

Quitting gradually is also much more comfortable with professional guidance. Consulting with a recovery team or treatment specialist can help you form a plan for breaking addiction on a personalized schedule.

It takes the pressure off you to hold yourself accountable, opening up your disorder to the input and support of people whose job is to lift you up and help you through.

Recovery and treatment centers also ease your gradual recovery with effective medication, mindfulness practices, therapy, medical attention, and 24/7 availability if you hit any roadblocks.

Whether you plan to approach your recovery cold turkey or gradually, your chances at getting through withdrawal and staying sober long-term are dramatically improved by getting professional help.

At Valiant Living in Denver, Colorado, we provide an immersive, safe environment designed to help you through every part of your treatment, from initial withdrawal to long-term recovery planning.

We specialize in transitioning people addiction, using an approach that combines physical, mental, and emotional tactics to address your substance abuse disorder at the root. If you’re planning your recovery and are considering going cold turkey or taking it gradually, get in touch with Valiant Living to discuss your options.

We can help identify the best path forward for your treatment, connect you with specialists, and support you every step of the way. Your recovery is your future – you don’t have to go it alone. Call us at (303) 952-5035 to learn more.

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Should You Quit Smoking Cold Turkey?

The Risks of Quitting Cold Turkey

Quitting smoking is hard. According to the CDC, quitting smoking often takes several attempts.

1 Despite the fact that most adult smokers want to quit, fewer than one in ten smokers succeed in quitting smoking each year.

2 Why is quitting smoking so hard? Quitting isn’t tough because smokers lack willpower; it’s because nicotine is extremely addictive, and withdrawal symptoms can be intense.3

To quit smoking cold turkey may seem the easiest way to finally be done with cigarettes, especially for someone who’s tried to quit smoking a few times already. But is white-knuckling it through withdrawal symptoms actually effective? Find out more information on the whether the cold turkey method would work for you below.

What Does Going “Cold Turkey” Mean?

Going “cold turkey” means to stop all tobacco products at once and fight your way through any withdrawal symptoms.4 Rather than using nicotine replacement products or medicine, the cold turkey approach requires you to cut out all nicotine products from your life from the get-go. There is no weaning off period for nicotine for smokers who quit cold turkey.

Quitting cigarettes cold turkey is extremely difficult. Research over the past 25 years has shown that while some people can quit with the cold turkey method, at least 95 percent of people can't.9 But, using nicotine replacement therapy products can increase your chances of success and help make quitting more successful.

What Are Common Issues When Quitting Smoking Cold Turkey?

The cold turkey method has its drawbacks. Before you quit smoking cold turkey, it’s important to understand the difficulties. Quitting cold turkey can disrupt your body’s chemical balance and cause or worsen nicotine withdrawal symptoms.5 The withdrawal symptoms of quitting smoking cold turkey may include:

  • Restlessness
  • Cravings
  • Depressed mood
  • Headaches
  • Mood swings
  • Irritability
  • Digestive issues
  • Anxiety
  • Poor sleep6

Symptoms of nicotine withdrawal vary in duration and severity depending on the person.6 However, the success rate of quitting cold turkey is only 3% and the side effects can be difficult, so it’s useful to know about them before you try the cold turkey method.

Why a Quitting Plan with Behavioral Support is Better Than Cold Turkey

“Most people who try to quit smoking “cold turkey” are very determined and eager to quit at the beginning, then when the intense cravings hit, they relapse and feel worse about themselves and their habit,” says Margaret Linn, addiction counselor and the tobacco dependence specialist at Amethyst Recovery Center in Florida.

According to Linn, developing a plan that covers both the physical and mental challenges that come with quitting has more possibilities for success in the long term. The CDC agrees, citing evidence that using both counseling and some kind of medication during a quit journey is more successful than doing only one of those things.7

Linn advises her patients to take the time to develop a strategy before tossing their cigarettes. In addition to picking a quit date, developing a strong support system, and stocking up on oral substitutes ( sugar free gum or sugar-free candy), Linn recommends adding nicotine replacement products to the mix.

Nicotine Replacement Products Help Improve Success

“Nicotine replacements, while not a cure-all, can help lessen withdrawal symptoms and increase one’s success rate,” says Linn. And studies agree with her. According to one clinical study, nicotine replacement products have been shown to double chances of quitting when measured against a placebo.8

If you’re looking for a nicotine replacement product that’s easy to use and designed to help you at every stage of your quitting journey, try the Nicoderm®CQ® patch. It releases a steady flow of nicotine for up to 24 hours, relieving your cravings* and helping you reach that long-term success you’ve been searching for.

Or, explore Nicorette® gum and lozenges. Combined with a behavioral support plan, Nicorette® products can help to increase your success in quitting smoking.

*Craving relief associated with quitting smoking. Individual results vary.

How to Quit Smoking Cold Turkey, If It’s Still The Route For You

If you’re still interested in giving up cigarettes cold turkey, here are some general tips:

  • Make a quit-smoking plan that covers why, when, and how you plan to stop smoking to help you stay organized and stick to your goals.
  • Set a concrete quit date to give up smoking, so that you don’t put off starting your quit-smoking plan.
  • Remind yourself of the reasons why you want to quit smoking, including the many health benefits of quitting.
  • After you make your plan, remove any temptations in the household, such as matches, ash trays, and boxes of cigarettes.
  • Be ready for withdrawal symptoms. Have a plan of action for how you will handle symptoms cravings, headaches, feelings of restlessness, and more.
  • Reach out to friends, family, or other former smokers to tell them about your plan. Quitting smoking is hard, especially when you quit cold turkey. A support system will come in handy when you feel the craving for a cigarette.
  • Stay busy with healthy habits such as running, or pick up a new hobby such as playing an instrument. While keeping busy on its own probably isn’t enough to help you quit smoking, it may help support you in the process.


Risks of Home Detox & Going Cold Turkey

The Risks of Quitting Cold Turkey

You’ve made the right decision to take back your life from addiction. Recovery is hard work, but you’ll find that it’s well worth it.

For people with substance use disorders, the first step in recovery is detoxing from drugs or alcohol. Some people attempt drug or alcohol detox at home, but in many cases, this can be dangerous, or even deadly.

Learn why the safest way to detox from substance abuse is under the 24-hour care of medical professionals.

What Is Withdrawal ?

Without medical care, withdrawing from drugs and alcohol can be painful and cravings may feel unbearable. When you’re addicted to drugs or alcohol, your brain begins depending on substances to function “normally.

” When you stop taking drugs, your central nervous system goes into overload as it tries to rebalance itself without the presence of drugs or alcohol.

During this process, the brain sends signals and produces chemicals and hormones that cause you to experience withdrawal symptoms and intense urges to use substances again.

Drug withdrawal symptoms can range from mild to even potentially life-threatening. Withdrawal from some substances opioids, benzodiazepines, and alcohol, can be deadly.

Withdrawal symptoms depend on:

  • The substance you’ve been abusing.
  • How long you’ve abused the substance.
  • Your individual physical make-up and medical or psychological conditions.

Withdrawal can include emotional and physical symptoms, such as:

  • Seizures
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Stomach pain and cramps
  • Headaches
  • Hallucinations
  • Mood swings
  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Confusion
  • Muscle aches
  • Insomnia
  • Agitation
  • Irritability
  • Pain sensitivity
  • Changes in body temperature
  • Irregular heart rate and blood pressure

During detox, your body rids itself of drugs and alcohol. If you quit drinking or using drugs suddenly — also known as “cold turkey” — you may experience dangerous side effects. Certain medications can help make the detox process more comfortable. A medical professional knows which medications and what doses are best for your individual situation.

Risks of Drug Detox at Home

Drug detox at home can come with a number of complications. It can be uncomfortable, dangerous, and set you up for relapse. Drug addiction has a high relapse rate because it is a chronic disease.

Detoxing at home can bring on intense drug cravings that make it nearly impossible to refrain from using drugs. Withdrawal symptoms make returning to drug use seem a good idea just to ease your discomfort.

Quitting drugs cold turkey can cause dangerous withdrawal symptoms within a few hours of your last dose as your brain works to find balance.

The progression of withdrawal and risks of drug detox at home depends on:

#1 Type of Drug

The type of drug abuse makes a difference during drug detox. The following drugs are considered highly addictive with potentially serious withdrawal symptoms:

  • Heroin
  • Other opioid addictions (ex., prescription opioids hydrocodone, codeine, oxycodone, and morphine)
  • Benzodiazepines (benzos)
  • Alcohol
  • Methamphetamine
  • Cocaine
  • Prescription stimulants (ex., ADHD medications)

#2 Length and Severity of Drug Abuse

The larger doses of drugs you use at a time and the more often you use them, the more your brain and body depends on the substance. The higher the level of dependence, the more intense withdrawal will be.

#3 Co-Occurring Disorders and Medical Conditions

Medical conditions can complicate drug withdrawal. For instance, if you have a condition that impacts blood pressure or heart rate, you could experience serious effects during detox. At-home detox can then be more unpredictable and potentially dangerous.

Mental health disorders and substance abuse co-occur frequently. Also known as dual diagnosis, co-occurring mental health issues can make at-home detox riskier and worsen possible side effects.

Psychiatric symptoms can worsen, putting you at risk for increased anxiety, depression, psychosis, or self-harm.

#4 Use of Detox Medications

Medical detox programs use medications to minimize the side effects and intensity of drug withdrawal. Some people try vitamins, supplements, and over-the-counter (OTC) medications during drug detox at home, but they won’t be as effective as prescription medications.

Even if you can obtain detox medications on your own, only a physician can determine the safe doses and combinations of medications needed.

Additionally, some OTC medications and supplements can be dangerous during withdrawal, so it’s critical to talk to a physician before taking anything an at-home detox attempt.

Risks of Alcohol Detox at Home

Detoxing from alcohol at home isn’t recommended. If you’re a regular or heavy alcohol user and you stop drinking without the help of a medical professional, you’re at risk for a number of complications from alcohol withdrawal symptoms.

The severity of these alcohol withdrawal symptoms depends on factors :

  • How long you’ve been abusing alcohol.
  • How much alcohol you’ve been abusing.
  • Your physical and mental health.
  • Co-occurring physical and mental conditions.

If you quit alcohol “cold turkey” and have an alcohol addiction or dependency, symptoms of alcohol withdrawal may start as soon as six hours after your last drink.

Alcohol abuse and alcoholism teaches your brain that operating on alcohol is the new normal. When you quit drinking, the brain and central nervous system go into high alert to restore balance. In regular and heavy drinkers, the body compensates for the depressive effects of alcohol by increasing hormones and brain chemicals such as:

  • Serotonin
  • Epinephrine
  • Dopamine

When you quit alcohol cold turkey, your body becomes flooded with abnormally high levels of these chemicals. This is the brain’s way of trying to restore balance and normal functioning without alcohol. That’s why quitting cold turkey can put you at risk for alcohol withdrawal symptoms :

#1 Seizures

Alcohol withdrawal seizures are sometimes the first sign of alcohol withdrawal. They involve convulsions alternating with involuntary muscle contractions. Withdrawal seizures can occur within six to 48 hours of stopping alcohol consumption.

#2 Delirium Tremens (DTs)

About 30-40% of people who experience seizures get the DTs. Severe symptoms the DTs typically occur 24 to 48 hours after the last drink and are characterized by:

  • Confusion
  • Delirium
  • High blood pressure
  • Shakiness

Without medical help, the DTS can put you at risk for:

  • Head injuries
  • Lethal dehydration
  • Heart attack or stroke
  • Choking on vomit
  • Death

#3 Abnormal Heart Rhythms

As part of delirium tremens, the heart beats erratically. Unusual shifts in breathing, temperature, and circulation may contribute to a racing heart. You may also experience blood circulation issues high blood pressure.

#4 Nausea and Vomiting

Symptoms nausea and vomiting may linger for around a week after you stop drinking. other alcohol withdrawal symptoms, these issues result from the brain trying to rebalance neurotransmitters in the absence of alcohol.

#5 Dehydration

Alcohol is a diuretic that increases your urine output and may also increase sweating. You may already be dehydrated going into alcohol withdrawal.

During alcohol withdrawal, you can get even more dehydrated due to vomiting and diarrhea, resulting in dangerous electrolyte imbalances.

This can affect the central nervous system, causing DTs, seizures, mental confusion, anxiety, and suicidal thoughts.

Other alcohol withdrawal symptoms may include insomnia, headaches, diarrhea, and irritability. Alcohol detox at home is risky.

The best way to safely detox from alcohol is to do so under the care of medical professionals.

They can help you deal with alcohol withdrawal using research-backed medications and alternative approaches as appropriate. They can also immediately attend to medical emergencies.

Who Should Detox at Home?

Typically, detoxing at home should be reserved for people who are not physically dependent on drugs or alcohol. It could be a viable option if you experience only mild cravings and withdrawal symptoms when you stop taking drugs.

Both alcohol detox at home and drug detox at home can be risky undertakings, but some people do it anyway. Maybe they don’t have insurance or think they can’t afford treatment services. You should know that detox can be painful and uncomfortable. You may think if you detox at home, you’ll feel more comfortable than if you’re in an unfamiliar environment.

The truth is many people have an inaccurate idea of what medical detox is . Perhaps you think you’ll be left alone in a stark, hospital- room to tough it out. Actually, many detox programs take place in home- environments with comfortable furnishings and amenities.

You’re free to hang out in common spaces as much as you feel it, and medical staff continually check your comfort level and attend to discomfort or emergencies.

People who detox at home will need to have a high level of support and loved ones around them. The first few days after stopping a drug can be difficult and unpredictable.

It is important to be surrounded by people who can help keep you physically and mentally stable.

They should also know the potential warning signs to watch for in case withdrawal symptoms escalate and become a medical emergency.

Whether you detox at home or in a detox center, you should attend addiction treatment after detoxing. Otherwise, you are just removing substances from your body, not addressing the reasons behind your addiction. That puts you at high risk for relapse.

Why Medically Supervised Detox Is Best

Detox can be unpredictable. It may include a range of medical and psychological effects that will be difficult to manage on your own. Medical detox programs can determine your level of drug dependence.

They’ll assess your current physical health as well as your medical and mental health history to determine how your body may react during addiction withdrawal.

This information is critical to determining the safest medications, taper schedules, and approaches to the detox process.

What Happens After Alcohol or Drug Detox?

Detox is the first step in recovery, but it’s not the last. Without structured substance abuse treatment following detox, relapse is almost certain in many cases. Detox doesn’t address the reasons why you use drugs or alcohol or teach you better ways to cope with difficulties.

These two factors are critical to long-term addiction recovery. Inpatient or outpatient rehab can help “retrain your brain” through cognitive behavioral therapy and other evidence-based approaches. Addiction treatment also teaches you healthy ways to cope with difficulties.

People often abuse drugs and alcohol to self-medicate:

  • Symptoms of co-occurring mental health disorders
  • PTSD and trauma
  • Relationship and attachment issues
  • Low self-worth
  • Challenges with emotion regulation
  • Environmental influences
  • Sociocultural challenges

If you’re ready to leave addiction behind, we can help. Footprints to Recovery offers medical detox as well as several levels of care, so you can find the best fit for your needs. Treatment programs include:

Recovery is possible. If you or a loved one is struggling, call us today for a free, confidential phone consultation.


The National Association of Addiction Treatment Providers (NAATP) is a nonprofit professional society designed to offer support to organizations across the continuum of care. Since 1978, it has extended resources, advocacy and thought leadership to its members.

The Joint Commission for the Accreditation of Healthcare Organizations (JCAHCO) evaluates quality of care provided by healthcare organizations. Footprints has the Gold Seal of Approval, which means we possess the highest standard of safety and quality of care.

LegitScript is a third-party certification that demonstrates Footprints complies with all applicable laws and regulations, including our ongoing commitment to transparency.

NALGAP is The Association of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender Addiction Professionals and Their Allies is a membership organization founded in 1979 and dedicated to the prevention and treatment of alcoholism, substance abuse, and other addictions in lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer communities.  

NAADAC, the Association for Addiction Professionals, represents the professional interests of more than 100,000 addiction counselors, educators and other addiction-focused health care professionals in the United States, Canada and abroad.


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