The term “cold turkey” refers to the abrupt cessation of tobacco, alcohol, or drug use. The word “cold turkey” comes from the goosebumps (like the cold turkey in the fridge) that individuals often get in the days after they quit.
Individuals who are dependent on any of the above substances and choose to stop taking them abruptly rather than gradual tapering of their use, quitting “cold turkey”, may bring about short term health issues that could be serious and always certainly uncomfortable.
Some people go “cold turkey” because they think it will be easier to stop taking the substance right away and they believe it reduces the temptations that might be present when they stop gradually. The effectiveness of going “cold turkey” depends on the type of substance the individual is trying to quit. Although it may work for some, depending on the substance being abused, quitting too quickly can indeed lead to more than uncomfortable withdrawal symptoms and create powerful urges that may bring about the use of the substance again.
One danger of quitting “cold turkey” is the fact that the body quickly loses tolerance to alcohol or drugs after the cessation of the use. When individuals who have successfully stopped using relapses, and takes the usual amount of drugs as when they were using before, they are at a higher risk of overdose. Additionally, by quitting “cold turkey” individuals are exposed to a variety of serious and potentially life-threatening medical conditions, including seizures and heart problems.
Quitting “cold turkey” is also dangerous because of the way the nervous system adapts to certain high dependency drugs. In the case of opioid withdrawal, going “cold turkey” is extremely unpleasant but less dangerous than quitting alcohol, a benzodiazepine or an opiate. When quitting drugs or alcohol, medical supervision is always the safest and the recommended way to go, especially when the individual has been abusing the substance in large amounts and/or for a long time.
Under the management of a physician, besides receiving medical assistance designed to lessen the effects of withdrawal, individuals attending inpatient medical detox are provided with the appropriate nutrition, hydration, and medications when suffering from significant nausea, vomiting, or diarrhea during the withdrawal period. Drug and alcohol rehab facilities with doctors affiliated with the American Board of Addiction Medicine with special training in addiction medicine are particularly suited for managing withdrawals safely.
It should be mentioned that there are those who are able to quit “cold turkey” and detox safely at home under the supervision of a doctor or health professional who may prescribe medications depending on the drug the individual is withdrawing from. But for the majority of people struggling with drug or alcohol addiction, sobriety comes with treatment under professional care.
Typical physical symptoms of withdrawal include:
- nausea and vomiting
- difficulty sleeping
- muscle aches
- fast or slow heartbeat
- runny nose
Typical mental and emotional symptoms of withdrawal include:
- cravings for the substance
These symptoms can last anywhere from a few days to a couple of weeks.
If you or someone you know is trying to quit cold turkey, but the urge to use remains strong, reach out to a healthcare provider. Medical attention under a supervised addiction recovery program may be required.
Call 911 if you have these serious symptoms:
- a high fever
- vomiting that won’t stop
- chest pain
- trouble breathing
- severe confusion
- irregular heartbeat
- pain or discomfort in the jaw, neck or back
- weakness, light-headedness or fainting
- pain or discomfort in the arms or shoulder
Going “cold turkey” is one method to quit, but it doesn’t work for everyone. Individuals considering this method of detox should consult with a healthcare provider to make sure they have the support and the care needed to succeed. Detox alone does not address the psychological, social, and behavioral problems associated with addiction and therefore does not typically produce lasting behavioral changes necessary for recovery.
Dr. Balta is the Medical Director at FCR for more than 10 years. Dr. Balta is Board Certified in Psychiatry and Addiction Medicine, Certified Psychoanalyst. As well, as having Psychiatric Training at The Albert Einstein School of Medicine Psychiatric Residency Program In New York City and Psychoanalytic Training at The William Alanson White Institute in New York City. While working in New York City, gained funding Grants for the treatment of Substance Abuse Disorders from SAMHSA , HRSA and the City of New York.