The Dangers of Quitting Drugs Cold Turkey

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“Cold turkey” might not be the most effective way to quit using drugs or alcohol. Ending substance use quickly and abruptly can bring on uncomfortable withdrawal symptoms. Individuals may also experience a constant urge to start using the substance again. If you’ve thought about quitting drugs cold turkey or ending alcohol use suddenly, you might want to consider a safer option.

What Does “Cold Turkey” Mean?

“Cold turkey” is a quick-fix approach to stop using tobacco, alcohol, or drugs. Instead of slowly tapering off the substance, you stop using it suddenly. The term comes from the goosebumps some people get in the days after they quit, which look like the skin of a “cold turkey” in the refrigerator.

Why Do People Try Quitting Drugs Cold Turkey?

Some people go cold turkey because they believe it will be easier to stop immediately than to taper off. They think they won’t be tempted to use the substance if they just get rid of it. 

For a lot of people who suffer from alcoholism or drug abuse, the cold turkey method seems more attractive for a number of reasons. 

One reason is that it can be easier to avoid the drug completely than to use it moderately. This is especially true if one’s usual style is to take the drug entirely unrestrained in any way. Also, many people feel that they can separate themselves from the world of drugs more easily if they do it completely. They feel that, by avoiding all of the people, places and other reminders of the drug, they can start afresh.

However, quitting substance use suddenly has very significant risks if the drug you are quitting is:

Likewise, it is not advisable if you have been using any drug in large amounts, and/or 

for a long time. This is because you might experience extreme withdrawal symptoms.

What Happens When Quitting Drugs Cold Turkey?

Your success in going cold turkey depends on which substance you’re trying to quit and your preferences. Quitting addictive drugs such as heroin can be much harder to do cold turkey. Some substances cause physical changes in the brain that cause severe cravings and withdrawal symptoms when you stop using them.

Why It’s a Bad Idea

Quitting drugs cold turkey can be dangerous to do on your own due to the way the nervous system adjusts to some high dependency drugs. Suddenly taking these drugs out of your system can lead to a variety of serious and possibly life-threatening medical conditions which can include seizures and heart problems.


The main risk of alcohol withdrawal is developing delirium tremens (DTs), also known as alcohol withdrawal syndrome. This complication can happen when people suddenly stop consuming alcohol. It is more likely to occur after long-term, heavy alcohol use and has the potential to be fatal. Symptoms of acute alcohol withdrawal usually begin 6 to 24 hours after the last drink.

Some of the symptoms include:

  • Nausea
  • Tremors
  • Seizures
  • Delusions
  • Hallucinations
  • Loss of appetite
  • Restlessness and irritability
  • Increased blood pressure and heart rate
  • Hyperthermia (abnormally high body temperature)

Although the progression of symptoms changes from person to person, the seriousness of their symptoms can predict the risk of death.

Heroin, Cocaine, Methamphetamines 

A person can become addicted to a variety of drugs, including opioids, heroin, cocaine, and methamphetamine.

Quitting drugs cold turkey can have similar dangerous risks as quitting a severe alcohol addiction. This is because of how your nervous system adjusts to high dependency drugs. By stopping suddenly, you can experience serious medical conditions. These might include seizures, dehydration, and heart problems.

Even drugs that have less clear-cut physical dependence, such as amphetamines and nicotine, can cause severe and unpleasant withdrawal symptoms that can make life extremely difficult  and emotionally uncomfortable.

Another danger of quitting cold turkey is that your body quickly loses tolerance to alcohol or drugs. This means that if you relapse and go on to take your usual dose of the drug, you have a higher risk of overdose.

Medical Supervision for Drug Abstinence Is Safest

This doesn’t mean that you can’t become abstinent, but especially if you are quitting alcohol, a benzodiazepine, or an opiate, you should quit under the supervision of medical professionals who can help with medication to ease the effects of withdrawal. Those with special training in addiction medicine are particularly helpful in safely managing withdrawal.


In many cases, a brief time in detox can be the safest option so that medical staff is on-site in case of a medical emergency. The medical personnel can prescribe different medications depending on the drug you’re withdrawing from. The staff can also help with providing hydration, nutrition, and medications intravenously if you are suffering from severe nausea, vomiting, or diarrhea during withdrawal.

Treatment After Detox

The purpose of a medically managed detox is to prepare you for a treatment program. Research shows that people who only detox have a much higher rate of relapse than those who go on to a rehab program.  Depending on the severity of your addiction and your personal situation, you may enter a:

While taking part in a treatment program, you will engage in various therapy approaches. Clearing the drugs from your system in detox doesn’t address the personal issues behind your drug use in the first place. Everyone is different, and the therapy modalities must be  unique to each person. 

Avoid Quitting Drugs Cold Turkey; Get Help Today

Even if you manage to get through a cold turkey detox on your own, you need the treatment approaches and medical supervision of a rehab center. Detox is only the first step. At Lifetime Recovery, we are experienced in helping people take that step into changing their lives and making their comeback. Along the way, you will learn about yourself and your addiction. You will mend relationships with your family and friends. You will learn skills to help you stay sober. Don’t try to do this on your own. Contact us today to learn how to get yourself or a loved one on the very important path to long lasting recovery.

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Our behavioral health and substance abuse treatment experts also treat co-occurring disorders/dual diagnoses (including trauma), and we are one of the few alcohol and drug rehab centers offering gambling addiction treatment.