Quitting Cold Turkey: Should You Try It?

If you’ve made the decision to quit alcohol completely, congratulations! That’s the hard part — coming to the realization that your drinking has become a liability, perhaps ruining your relationships, cost you your job, negatively affected your health and blown your financial stability. Just saying no to alcohol sounds pretty easy, until you try it. Can you quit cold turkey? You might be able to. Should you try it? There are several good reasons why that’s probably not a good idea.

Alcohol-dependent individuals are not good candidates

Let’s be clear about who isn’t a good candidate for quitting cold turkey. If you are alcohol dependent, it is extremely difficult and nearly impossible for you to quit alcohol on your own. Chronic drinkers and drinkers who have been alcoholics for many years will experience severe and potentially life-threatening symptoms if they attempt to quit on their own. If you only drink occasionally, say a glass of wine here or there, quitting is more a matter of deciding not to drink and sticking to it. This article doesn’t pertain to you. But you may also know someone who does have a problem with alcohol. Hopefully this information will prove useful in encouraging that individual to get professional help to quit drinking.

What is quitting cold turkey?

The phrase “quitting cold turkey” has been around a long time and, depending on which source you read, has a few definitions. When you quit something cold turkey you are stopping use of the substance: alcohol, nicotine, prescription or street drugs. The most definition of cold turkey refers to one of the symptoms of withdrawal you’ll inevitably go though: goosebumps from the chills.


Quitting alcohol first involves a phase known as detoxification. This is where your body is purged of all the traces of alcohol. It’s a process that takes time, and some of the withdrawal symptoms are not pleasant.

How severe your withdrawal symptoms are depends on how chemically dependent on alcohol you’ve become. If you’ve been a mild drinker, your symptoms may be minor. But for the person who is alcohol-dependent, symptoms take on an entirely different complexion. Here’s what happens.

The first stages of withdrawal from alcohol are similar to what your body goes through after an all-out binge where you wake up totally hung over. You’ll recognize them — they occur as the alcohol content in your body drops the first few hours after you’ve stopped drinking.

Then, even with individuals who are “mildly” alcoholic, withdrawal may include the shakes, sweats, rapid heartbeat, and an increase in blood pressure, nausea, and headache. These physical symptoms are accompanied often by anxiety, feelings of discomfort, loneliness, and depression. The craving to drink becomes overwhelming. Without help and support, you may not be able to get through the physical or the mental withdrawal symptoms, let alone the craving — which does many people in despite good intentions.

What happens is you’ll do anything to alleviate the symptoms of withdrawal: you go back to drinking, which immediately makes everything seem better. Gone are the shakes, the headache, anxiety, nausea, etc., and you may tell yourself that you’ll quit another day. But the reality is, you will remember how awful quitting cold turkey was and never take that step again. All your good intentions will be forgotten. You may even tell yourself that you’re not that bad of an alcoholic, that you can control your drinking, cut down gradually, or some other lie. You’re not really your own best counsel. After all, you’re the one with the alcohol problem. Would you trust your own word?

Severe withdrawal symptoms

For alcohol-dependent individuals, withdrawal symptoms may become severe or even life threatening. In the 6-48 hours after you stop drinking, hallucinations may start. These are usually visual hallucinations, but they can also involve your sense of hearing and smell. Psychosis can also develop. These symptoms can last a few hours to a few weeks.

Convulsions or seizures occur, possibly progressing to a dangerous condition known as delirium tremens or the DT’s. DT’s appear 3-5 days after cessation of alcohol consumption. Effects of the DT’s include extreme disorientation, more pronounced hallucinations, hyperactivity, confusion, and dangerous cardiovascular problems. When you experience the DT’s, you are in a life-threatening situation – and this is definitely not something you should attempt to go through on your own.

Withdrawal can be managed with proper treatment

Did you know that you can detox from alcohol and have minimal or no withdrawal symptoms? How’s that for an eye-opener? The beauty of detoxification under medical supervision in an alcohol treatment facility is that there are medical practitioners and licensed professionals who will monitor your detox 24/7. The physician can prescribe medications that can alleviate or greatly reduce any discomfort you begin to feel. This medication (which is only available by prescription) is combined with a process during which you learn about the disease of alcoholism, and make a commitment to ongoing treatment — which begins after you’ve been detoxed from alcohol.

After detox — then what?

Once all traces of alcohol have left your body, there’s still a long road ahead. Actually, all the detox does is help to clear your mind to get you ready for the real work you have to do now.

Treatment is tailored according to your individual needs. There is no one-size-fits-all treatment program. You will need to learn behavioral changes, how to recognize the triggers that cause you to drink, new coping mechanisms and how to prevent relapse. You may continue to take prescribed medication during some or your entire post-detox treatment program.

Behavioral therapies can include individual counseling, group therapy, support groups, and family therapy. Treatment medications will help reduce or eliminate the craving for alcohol that derails many people who quit after detox and don’t go on to rehab therapy. In fact, without behavioral changes, 90% of patients who leave after detox and don’t go on to participate in therapy resume drinking. The ultimate goal of treatment is to get you to the point where you abstain from alcohol completely. Other goals include fostering your ability to function again in society, and to minimize the social and medical complications of alcohol abuse.

Length and type of treatment vary

Patients who stay in treatment longer than 3 months usually have a more successful outcome than those who leave sooner. There are short-term, or programs of 6 month and less duration, including residential therapy, medication therapy and drug-free therapy as an outpatient. There are also longer-term therapies and aftercare support programs.

After rehab is completed, you are encouraged to continue participation in support groups, or 12 step programs such as Alcoholics Anonymous. The goal is to keep your new-found confidence in your ability to stay clean and sober. You will be tempted to stray, and you need the support of those who can help you when that situation occurs. And it will.

How to find treatment

By now, you should have enough reasons why it isn’t a good idea to quit alcohol cold turkey. But where do you find the right treatment program for you? There are numerous resources available on the Internet, or you can check the Yellow Pages for alcohol and/or drug treatment centers. A good starting point is to usethe treatment facility locator accessed through the website of the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA). The locator includes more than 11,000 addiction treatment programs, including residential treatment centers, outpatient treatment programs and inpatient hospital programs for alcoholism and drug addiction.

You can also ask your own doctor, your minister, or friends or family for help in finding the right alcohol treatment center for you. Just don’t try to go it alone. Give yourself the best chance possible to begin on a new path toward sobriety and a productive life. Take the next step. Find a treatment center today and get started.

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