Quitting taking substances, such as alcohol or tobacco, can be very challenging. Many people may opt for the “cold turkey” approach, which means abstaining from a substance or habit immediately and completely.

It is common for people to develop addictions to alcohol, nicotine, and drugs. However, there are many ways to quit taking these substances.

Some people may attempt to gradually taper off using them, which may be more effective and less dangerous for certain substances.

Although there may be risks to quitting cold turkey, there could also be some benefits in using this method, which depend on the substance or practice.

In this article, we explore the cold turkey approach regarding smoking, drinking alcohol, and more. We also look at other ways to quit substance misuse.

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A person who quits cold turkey completely stops consuming the substance with immediate effect. The other approach involves gradually decreasing the consumption or use of the substance until a person can stop entirely.

If an individual has become dependent on a substance, they may experience withdrawal symptoms when quitting cold turkey. Withdrawal can be very dangerous with certain substances, while symptoms vary depending on the substance a person is quitting.

Some general withdrawal symptoms include:

  • nausea and vomiting
  • craving
  • headaches
  • shaking
  • feeling agitated or irritable
  • anxiety
  • feeling down or sad
  • having issues sleeping
  • having problems thinking clearly or concentrating
  • changes to appetite

Generally, people can safely quit smoking and nicotine cold turkey.

However, this can be a dangerous approach if a person is quitting severe alcohol dependence or certain drugs, such as heroin. If this is the case, there are may be serious side effects from going cold turkey that can become life threatening.

Why the cold turkey approach?

Some people use the cold turkey technique as they believe it will be easier to cease taking the substance completely straight away. They may also think if they cut the substance out entirely, they will feel less tempted to use it again while quitting.

Another reason why people use this method is that the substance is causing their body harm, and they wish to stop this effect immediately. However, this may not be the best approach and could even lead to relapse in some cases.

There are some benefits to quitting cold turkey. They include:

With the right support, cold turkey can be effective

Some research suggests that when it comes to smoking, cold turkey can be a more effective method of quitting than gradual reduction. However, this depends on the amount of support a person receives while they are quitting.

One 2016 study found that abruptly quitting smoking is more likely to lead to lasting abstinence than gradually cutting down. It is important to note that the researchers provided support to study participants when they were trying to quit.

An older study looked at people quitting smoking on their own without support. It found that only 3–5% of participants who tried to quit cold turkey without help were able to achieve prolonged abstinence for 6–12 months afterward.

Overcoming withdrawal symptoms faster

Withdrawal symptoms can last for varying time periods after quitting, depending on the substance involved.

By stopping instantly or going cold turkey, a person may experience more extreme withdrawal symptoms initially. However, they can often get past this withdrawal period more quickly than those who are quitting gradually.

Being free of the harmful substance sooner

There are several health benefits to stopping smoking, drinking alcohol, and taking drugs. By going cold turkey, a person’s body can begin to recover immediately from the damage the substance was causing.

In quitting gradually, people are continuing to ingest the harmful substance in their body for a longer time, which may lead to more damage.

However, if a person is dependent on harmful drugs, such as heroin or methamphetamine, or has a serious alcohol dependency, immediately quitting is not a good idea.

There are also numerous risks to the cold turkey approach. Some of these include the below.

Smoking and cold turkey

If a person decides to quit smoking abruptly, there are no serious health risks. However, there is the risk of this attempt failing if they do not have adequate support.

As previous studies above mention, people who quit smoking without the help they need are often less successful than those with support.

While there are no significant health risks when quitting smoking cold turkey, nicotine withdrawal symptoms can be very unpleasant.

Learn more about quitting smoking cold turkey here.

Alcohol and cold turkey

If a person has severe alcohol dependency, they should not quit alcohol cold turkey. If they do, there are several health risks, some of which can be life threatening.

The serious form of alcohol withdrawal is called delirium tremens (DTs). Doctors characterize DTs by the rapid onset of severe confusion. It also leads to changes in how the brain regulates blood circulation and breathing.

If people with severe alcohol dependence abruptly stop consuming alcohol, DTs can occur within 48 hours and may last for up to 5 days.

DTs can become very dangerous, with some studies suggesting it has a mortality rate of 8%. Other research indicates the condition has an anticipated mortality rate of 37% without appropriate treatment.

Symptoms of DTs include:

Drugs and cold turkey

A person can form an addiction to a variety of drugs. These include opioids, such as heroin, and stimulants, including cocaine and methamphetamine.

Quitting drugs cold turkey can carry similar dangerous risks with those involved in quitting severe alcohol addiction. This is because of how a person’s nervous system adapts to specific high dependency drugs.

By abruptly stopping certain drugs, people may experience serious and life threatening medical conditions, including:

  • seizures
  • dehydration
  • heart issues

Learn more about opioid withdrawal here.

There are several things people can do to help quit a substance. Below are some tips for quitting smoking, alcohol, and drugs.

Tips for quitting smoking

If a person does not wish to quit smoking cold turkey, nicotine replacement therapy (NRT) offers an alternative method. With NRT, people use products, such as nicotine gums, patches, and sprays, that provide nicotine to prevent withdrawal symptoms.

One 2016 study suggests NRT could increase the chances of a person successfully quitting smoking by 50–70%.

The American Thoracic Society (ATS) recommend that individuals wishing to quit smoking begin by taking the medication varenicline.

This drug may help a person quit smoking across a 12-week treatment period. The ATS recommend taking varenicline over nicotine patches and other prescription medications.

If a person is quitting cold turkey, they are more likely to succeed with the right support.

Therefore, a person wishing to stop without the aid of NRT or varenicline may consider seeking the help of smoking support groups, counseling, therapy, or smartphone apps.

Other treatments and remedies to help quit smoking include:

Learn more about how to quit smoking here.

Tips for quitting alcohol

In 2019, according to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), 14.5 million people in the United States were affected by alcohol use disorder.

Alcohol misuse problems vary in severity, and a person with severe alcohol dependence should seek medical help. This is because quitting on their own, particularly via a cold turkey approach, may be very dangerous.

A doctor will often treat a person’s chronic alcohol dependency with medically controlled detoxification. An individual will take sedating medications, which prevent withdrawal symptoms, as they stop consuming alcohol. This helps them get past the first and most dangerous phase of quitting alcohol.

If people have a less severe alcohol dependency, they could quit alcohol on their own. However, it still may be helpful to speak with a doctor or medical professional to access helpful guidance and resources.

There are several things to can consider when quitting alcohol. These include:

  • seeking counseling
  • seeking support groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous
  • treating underlying problems such as self-esteem, stress, anxiety, depression, or other mental health issues
  • detoxification medications
  • medications for cravings

Learn more about alcoholism and how to quit drinking here.

Tips for quitting drugs

A person should seek medical help if they wish to quit taking drugs. A medical professional can help ensure they quit safely, providing specific medications if they need.

There are several approaches to help individuals who wish to quit taking drugs, including:

  • behavioral therapy
  • counseling
  • specific medications
  • rehabilitation clinics
  • treating related psychological factors including depression
  • ongoing personal care to reduce the risk of relapse

Learn more about different treatment options for addiction here.

A person should contact their doctor if they have an addiction to drugs or alcohol as these can be extremely harmful to their health.

A healthcare professional can suggest approaches for quitting while also putting the person in touch with different outreach centers, rehabilitation clinics, and counselors if they require.

If a person develops an addiction to nicotine and is looking for help with quitting, they can also speak with a doctor.

There are many ways a person can approach quitting a substance. One approach is the cold turkey method, which involves immediately and completely cutting out the substance.

Cold turkey can be an effective method for some people quitting smoking and low level alcohol addiction. However, its success depends heavily on the amount of support the person receives while attempting to quit.

However, if an individual has a more serious alcohol dependence or wishes to quit a severe drug addiction, going cold turkey can be very dangerous. Those wishing to quit an addiction to these substances should seek medical help immediately.