People may find it challenging to quit smoking, but the health benefits outweigh the discomfort of withdrawal symptoms. These symptoms include trouble sleeping, depression, and mouth ulcers.
Quitting cold turkey is one way of stopping smoking. With this technique, people could cease smoking completely without using nicotine replacement therapies (NRTs) such as patches or gum.
This article explores what it means to quit smoking cold turkey, how successful it is, what to expect, and where to find help and support.
A person may quit smoking completely or by gradually reducing their use of tobacco and nicotine. Over time, they can cut down on cigarettes or other tobacco products.
In contrast, quitting smoking cold turkey means stopping smoking all at once, rather than gradually, and without the help of NRTs, such as nicotine patches.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the success rate of quitting smoking in the United States is less than 10%.
They also state that 7.5% of adults successfully quit smoking in 2018. This figure does not distinguish between those who quit smoking cold turkey and those who used NRT.
A 2016 study found that quitting cold turkey is more successful than gradually cutting down on nicotine intake. This research followed up with people at 4 weeks and 6 months after they quit smoking. Those who stopped abruptly were more successful at remaining nonsmokers compared with those who quit gradually using NRTs.
The study also found that people who preferred to quit smoking gradually were less likely to be successful, even if they quit cold turkey. However, the people in this study were not heavy smokers.
According to another study from 2017, people who smoke 21 or more cigarettes a day are more likely to quit by using NRT and stopping gradually.
A person quits cold turkey by stopping smoking immediately.
For example, some people may decide not to buy more cigarettes after finishing their current pack. Upon making this decision, they have begun quitting.
When quitting cold turkey, a person does not introduce any more nicotine into their body. Nicotine is addictive, and once people stop using products that contain this substance, they may enter a state of withdrawal.
However, by quitting cold turkey, the body expels all nicotine within 48 hours. The following table describes the health benefits over time when giving up smoking.
|Time since quitting||Health benefits|
|20 minutes||Pulse returns to normal.|
|8 hours||Nicotine within the body is reduced by 90%, and carbon monoxide levels have dropped.|
|24 hours||Lungs begin clearing tar and other smoking debris.|
|48 hours||The body has removed all traces of nicotine, while the sense of taste and smell have improved.|
|72 hours||It becomes easier to breathe, and energy levels have increased.|
|2–12 weeks||Circulation improves.|
|1 month||Skin appears less gray and more refreshed.|
|3–9 months||Reduced coughing and wheezing.|
|1 year||The risk of heart attack drops by half.|
|10 years||The risk of lung cancer is reduced by around half compared with a person who smokes.|
|15 years||The risk of heart attack is the same for a person who has never smoked.|
Because nicotine is addictive, people who quit smoking tend to experience withdrawal.
Withdrawal symptoms are temporary, but they can be uncomfortable and sometimes severe.
However, nicotine withdrawal does not cause any health issues that other addictive substances can trigger.
The table below lists some common withdrawal symptoms and how long they can last.
|Withdrawal symptom||How long it lasts|
|light-headedness||less than 48 hours|
|disturbed sleep||less than 1 week|
|difficulty concentrating||less than 2 weeks|
|nicotine cravings||more than 2 weeks|
|depression||less than 4 weeks|
|restlessness||less than 4 weeks|
|irritability or aggression||less than 4 weeks|
|mouth ulcers||can be longer than 4 weeks|
|constipation||can be longer than 4 weeks|
|increase in appetite||more than 10 weeks|
Quitting cold turkey may be as simple as deciding not to consume another cigarette or nicotine product. Other people may need to plan to maximize their chances of success.
The CDC suggest the following tips to ensure the best chance of quitting:
- Think about the reasons to quit — whether for friends and family, improved health, or other reasons.
- Make a decision to stop and pick a quit day.
- Make a list of smoking triggers to avoid for the first few weeks, if possible.
- Come up with a list of activities to do when experiencing cravings.
- Share the intention of quitting with friends and family and get their support.
One way people cope with quitting smoking cold turkey is learning to recognize the triggers that make them want to smoke. They can then consciously use coping mechanisms to resist these triggers.
There are several types of triggers, each with its coping mechanisms.
|Trigger type||How it occurs||How to cope|
|Emotional triggers||Reminds people how it felt to smoke during a good or bad experience.||Talk about emotions |
Take slow, deep breaths
Listen to calming music
|Pattern triggers||An activity that people associate with smoking, such as finishing a meal.||Find a replacement, such as chewing gum|
Keep the hands busy
|Social triggers||Being in situations with other people where a person might smoke, such as a social event.||Try to avoid social events or people that are triggering for the first few weeks|
|Withdrawal triggers||When the body craves nicotine.||Exercise|
Keep the hands busy
It is possible to avoid some of these triggers, but some people cannot prevent them all.
If a person cannot avoid certain triggers, the CDC recommend the following:
- getting support from quit groups, experts, or friends and family
- remembering the reasons for quitting
- reflecting on how much money a person has saved so far
- staying busy by exercising or using the hands and mouth
- going to a public place where people cannot smoke
- performing a good deed
Most people who quit smoking will experience certain withdrawal symptoms, such as anxiety or irritability.
The table below lists ways of coping with and treating these symptoms.
|Symptoms||How to cope and treat|
|Nicotine cravings||Chew on carrots, apples, or hard candy|
Avoid situations where it is tempting to smoke
Take deep breaths
Remember that the cravings will pass
|Irritability or aggression||Remember the feelings are temporary|
Reduce caffeine intake
Try meditation or other relaxation techniques
|Anxiety||Remember the anxiety will pass |
Reduce caffeine intake
Try meditation or other relaxation techniques
See a doctor for medication
|Depression||Seek support from friends and family |
Do something fun
Speak with a doctor if depression lasts for more than 1 month
|Increase in appetite||Maintain a healthful, balanced diet|
Consult a nutritionist
There are several advantages and disadvantages of quitting smoking cold turkey.
- removes all nicotine from the body sooner
- a person benefits sooner from being nicotine-free
- may be more difficult than using NRTs
- alternative methods may be more effective for some, such as heavy smokers
- withdrawal symptoms may be more intense
Quitting cold turkey is not the only way to quit smoking.
NRTs and even prescription medication can help people stop. Alternative methods for quitting smoking include:
- The nicotine patch: Available as an over-the-counter (OTC) patch, which a person applies on the skin each day, removing it at night or after 24 hours. It releases a steady supply of nicotine during the day, while a person gradually reduces the nicotine with different patch strengths.
- Nicotine gum: Available in varying strengths, this releases nicotine when chewed. People can chew a new piece of gum every 1–2 hours.
- Nicotine lozenge: This is available OTC in two strengths and works the same way as nicotine gum.
- Nicotine nasal spray: This is a prescription-only NRT for people to inhale when they have an urge to smoke.
- Nicotine inhaler: This prescription-only device allows another way to consume nicotine, which enters via the throat’s mucous membranes.
- Bupropion: This is a prescription antidepressant that may reduce nicotine cravings by blocking the pleasure signals that smokers feel when using tobacco. People can use bupropion alongside NRTs.
- Varenicline: This prescription medication may reduce nicotine cravings. It prevents nicotine from attaching to brain receptors, helping make tobacco less satisfying.
- Behavioral support: Various social groups or friends and family may encourage quitting smoking.
- Alternative methods: People may want to try alternative therapies, such as hypnosis, acupuncture, acupressure, laser therapy, and electrostimulation, to help reduce nicotine withdrawal symptoms.
There are various ways for people to find support for quitting smoking. Resources include:
People may also wish to join a research study on quitting smoking. Ask a healthcare provider for more information.
A person who wishes to quit smoking can speak with a healthcare provider for support and advice.
Quitting smoking cold turkey can be difficult, but the health benefits are worth going through the withdrawal symptoms.
If a person finds quitting cold turkey does not work for them, many alternatives may be effective.