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.

Smoking can become an addiction and cause serious health problems. More than half of adult cigarette smokers try to quit every year. However, less than 10% quit successfully in their first year.

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 photoillustration of an illustrated man in black and white sweeping away photographs of cigarette butts to illustrate the concept of quitting smoking cold turkey.Share on Pinterest
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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 quittingHealth benefits
20 minutesPulse returns to normal.
8 hoursNicotine within the body is reduced by 90%, and carbon monoxide levels have dropped.
24 hoursLungs begin clearing tar and other smoking debris.
48 hoursThe body has removed all traces of nicotine, while the sense of taste and smell have improved.
72 hoursIt becomes easier to breathe, and energy levels have increased.
2–12 weeksCirculation improves.
1 monthSkin appears less gray and more refreshed.
3–9 monthsReduced coughing and wheezing.
1 yearThe risk of heart attack drops by half.
10 yearsThe risk of lung cancer is reduced by around half compared with a person who smokes.
15 yearsThe 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 symptomHow long it lasts
light-headednessless than 48 hours
disturbed sleepless than 1 week
difficulty concentratingless than 2 weeks
nicotine cravingsmore than 2 weeks
depressionless than 4 weeks
restlessnessless than 4 weeks
irritability or aggressionless than 4 weeks
mouth ulcerscan be longer than 4 weeks
constipationcan be longer than 4 weeks
increase in appetitemore 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 typeHow it occursHow to cope
Emotional triggersReminds people how it felt to smoke during a good or bad experience.Talk about emotions

Take slow, deep breaths


Listen to calming music
Pattern triggersAn activity that people associate with smoking, such as finishing a meal.Find a replacement, such as chewing gum

Keep the hands busy


Change routines
Social triggersBeing 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 triggersWhen 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.

SymptomsHow to cope and treat
Nicotine cravingsChew 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 aggressionRemember the feelings are temporary


Reduce caffeine intake

Try meditation or other relaxation techniques
AnxietyRemember the anxiety will pass


Reduce caffeine intake

Try meditation or other relaxation techniques

See a doctor for medication
DepressionSeek support from friends and family

Do something fun


Speak with a doctor if depression lasts for more than 1 month
Increase in appetiteMaintain 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.