Have you ever wondered what the term ‘cold turkey’ actually means?

This blog explores what going cold turkey means and the risks and considerations of this approach to quitting substances or behaviours.


What Does Cold Turkey Mean?

Cold turkey is a term used to describe when a person completely stops consuming any substances without any gradual period. Going cold turkey doesn’t always mean substances, although it’s more widely known in that context. It can also refer to certain behaviours, such as eating unhealthy foods and focusing on a healthier diet.


Why Is It Called Cold Turkey?

Cold turkey is used to describe the physical state of a person undergoing withdrawal. The phrase originates from the 1800s, and it started being used widely because people believed that those experiencing withdrawal looked as though they had skin texture similar to that of a turkey due to becoming clammy skin and the body experiencing goosebumps.

Another theory suggests it stems from the phrase “to talk cold turkey,” which means to speak bluntly. Quitting cold turkey, then, implies abruptly quitting something without easing into it or gradually reducing use.


Is Going Cold Turkey Dangerous for Everyone?

Not always. But it can be particularly dangerous for individuals with addiction, as they are at a higher risk of experiencing severe withdrawal symptoms. Sadly, without the right care, these withdrawal symptoms can be fatal.

The decision to quit cold turkey should be informed by an understanding of the individual’s overall physical and mental health and, ideally, a consultation with a healthcare professional.


The Risks of Going Cold Turkey

For the average person, quitting something abruptly won’t be a problem. In fact, at most, it will be a bit uncomfortable. However, as we highlighted above, it can come with its risks in the context of addiction. How big those risks are will depend on the substance.

For example, for someone who has an alcohol addiction or physical dependence, it’s not recommended because of how dangerous the withdrawal symptoms can be.

These extreme withdrawal symptoms may include (but are not limited to):

  • Delirium tremens (DTs): This is a severe form of alcohol withdrawal, and it includes symptoms such as hallucinations and seizures. DTs typically occur within 48 to 72 hours after the last drink and require immediate medical attention if it develops.
  • Seizures & Heightened Blood Pressure: When the use of alcohol is stopped suddenly, it can trigger blood pressure to rise and even seizures in some individuals, especially those with alcohol dependence.
  • Physical Symptoms: Aside from severe examples, abdominal cramps, nausea, a rapid heart rate, and shivering are all common withdrawal symptoms if someone goes cold turkey.
  • Psychological Symptoms: Alcohol withdrawal can also be emotionally difficult and cause intense psychological symptoms such as anxiety, depression, irritability, and mood swings.


Is Going Cold Turkey Effective?

Going cold turkey can be effective for some with less severe former drug use or alcohol dependence. The overall effectiveness of going cold turkey often depends on various factors, including:

  • The Severity of the Drug or Alcohol Dependence: Individuals with mild to moderate drug or alcohol dependence may find success with this approach. This is especially true if they haven’t been using substances heavily for long enough to build up a physical dependence.
  • Motivation: Those who are highly motivated to quit substances and have made a firm decision to do so may have better success with the cold turkey method.
  • Support System: Having a strong support system of family, friends, or support groups can significantly increase the likelihood of success when quitting alcohol suddenly.
  • Access to Resources: Access to resources such as counselling and addiction treatment programmes can enhance the effectiveness of quitting cold turkey. These resources can guide the detox process (when withdrawal symptoms are at their worst), address underlying issues contributing to drug and alcohol use, and offer strategies that work towards achieving long-term recovery.
  • Personal Health: The physical health, presence of co-occurring mental health disorders, and the severity of the drug or alcohol withdrawal symptoms should be carefully assessed before attempting to quit cold turkey. In some cases, medically assisted detox supervision and support may be necessary to ensure a safe process.


Which Substances Pose the Highest Risk When Quitting Abruptly?

Alcohol, benzodiazepines, and opioids pose the highest risk when quitting abruptly.

The reason why these substances are considered more dangerous to quit abruptly compared to substances like cocaine or marijuana is because they can lead to severe physical dependence and extreme withdrawal symptoms. These withdrawal symptoms can include potentially life-threatening complications such as seizures, delirium tremens, and respiratory depression.

Withdrawal from substances such as cocaine or marijuana usually brings milder physical symptoms and fewer serious medical risks compared to alcohol, benzodiazepines, or what individuals experience during an opioid withdrawal. However, stopping these substances once addicted can still be incredibly challenging due to the psychological aspects of withdrawal.

So, although physical symptoms may be less severe, managing the psychological effects can still be extremely tough.


How to Avoid Dangerous Detox Symptoms

If you or someone needs help with withdrawal or is unsure if it’s safe to quit abruptly, they should seek advice from a professional. They can:

  • Consult With a Professional: A GP or an addiction specialist will be able to assess their situation, guide safe withdrawal methods, and recommend appropriate alternative methods or detox treatment options.
  • Consider a Residential Detox Programme: Detoxification programmes provide supervised withdrawal in a safe environment. For example, we offer medical monitoring, support, and sometimes addiction medications to manage withdrawal symptoms.
  • Involve family and friends: Loved ones can provide valuable support during the withdrawal process, preventing the chance of relapse and helping connect the individual with professional help if needed.
  • Avoid quitting abruptly without guidance: Quitting without proper medical supervision can be risky, especially with substances like alcohol, benzodiazepines, or opioids. It’s essential to prioritise safety and seek professional assistance when necessary.


Reach Out Today

Quitting an addictive substance or behaviour cold turkey is a significant decision that comes with its risks and challenges.  If you’re unsure or worried about what quitting cold turkey could mean for you, please reach out to us today. Our team will be able to recommend the best course of action to take and provide support with accessing treatment. Call us today on 0800 880 7596.

John Gillen - Author - Last updated: April 12, 2024

John is one UK’s leading professionals in the addiction recovery industry. Pioneering new treatment techniques such as NAD+ and ongoing research into new therapy techniques such as systematic laser therapy, John is committed to providing the very best treatment for people throughout the UK and Europe. During his extremely busy schedule, John likes to regularly update our blog section with the latest news and trends in the industry to keep visitors to our site as well informed as possible on everything related to addiction treatment.