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What Does it Mean to Quit “Cold Turkey” and Why is it Dangerous?

Medically Verified: 2/1/24

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All of the information on this page has been reviewed and verified by a certified addiction professional.

When you finally decide it is time to get help for your addiction, one of the first obstacles you will have to overcome is drug and alcohol withdrawal.

Quitting substances isn’t easy. Some drugs, like heroin, produce flu-like withdrawal symptoms that aren’t necessarily dangerous, but so uncomfortable that people would rather continue using opioids than follow through with detoxification. Other substances, like alcohol and benzodiazepines, produce severe and life-threatening symptoms like seizures, hallucinations, and psychosis. However, there are different methods of detox, and not all of them result in the same severity of symptoms.

One of the most dangerous ways to detox from drugs or alcohol is to quit “cold turkey.”

What Does it Mean if Someone is “Quitting Drugs Cold Turkey”?

Quitting cold turkey means abruptly stopping the use of drugs or alcohol after long-time use and without medical support. For example, if you have been drinking alcohol every day for several years, but suddenly stop drinking without going to a detox center, you are quitting alcohol cold turkey.

Some people stop using drugs and alcohol this way because they don’t want to enlist professional help. Others believe that stopping drugs abruptly will be faster or easier than it would be to slowly detox or taper off. However, cold turkey detox is one of the most dangerous ways to stop using substances if you are struggling with addiction.

Where Did the Phrase “Cold Turkey” Come From?

The phrase comes from the goosebumps and chills on the skin of people who stop using drugs or alcohol. Goosebumps or chills are common symptoms of withdrawal. Since goosebumps somewhat resemble the skin of a cold turkey in the fridge, people sometimes use it to describe stopping the use of substances.

Is it Dangerous to Quit Drugs Cold Turkey?

When your body gets used to taking a certain substance, your brain and body require the presence of that substance in your system to maintain equilibrium. If you suddenly stop taking something that your body is used to having every day, your body is going to be thrown out of equilibrium resulting in an over-excited nervous system and symptoms of drug or alcohol withdrawal.

Some substances should never be stopped abruptly, including prescription medications. You should never stop taking any of the following substances without speaking with your doctor:

  • Alcohol
  • Benzodiazepines
  • Antidepressants
  • Sedatives and tranquilizers

Unless you taper off of these, you could experience severe and life-threatening symptoms. Other drugs, like opioids and stimulants, are unlikely to cause harmful symptoms, but they can be difficult to stop taking by yourself.

Potential dangers associated with detoxing cold turkey include:

  • The potential for fatal withdrawal symptoms such as seizures
  • The potential for drug or alcohol relapse
  • Increased risk of overdose upon relapse
  • Adverse health events

There are several factors influencing just how risky cold turkey detox is, including:

  • The type of drug you are addicted to (some drugs are more dangerous to detox from than others)
  • How severe your addiction is
  • Whether or not you have co-occurring mental or medical health conditions

Ultimately, this method of sobering up is dangerous, and it can jeopardize both your physical and mental health as well as your ability to achieve sobriety.

How to Quit Drugs and Alcohol Safely

The safest way to detox is to do so at a medical detox or treatment facility. These programs offer around-the-clock medical supervision and support with the goal of alleviating symptoms of withdrawal and preventing complications. Detox centers may use one of two approaches depending on what substance you are detoxing from.

  1. Tapering – Tapering involves slowly reducing the dose of a substance over a period of time. This method allows your body to adjust gradually to functioning without the addictive substance in the body. Tapering can take longer than quitting cold turkey, but it is safer and can even eliminate symptoms of withdrawal altogether. Tapering is most often used with benzodiazepines like Xanax or Valium and antidepressants.
  2. Medically-assisted – Medically-assisted detox or medication-assisted treatment (MAT) refers to the use of medications to alleviate symptoms of withdrawal. This is most frequently seen in opioid replacement therapy (ORT) where doctors use partial opioids like methadone or buprenorphine to help patients detox from opioids more comfortably.

The drug and alcohol detox process can be unpredictable, so it’s always important to seek professional help and follow the guidance of your physician.

Coping and Relief During Detox

Whether you are detoxing cold turkey or working with a detox center, you may need to utilize other coping methods to get relief from your symptoms. While detoxing, try to:

  • Eat a balanced, nutritious diet
  • Get light exercise each day
  • Practice yoga or meditation
  • Lean on your support group
  • Stay hydrated
  • Speak with a counselor
  • Journal about your experience
  • Stay busy (ideas include puzzles, word games, video games, knitting, or other relaxing activities that you enjoy)

Medical Drug and Alcohol Detox at Charlotte Detox Center

At Charlotte Detox Center, we want to guarantee your safety and comfort during detox through medication-assisted treatment and supervised care. Our detox facility in Charlotte, North Carolina offers a number of evidence-based therapies and individualized services that can support you during this challenging time.

During your stay, our highly trained medical and clinical staff are able to manage your physical symptoms and discomfort, while providing you with encouragement and emotional support. We assure our client’s comfort and safety by providing medications like Suboxone, Librium, and Serax which alleviate symptoms and reduce complications associated with detoxing.

Detoxing in an environment that is beautiful, comfortable, and private, plus manages all your most severe symptoms, means you’ll have no distractions from your goal of achieving sobriety and beginning long-term recovery. Call now to get started.