Quitting Alcohol Cold Turkey: Dangers, Effects & How to Do It

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Last Updated - 05/12/2024

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Updated 05/12/2024

Key Takeaways

  • Quitting alcohol cold turkey refers to abruptly stopping alcohol consumption without tapering off or medical supervision. 
  • This method can be dangerous, especially for those with severe alcohol dependence, due to the risk of severe withdrawal symptoms like seizures, delirium tremens (DTs), and even death.
  • Medical detoxification is crucial for individuals with severe AUD to safely withdraw from alcohol. It involves supervised withdrawal in a controlled environment.
  • Medications like benzodiazepines can help manage symptoms and prevent complications.
  • Setting clear goals, seeking support, identifying triggers, staying busy, and taking care of oneself are important strategies for successfully quitting alcohol. 
  • Having a relapse prevention plan and dedicated support network can increase the chances of long-term recovery.

What Does Quitting Alcohol ‘Cold Turkey’ Mean?

The term cold turkey is widely used in the context of substance cessation, particularly referring to the abrupt discontinuation of alcohol consumption. It implies a sudden stop without the aid of tapering off or medical intervention, which often leads to an intense and uncomfortable withdrawal phase. 

The origins of this idiom are believed to be linked to the phrase ‘talk turkey,’ which historically meant to speak plainly. Over time, it evolved to mean stopping something abruptly and without embellishment, much like having a straightforward conversation.

Quitting alcohol cold turkey is not without significant risks. For those with severe alcohol dependence, sudden cessation can lead to life-threatening conditions such as delirium tremens (DTs), severe withdrawal symptoms characterized by confusion, rapid heartbeat, and fever. The potential dangers underscore why this method of quitting is often advised against by medical professionals. Instead, a medically supervised detoxification process is recommended for heavy drinkers to mitigate the risks of severe withdrawal symptoms.

Quitting Cold Turkey and Alcohol Withdrawal

Quitting cold turkey is a significant challenge, especially for individuals with severe alcohol use disorder (AUD) or a long history of heavy drinking. The process can pose serious health risks due to the sudden absence of alcohol in the system, which the body may have become dependent upon. Alcohol withdrawal syndrome (AWS) does not follow a typical timeline due to the many variables that affect withdrawal. However, some or all of these symptoms can be expected in the first three days of quitting.

  • The first 12 hours: Milder symptoms like anxiety, headache, sweating, trouble sleeping, loss of appetite, nausea, and heart palpitations may set in. 
  • The first 24 hours: Hallucinations may start at this time.
  • The first 48 hours: Seizure risk peaks. 
  • Hours 48 to 72: Delirium tremens (DTs) risk peaks.

Dangers of Quitting Alcohol Abruptly

This method of quitting alcohol can lead to serious health risks and complications. Withdrawal symptoms can manifest as early as 24 hours after the last drink and may include:

  • Sweating
  • Headache
  • Anxiety
  • Agitation
  • Trouble sleeping (insomnia)
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Fast heart rate
  • Tremors/shakes
  • High blood pressure (hypertension)

Rarely, more severe effects such as seizures, delirium tremens (DTs), and even death can occur if not properly managed. These risks are heightened due to the sudden absence of alcohol’s depressive effects on the nervous system, which can cause the body to go into a hyperaroused state.

Heavy drinkers and individuals with alcohol use disorder are particularly at risk for these severe withdrawal symptoms. The absence of medical supervision during the withdrawal process can lead to complications and internal organ failure. Furthermore, quitting cold turkey may increase the likelihood of a severe relapse due to the lack of accountability and support during the withdrawal phase.

Support options, such as mutual support groups and treatment programs, can also provide guidance through the process of withdrawal and help maintain sobriety post-detox.

Delirium Tremens

Delirium tremens (DTs) represents the most severe spectrum of alcohol withdrawal and is recognized as a medical emergency that can be fatal if not treated promptly and effectively. 

With a prevalence of less than 1% in the general population and nearly 2% among those with alcohol dependence, DTs is a relatively uncommon yet critical condition that demands immediate medical attention. Symptoms of DTs can include

  • Confusion
  • Tremors
  • Agitation or aggression
  • Irritability
  • Autonomic hyperactivity, manifesting as trembling, sweating, heart palpitations, nausea, and vomiting
  • Hallucinations
  • Seizures

The condition typically emerges after a sudden reduction in or abstinence from alcohol, such as when quitting alcohol cold turkey. Individuals with a history of alcohol withdrawal or heavy alcohol use are at a higher risk for developing DTs.

Management of DTs requires intensive monitoring and medical intervention. Treatment often includes the administration of benzodiazepines to mitigate symptoms and prevent complications. Given its potential for fatality, the treatment of DTs is typically conducted in a hospital setting where continuous support and rapid response to changes in the patient’s condition are possible.

Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome

Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome (WKS) is a severe neurological disorder caused by a deficiency in thiamine (vitamin B1), often associated with chronic alcohol misuse. Alcohol impairs the body’s ability to absorb and utilize thiamine, leading to a deficiency that can result in brain damage. WKS is actually two separate conditions: 

  • Wernicke’s encephalopathy, which is acute and potentially reversible if treated early
  • Korsakoff’s psychosis, which involves chronic and debilitating memory and cognitive deficits

Alcohol withdrawal can worsen WKS by increasing the body’s demand for thiamine while simultaneously reducing its ability to absorb the vitamin. Without prompt treatment, WKS can have serious and long-lasting effects on a person’s cognitive function and quality of life.

Medical Interventions for Alcohol Withdrawal

Medical detoxification, or detox, is a crucial first step in the treatment of alcohol withdrawal syndrome (AWS) for individuals with severe alcohol use disorder (AUD). It involves the supervised withdrawal from alcohol in a safe and controlled environment, typically in a hospital or specialized detox center. 

During medical detox, healthcare professionals monitor the individual’s vital signs, manage symptoms, and provide medications to help alleviate discomfort and prevent complications. Benzodiazepines are commonly used to manage alcohol withdrawal symptoms due to their sedative effects on the central nervous system. Other medications, such as antipsychotics and anticonvulsants, may be used to address specific symptoms such as hallucinations or seizures.

In addition to medical detox, individuals with AUD may benefit from ongoing treatment to address the underlying causes of their alcohol use and prevent relapse. This may include inpatient or outpatient rehab, behavioral therapies, counseling, and support groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous (AA). Medications such as naltrexone, acamprosate, or disulfiram can also be used to help reduce cravings and maintain sobriety. The combination of medical detox and comprehensive treatment can greatly improve the chances of long-term recovery from alcohol use disorder.

Tips for Quitting Alcohol for Good

Quitting alcohol can be a challenging but rewarding journey towards improved health and well-being. Whether you’re looking to cut back on your drinking or quit alcohol entirely, having a plan in place can increase your chances of success. Here are some tips to help you quit alcohol for good:

  • Set clear, achievable goals: Define why you want to quit and what you hope to achieve. Setting specific, measurable goals can help keep you motivated and focused.
  • Seek support: Tell your friends, family, or a support group about your decision to quit. Having a strong support network can provide encouragement and accountability.
  • Identify triggers and develop coping strategies: Recognize situations, emotions, or people that may trigger your desire to drink, and find healthy ways to cope with these triggers, such as exercise, meditation, or talking to a friend.
  • Stay busy and engaged: Fill your time with activities that you enjoy and that keep you occupied. This can help distract you from cravings and reduce the temptation to drink.
  • Take care of yourself: Prioritize self-care by eating well, getting enough sleep, and practicing relaxation techniques. Taking care of your physical and mental health can improve your resilience to stress and cravings.

When You’re Ready to Quit, We’re Here to Help

Getting help for alcoholism at The Recovery Village Columbus can greatly improve the chances of overcoming alcohol addiction. The center’s team of professionals works closely with each patient to create and continuously adjust treatment plans that ensure long-term success. The Recovery Village Columbus offers several treatment options, including medical detox, inpatient rehab, and more, to provide you with personalized care at our Joint Commission-accredited facility. Contact a Recovery Advocate today to take the first step toward living an alcohol-free life.


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