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Updated on September 26, 2022

Quitting Alcohol Cold Turkey

Alcohol is one of the easiest substances to become addicted to. It's also one of the hardest to quit due to being widely available.

Many alcoholics try to quit drinking cold turkey (which means stopping use abruptly). This puts them at the risk of serious consequences, some of which are life-threatening.

Is it Safe to Quit Drinking Cold Turkey?

No.

Quitting drinking cold turkey can lead to potentially life-threatening withdrawal symptoms.

The extent of the severity of the withdrawal symptoms depends on the seriousness of the addiction.

Risks of Quitting Alcohol Cold Turkey

There are various risks associated with quitting alcohol cold turkey. One of the most serious alcoholic ketoacidosis.

Alcoholic ketoacidosis is similar to that faced by some people with type 1 diabetes mellitus. It develops due to alcohol’s effect on the pancreas’ ability to create insulin. 

Various severe complications can result, including metabolic problems, cardiac issues, and delirium tremens (DTs).

DTs are characterized by:

  • Shaking
  • Confusion
  • Hallucinations
  • Seizures

They're common among individuals with a history of alcohol withdrawal, heavy drinkers, and those who have experienced an addiction to alcohol for more than 10 years.

Low electrolyte levels from alcoholic ketoacidosis can also result in heart problems, including arrhythmias sudden heart attacks.

Metabolic problems also adversely affect the heart and lungs. Both can stop if the blood becomes too acidic, which can occur after a seizure or following heavy alcohol consumption.

These abnormalities can usually be corrected through an adequate intake of vitamins, sugar, and fluids.

Regular over-the-counter medicines can help with more benign parts of alcohol withdrawal syndrome, like headache and nausea. 

Alcoholic ketoacidosis can be life-threatening but is treatable.

When it comes to drugs, only benzodiazepines have been shown to reduce the risk of fatal complications resulting from seizures and delirium tremens.

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Why Do People Experience Withdrawal Symptoms When They Quit Drinking?

Alcohol withdrawal happens when a person suddenly stops drinking after extended and heavy alcohol abuse. Many people with alcohol use disorder (AUD) experience withdrawal symptoms.

Alcohol is a depressant, meaning it slows down the brain and central nervous system.

In a heavy, long-term alcohol drinker, the brain is regularly exposed to these depressant effects. With time, this changes the brain's chemistry.

What happens is the brain creates naturally stimulating chemicals like serotonin or norepinephrine in larger quantities than usual. The latter is related to adrenaline (alcohol can also act as a stimulant).

If the alcohol is withdrawn suddenly, the brain becomes like a speeding car with no brakes.

Mild to moderate withdrawal symptoms include:

  • Trembling
  • Insomnia
  • Anxiety
  • Other physical and mental health problems

Risks of Delirium Tremens (DTs)

The most dangerous type of alcohol withdrawal symptom is DTs. It occurs in roughly 1 out of 20 people who experience alcohol withdrawal symptoms.

The brain cannot smoothly readjust its chemistry once alcohol is stopped. This produces a state of temporary confusion. It leads to dangerous changes in the way your brain regulates your circulation and breathing.

The body’s vital signs, like your heart rate or blood pressure, can shift dramatically. This creates a risk of heart attack, stroke, and death.

Symptoms of DTs include:

  • Trembling
  • Headaches
  • High blood pressure
  • Anxiety
  • Increased heart rate

How to Stop Drinking Alcohol Safely

If you are a daily drinker, a frequent binge drinker, or a long-term heavy drinker, you will likely experience some withdrawal symptoms if you stop drinking suddenly.

If you try to quit cold turkey without any form of medical advice or assistance, the symptoms could become severe or dangerous.

The simplest way to reduce alcohol consumption is to gradually lessen the number of drinks consumed with medical supervision. This is known as tapering.

For example, if you consume five glasses of wine daily, try cutting back to four for several days before reducing it to three, and so on.

Medical professionals with experience will advise on the best way to safely quit alcohol.

Here are 5 other tips to stop drinking safely:

  • Change your environment: It may be that stress or peer pressure is influencing you to drink excessively.
  • Find new hobbies: If you drink alcohol for recreation, consider replacing that with healthier alternatives like exercise, sports, or volunteering.
  • Reach out to family and friends: It's vital to have a support network to help you during your recovery journey.
  • Consider addiction treatment: The inability to control alcohol use is a sign of alcohol use disorder.
  • Medication-assisted treatment (MAT): Drugs such as Naltrexone, Acamprosate, Metadoxine, and Disulfiram have been approved by the FDA to help reduce drinking.

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Why is Professionally Monitored Alcohol Detox Necessary? 

Detoxing is the beginning of any alcohol addiction treatment. During this time, alcohol is flushed from your body. 

Detox should always be medically supervised. Medical professionals can also help you feel more comfortable during this period in a treatment program.

Withdrawal symptoms usually subside within 2 weeks of starting detox. They may persist longer depending on the severity of your addiction.

Once the withdrawal symptoms subside, you can focus on other areas of recovery. 

Other aspects of recovery include:

  • Activities
  • Mental health therapy
  • Counseling sessions
  • Support groups

Alcohol is a depressant that your body starts to rely on over months and years of heavy drinking.

Your brain eventually stops creating certain chemicals that it receives from alcohol, leading to alcohol dependence and addiction. That is why when you quit drinking, it takes time for your body to change.

Some people are nervous about quitting drinking because they worry about the withdrawal symptoms during alcohol detoxification.

While some people may only experience minor effects of alcoholism, some face extreme discomfort and pain.

Alcohol withdrawal symptoms can appear quickly and aggressively, which is why it's essential to detox with medical help.

Treatment professionals at a substance abuse facility can help you manage your pain with various medications. This enables you to focus on recovery and get better.

How to Find a Good Alcohol Detox Program

If you are ready to quit drinking, look for high-quality rehab facilities that fit your needs and will help you along your recovery journey.

Finding an excellent treatment center for alcohol addiction is one of the best steps for a successful recovery. 

Look for medical detox programs and treatment centers based on the following criteria:

  • Accreditations 
  • Levels of care
  • Awards
  • Treatment facilities and amenities
  • Number of centers
  • Substances and mental health conditions treated
  • If they take insurance

Alcohol addiction treatment marks the start of a new way of living. The insights you gain and the adjustments you make to your life during treatment will become the foundation of your recovery.

Consider this when you choose a treatment center. It will help you discover a good fit and understand the best treatment approach for building a solid foundation for lifelong recovery.

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Resources

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  1. Alcohol Withdrawal.” Harvard Health, 22 Apr. 2019.
  2. Sachdeva A, Choudhary M, Chandra M. Alcohol withdrawal syndrome: Benzodiazepines and beyond. J Clin Diagn Res. 2015;9:VE01-VE07.
  3. Wilson, Emma, and Malcolm Lader. “A review of the management of antidepressant discontinuation symptoms.” Therapeutic advances in psychopharmacology vol. 5,6 : 357-68. Ferner, R E, and J Chambers. “Alcohol intake: measure for measure.” BMJ (Clinical research ed.) vol. 323,7327 : 1439-40.
  4. Jesse, S et al. “Alcohol withdrawal syndrome: mechanisms, manifestations, and management.” Acta neurologica Scandinavica vol. 135,1 : 4-16.
  5. Kattimani, Shivanand, and Balaji Bharadwaj. “Clinical management of alcohol withdrawal: A systematic review.” Industrial psychiatry journal vol. 22,2 : 100-8. doi:10.4103/0972-6748.132914
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