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Updated on September 22, 2021

Is It Safe to Quit Drinking Cold Turkey?

What Does it Mean to Quit Drinking Cold Turkey?

Alcohol is one of the easiest substances to become addicted to. It is also one of the most challenging drugs to quit because of its social acceptance and widespread availability. 

Unfortunately, many alcoholics try to quit drinking cold turkey (which means stopping use abruptly). However, this puts them at the highest risk for serious consequences.

For example, alcohol can cause life-threatening withdrawal symptoms in chronic alcoholics if use is stopped abruptly. 

Is it Safe to Quit Drinking Cold Turkey?

No, it is not safe to quit drinking cold turkey. Quitting drinking cold turkey can lead to dangerous withdrawal symptoms that are potentially life-threatening. The extent of the severity of the withdrawal symptoms depends on the seriousness of the addiction.

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Risks of Quitting Alcohol Cold Turkey

There are various risks associated with quitting alcohol cold turkey. The most severe withdrawal symptoms include delirium tremens (DTs) in individuals with serious alcohol addiction. DTs can be life-threatening in heavy drinkers.

DTs are common among individuals with a history of alcohol withdrawal, heavy drinkers, and those who have experienced an addiction to alcohol for more than ten years. Severe symptoms of alcohol withdrawal syndrome and delirium tremens can result in physical trauma due to seizures and metabolic problems.

Low electrolyte levels can result in cardiac complications during alcohol withdrawal, including arrhythmias and sudden death occurring from a heart attack.

Hypophosphatemia can also occur, which is when someone has low levels of phosphate. This can lead to muscle weakness, coma, and the stopping of usual breathing functions.

Metabolic 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. 

The results of metabolic derangements also adversely affect heart and lung function. Both can stop if the blood becomes too acidic, which can occur after a seizure or following heavy alcohol consumption.

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. 

Alcoholic ketoacidosis is potentially life-threatening. However, it can be treated with suitable medical attention. When it comes to drugs, only benzodiazepines, like diazepam (Valium) and lorazepam (Ativan), have been shown to reduce the risk of fatal complications resulting from seizures and delirium tremens.

What is Alcohol Withdrawal & How Dangerous is it?

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

Mild to moderate symptoms and side effects include:

  • Trembling (shakes)
  • Insomnia
  • Anxiety
  • Other physical and mental health problems

Alcohol has a slowing effect on the brain. This is also known as a sedating or depressant effect. In a heavy, long-term alcohol drinker, the brain is almost continuously exposed to the depressant influence of alcohol. With time, the brain changes its chemistry to compensate for the effect of the alcohol.

The brain does this by creating naturally stimulating chemicals like serotonin or norepinephrine in larger quantities than usual. The latter is a relative of adrenaline. If the alcohol is withdrawn suddenly, the brain works like an accelerated vehicle that has lost its brakes.

As mentioned above, the most dangerous type of alcohol withdrawal is delirium tremens. This type of alcohol withdrawal occurs in approximately one out of every 20 people who experience withdrawal symptoms.

In delirium tremens, 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 adjust dramatically. This creates a risk of heart attack, stroke, or death.

Symptoms of delirium tremens include:

  • Trembling (shaking)
  • Headaches
  • High blood pressure
  • Anxiety
  • Tachycardia (increased heart rate)

Why Do People Experience Withdrawal Symptoms When They Quit Drinking?

Alcohol has a depressive effect on your system. It slows down brain function and adjusts the way your nerves send messages back and forth. In time, your central nervous system changes to having alcohol around all the time.

Your body works to keep your brain in a more awake and alert state and keep your nerves communicating with one another. When the alcohol levels suddenly drop, your brain remains in this state. That is what causes withdrawal.

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How to Stop Drinking Alcohol Safely

If you have an alcohol use disorder, you should taper off alcohol first instead of stopping suddenly. This can help reduce the severity of possible alcohol withdrawal symptoms.

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.

There is little if any research that proves that tapering off alcohol lessens the effects of alcohol withdrawal. This may be because withdrawal symptoms differ from one individual to the next. There is no way to compare outcomes between heavy, daily, or binge drinkers.

The simplest way to taper off alcohol consumption is to lessen the number of drinks consumed with medical supervision gradually. 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.

Why is Professionally Monitored Alcohol Detox Necessary? 

The alcohol detoxification stage is the beginning of treating alcoholism. During this time, alcohol is flushed from your body. 

However, medically supervised detox is necessary to help manage any dangerous or life-threatening withdrawal symptoms. Medical professionals can also help you feel more comfortable during this period in a treatment program.

Withdrawal symptoms usually subside within around one to two weeks after starting the detox. However, they may persist longer depending on the severity of your alcohol use disorder.

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

Other aspects of recovery include:

  • Activities
  • Therapies
  • 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. 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.

Withdrawal symptoms adjust quickly and aggressively, which is why it is essential to detox with the help of medical professionals. 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.

Treatment Options for Alcohol Abuse & Addiction

  • Inpatient Programs — Inpatient treatment is the option for alcohol addiction treatment. These intensive programs are usually 30, 60, or 90 days but can be longer in certain cases. Throughout the duration of your stay at an inpatient rehab facility, you will live on site is a safe, substance-free environment. You will go through medically supervised detoxification first, then behavioral therapy and other services will be added to your regimen. Most programs will will help you set up an aftercare program upon completion.
  • Partial Hospitalization Programs (PHPs) Partial hospitalization programs (also called intensive outpatient programs, or IOPs) are comparable to inpatient programs, but you return home after each session. Some PHPs provide food and transportation, but this varies by program. Their services may include detoxification, medical services, behavioral therapy, support groups, and other holistic or custom treatments. PHPs accept new patients, along with patients who have completed an inpatient treatment program and still require intensive care.
  • Outpatient Programs Outpatient programs are less intensive and offer a more flexible treatment schedule. They are best for people who have responsibilities at work, home, or school and are highly motivated to achieve sobriety. Outpatient treatment programs customize your treatment sessions around your personal schedule. Outpatient programs can help new patients achieve success, and may also be a part of aftercare program once a patient completes an inpatient or PHP.
  • Medication-Assisted Therapy (MAT) Certain patients with Alcohol Use Disorder will qualify for medication-assisted therapy. Medications can help you detoxify, reduce cravings, and normalize bodily functions. Disulfiram (Antabuse), acamprosate (Campral), and naltrexone (Revia and Vivitrol) are the most common medications used to treat Alcohol Use Disorder. MAT is most effective when combined with other treatment therapies.
  • Support Groups Support groups are peer-led groups that help people stay sober. They can be a first step in overcoming alcoholism or a component of an aftercare plan. Many of them follow the 12-step approach, however there are secular options that don't follow the 12-step approach as well.

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Resources

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Alcohol Withdrawal, Harvard Health Publishing, Harvard Medical School, April 2019, https://www.health.harvard.edu/a_to_z/alcohol-withdrawal-a-to-z 

Wilson, Emma, and Malcolm Lader. “A review of the management of antidepressant discontinuation symptoms.” Therapeutic advances in psychopharmacology vol. 5,6 (2015): 357-68, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4722507/ 

Ferner, R E, and J Chambers. “Alcohol intake: measure for measure.” BMJ (Clinical research ed.) vol. 323,7327 (2001): 1439-40, https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/11751344/ 

Jesse, S et al. “Alcohol withdrawal syndrome: mechanisms, manifestations, and management.” Acta neurologica Scandinavica vol. 135,1 (2017): 4-16, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6084325/ 

Kattimani, Shivanand, and Balaji Bharadwaj. “Clinical management of alcohol withdrawal: A systematic review.” Industrial psychiatry journal vol. 22,2 (2013): 100-8, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4085800/ 

Kattimani, Shivanand, and Balaji Bharadwaj. “Clinical management of aHeinz A, Beck A, Mir J, et al. Alcohol Craving and Relapse Prediction: Imaging Studies. In: Kuhn CM, Koob GF, editors. Advances in the Neuroscience of Addiction. 2nd edition. Boca Raton (FL): CRC Press/Taylor & Francis; 2010. Chapter 4. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK53355/cohol withdrawal: A systematic review.” Industrial psychiatry journal vol. 22,2 (2013): 100-8, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4085800/

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