The Risks of Quitting Cold Turkey

a person holds their head on a couch possibly after quitting cold turkey

One of the most frequently used addictive substances is also one of the most difficult to quit. For people with alcohol use disorder, stopping alcohol use completely—otherwise known as quitting “cold turkey”—can result in withdrawal symptoms that are physically dangerous. A professional medication-assisted treatment program can monitor withdrawal symptoms and administer medications that help with detox and withdrawal symptoms. Quitting is always safer than continuing heavy drinking, and for many people who want to stop drinking alcohol, attending an addiction treatment program allows them to quit safely and responsibly.

How Your Brain Adapts to Alcohol Use

Quitting cold turkey is risky because your brain and body adapt to alcohol over time. You’ll experience cravings and withdrawal symptoms that make the process difficult and sometimes dangerous.

Alcohol is a depressant, which means it relaxes your body and slows down the functioning of your central nervous system. You may notice you feel calm or sluggish when you drink. To compensate for alcohol’s sedative effects, the brain increases its production of certain chemicals so you can continue functioning physically and mentally. After long periods of chronic alcohol use, your brain chemistry adjusts to the presence of alcohol.

Alcohol also activates pleasure centers in the brain, contributing to the cravings you experience when you stop drinking. Your brain has been “rewired” to anticipate the positive feelings alcohol provides.

When you quit cold turkey, your brain will have trouble adjusting to the absence of alcohol. This is why cravings can be so strong; your body is accustomed to needing alcohol to function.

Alcohol Withdrawal Syndrome when Quitting Cold Turkey

Alcohol withdrawal syndrome affects about half of people with alcohol use disorder once they stop drinking. With alcohol withdrawal syndrome, you experience unpleasant and sometimes life-threatening physical and psychological symptoms.

Quitting cold turkey throws your central nervous system out of balance. Parts of your body and brain may go into hyperactive mode to compensate for the lack of alcohol. Your body enters the process of detox, which happens when addictive substances are removed from a person’s system.

Most people experience mild to moderate side effects within the first six to 48 hours of their last drink. These side effects can include:

  • Headaches
  • Fatigue
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Sweating
  • Gastrointestinal disturbances
  • Muscle weakness
  • Restlessness
  • Mood swings
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Agitation or irritability
  • Anxiety
  • Loss of appetite
  • Dehydration
  • Increased heart rate
  • Shakiness or tremors
  • High body temperature
  • Heart palpitations
  • Mental confusion

Dangerous Withdrawal Symptoms

A less common risk of quitting cold turkey is developing serious side effects that require medical attention, like severe dehydration, seizures, or convulsions. One rare but extremely dangerous symptom is delirium tremens (DT), a brain condition that can result in seizures, hallucinations, heart problems, and even organ failure.
Because of the possibility of life-threatening symptoms, quitting cold turkey is safer with medical supervision. People with DT symptoms are much more likely to survive if they receive immediate medical treatment for complications. Supervision and monitoring ensure this treatment is available if needed.

How Long Does Detox Last?

The process of detox will be different for each individual. In general, however, detox and withdrawal symptoms begin six hours after a person’s last drink and last for up to 72 hours, or sometimes longer.

Mild withdrawal symptoms can begin six to 12 hours after quitting cold turkey. These symptoms can range from anxiety and irritability to headaches, stomachaches, sweating, and nausea.
Between 12 and 48 hours after your last drink, the symptoms may become more severe as detox continues. This time usually represents the highest risk for complications like seizures and hallucinations.

Detox and withdrawal symptoms often continue until the third day, or 72 hours after the last drink. For some people, psychological symptoms like depression and anxiety may last longer, continuing for weeks or months as the brain begins to resume normal functioning.

Evidence-Based Treatment at Southern Sky Recovery

Without a formal addiction treatment program, quitting cold turkey can put you at a high risk of relapse. To avoid nasty withdrawal symptoms, many people with alcohol use disorder begin drinking again after trying to quit. In treatment, medication is available to relieve the physical effects of withdrawal. Therapy and counseling help with the mental and psychological effects of withdrawal, such as depression.

Southern Sky Recovery offers evidence-based treatment programs customized to the individual, starting with supervised detox. Instead of quitting cold turkey, you can work to get and stay sober with the help of professionals who know what you’re going through. Medication-assisted treatment can be highly effective for alcohol use disorder, especially when combined with behavioral interventions like therapy.

Learn how our programs can help you or a loved one quit drinking for good by calling [Direct] or contacting us online.