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The Dangers of Quitting Drinking Cold Turkey

When long-time drinkers quit abruptly (also known as quitting alcohol cold turkey), they develop symptoms ranging from anxiety to grand mal seizures.[1] It’s never safe to quit via this method.

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Instead, experts recommend entering a medical detox program that provides 24/7 care and supervision.[8] Treatment teams can use medications to reduce the risk of severe complications (like seizures), and they can adjust your treatment plan if your condition worsens. At the end of detox, your team can help you enroll in rehabilitation programs to help you learn how to maintain your sobriety for a lifetime.

If you’ve already tried quitting alcohol cold turkey and you’re developing symptoms like hallucinations, delirium, and extreme agitation, you need medical attention. Go to an emergency room immediately and ask for help.[2]

Is it Safe to Quit Drinking Cold Turkey?

Quick Answer

No, it’s not generally considered safe to quit drinking alcohol cold turkey due to the risk of dangerous withdrawal symptoms. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) recommends medical detox services in a hospital or other 24/7 facility for those going through alcohol withdrawal.[8]

Can You Quit Drinking Cold Turkey?

Technically, some people with a mild alcohol addiction or dependence may be able to quit drinking cold turkey without any complications or dangers. However, medical professionals do not recommend quitting drinking on your own without professional assistance.[8]

This is because abruptly stopping or reducing your alcohol consumption will lead to acute alcohol withdrawal symptoms, which can range from mild to severe and life-threatening. Grand mal seizures are the most risky symptom of alcohol withdrawal. [1],[2]

The more severe your alcohol dependence, the more difficult and potentially dangerous quitting cold turkey is going to be. For this reason, always talk to a doctor so you can at least make an informed decision about your next steps.

What Happens When You Quit Alcohol Cold Turkey?

If you are dependent on or addicted to alcohol and suddenly stop drinking, you’ll experience distressing and potentially dangerous alcohol withdrawal symptoms, such as:[1],[2],[3],[5],[6]

Some people develop mild withdrawal symptoms that develop within about six hours and don’t progress within the next 24 to 48 hours. However, others develop very serious alcohol withdrawal complications within 12 to 24 hours of quitting drinking, including seizures.[6]

Alcohol withdrawal seizures are incredibly serious. In severe cases, doctors may need to intubate and sedate their patients to keep them from having more episodes.[6]

SAMHSA recommends medical detox services in a hospital or other 24/7 facility for those going through alcohol withdrawal because of the risk of seizures and hallucinations.


Cold Turkey Alcohol Withdrawal Timeline

Alcohol withdrawal syndrome may manifest differently according to many different factors, such as length of alcohol addiction, amount consumed, previous withdrawal experiences, genes, and more. However, below is a typical timeline of acute withdrawal without medical intervention or alcohol withdrawal medications.

Time Since Last DrinkWithdrawal symptomsSeverity
4-12 hours Nausea, headache, anxiety, insomniaMild
2 daysShakes, hand tremors, hallucinations, seizuresSevere, symptoms peak in intensity
4-5 daysInsomnia and anxietyMild then dissipate
Weeks to monthsMild then dissipateMild but may fluctuate

Risk Factors for Dangerous Alcohol Withdrawal

When considering whether you should try quitting alcohol cold turkey, you’ll want to know the risk factors for life-threatening or complicated alcohol withdrawal symptoms like seizures or delirium tremens (DTs). These risk factors include:[10],[11],[12]

That said, even if you don’t have any of the above risk factors for DTs or withdrawal seizures, that doesn’t mean that you won’t develop dangerous withdrawal symptoms. Even with an assessment, doctors aren’t able to say with certainty that a person is safe to quit drinking cold turkey. That’s why going through alcohol detox in a hospital or 24/7 detox facility is so important.

Dangers & Risks of Cold Turkey Detox for Alcohol Use Disorder

Some notable dangers and risks of quitting cold turkey include the following:

  • Serious discomfort combined with little support greatly increases the odds of giving up or relapsing.
  • You may avoid potentially better available treatments with no real advantage, even if the cold turkey approach still works for you.
  • You are at risk for delirium tremens, which is a form of withdrawal that causes sudden and severe mental or nervous system changes that can be life-threatening.

Even if your alcohol withdrawal symptoms aren’t life-threatening, they can be unpleasant enough that you return to drinking in order to alleviate them. This can contribute to an uncontrollable cycle of alcohol withdrawal and relapse that worsens your dependence and alcoholism.

Medical Detox: An Alternative to Quitting Cold Turkey

The safest approach to quitting alcohol is to seek out medical detox, which involves around-the-clock medical care, supervision, and monitoring. SAMHSA recommends medical detox for alcohol withdrawal in an inpatient setting due to the unpleasant and risky nature of alcohol withdrawal.[8]

If you are thinking of quitting drinking, you can receive medical detox services in several settings, such as: [8]

  • Psychiatric hospital
  • Acute care hospital
  • A freestanding alcohol detox program
  • Medical detox within an inpatient rehab

Alcohol detox begins with an assessment and physical examination. Your doctor will find out how much you typically drink, when you had your last alcoholic beverage, and whether you have underlying health conditions (like heart disease) that could complicate your recovery.[6]

Then, your team will perform an assessment to determine your next steps. Your care team will look for symptoms of withdrawal and rank their severity. If your symptoms are mild, your team might offer supportive treatments (like fluid therapy and multivitamins). If your symptoms are severe, they can use benzodiazepine medications to ease them.[6]

Every few hours, your team will perform another symptom assessment and determine if you need medication management or some other form of treatment.[6]

When your condition has been stable for several days, your team will slowly lower your medication dose until you’re taking none at all. At that point, you can transfer to a rehab program to learn more about preserving your sobriety.  

While medical detox can help you obtain medical stability and safely go through withdrawal, it doesn’t facilitate the behavioral change necessary for long-term sobriety. But at an alcohol addiction treatment program, you can benefit from therapy, counseling, support groups, and more.

How to Quit Drinking Safely

If quitting alcohol cold turkey isn’t safe, what else can you try? Getting help for an alcohol use disorder is easier and more effective than you might imagine.

Here’s what to do if you want to quit drinking safely:

  1. Talk to an expert. Speak with your doctor or contact a reputable alcohol detox program and enroll.
  2. Don’t quit until you’re told to do so. Quitting alcohol cold turkey isn’t safe. Let your treatment provider tell you when to stop.
  3. Enroll in care. Arrive at the detox facility for treatment and commit to following the instructions your team provides.
  4. Follow up. Detox alone isn’t enough to help you quit alcohol for good. When your program is complete, transfer to a rehab program to keep learning and growing.

If you’ve already tried quitting alcohol cold turkey, you may not be safe. Signs like severe anxiety or hallucinations suggest that your body isn’t handling the process. Go to an emergency room right away for immediate care.

Contact us at Boca Recovery Center to get started on your recovery journey.

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Medically Reviewed By Dr. Alison Tarlow

Dr. Alison Tarlow is a Licensed Clinical Psychologist in the States of Florida and Pennsylvania, and a Certified Addictions Professional (CAP). She has been a practicing psychologist for over 15 years. Sh... Read More

Updated March 22, 2024
  1. Complications of Alcohol Withdrawal. (1998). Pathophysiological Insights.
  2. Withdrawal Management. (2009). World Health Organization.
  3. Delirium Tremens. (January 2021). National Library of Medicine.
  4. Recognition and Management of Withdrawal Delirium (Delirium Tremens). (November 2014). The New England Journal of Medicine.
  5. Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.). American Psychiatric Association. (2013).
  6. Alcohol Withdrawal. Newman RK, Stobart Gallagher MA, Gomez AE. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; 2023 Jan-.
  7. Clinical management of alcohol withdrawal: A systematic review Kattimani S, Bharadwaj B. Ind Psychiatry J. 2013;22(2):100-108.
  8. Detoxification and Substance Abuse Treatment. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.
  9. Risk Factors for Lethal Outcome in Patients with Delirium Tremens: Psychiatrist’s Perspective. A Nested Case-Control Study. Annals of General Psychiatry. (2013).
  10. Alcohol Withdrawal Syndrome. Am Fam Physician. 2004;69(6):1443-1450
  11. Alcohol Withdrawal Syndrome: Benzodiazepines and Beyond. Sachdeva A, Choudhary M, Chandra M. J Clin Diagn Res. 2015;9(9):VE01-VE07.
  12. Risk factors for the development of delirium in alcohol dependence syndrome: Clinical and neurobiological implications. Sarkar S, Choudhury S, Ezhumalai G, Konthoujam J. Indian J Psychiatry. 2017;59(3):300-305.
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