Quitting alcohol “cold turkey” isn’t particularly effective, even if it may work for some people. It can also potentially cause very serious withdrawal symptoms, and in rare cases, it can even be life-threatening.
Instead, research the best treatment option for your needs before attempting to stop drinking. Talk to an addiction treatment professional about the best way to proceed.
Key Facts About Quitting Drinking
These are some key things to keep in mind when considering quitting alcohol cold turkey:
- Alcohol results in many thousands of emergency department visits every year in the United States, with alcohol causing an estimated 95,000 deaths annually.
- Abrupt changes to your level of alcohol consumption, especially without consulting experts about medications that may help you, is generally what causes the most severe withdrawal symptoms in dependent individuals.
- Severe alcohol withdrawal can be particularly difficult, even when compared to withdrawal from more illicit drugs. It is sometimes life-threatening.
- Less than 10 percent of people who struggled with alcohol use disorder (AUD) in 2019 received treatment, despite the fact that receiving expert treatment is the best way to maximize one’s chance of addiction recovery.
Can You Quit Drinking Cold Turkey?
Available data on the success rate of quitting alcohol cold turkey is difficult to find but is likely limited.
Talking about the “cold turkey” approach to addiction recovery is complicated because it can potentially work for some people, though it is not often recommended. It is generally a step in the right direction if a person had previously been unable or unwilling to admit their problems with alcohol and start combatting their addiction.
Abruptly stopping or sharply reducing your alcohol intake when you’ve had a history of struggling with alcohol dependence is likely to cause acute alcohol withdrawal. This can cause a variety of unpleasant and even dangerous symptoms, discussed later.
The nature of the cold-turkey approach means many people trying this method aren’t talking to experts about what to expect, how to manage their withdrawal symptoms and drug cravings, or if any medications might be able to help them. This can lead to risky situations.
The more severe your alcohol dependence, the more difficult quitting cold turkey is going to be. In some cases, it may be outright dangerous. For this reason, always talk to an addiction treatment expert when trying to recover from an alcohol addiction, so you can at least make an informed decision about your next steps.
What Happens When You Quit Cold Turkey?
When you quit alcohol cold turkey, you’re likely going to experience acute alcohol withdrawal within 6 to 24 hours, the symptoms of which will be most severe within 36 to 72 hours and will last for 2 to 10 days. Alcohol withdrawal is notoriously difficult for people, which is why the cold-turkey approach isn’t usually recommended if alternative options are available.
During this time, you will generally be in serious discomfort and experience cravings for more alcohol, which can be particularly intense and difficult to resist. However, if you manage to avoid drinking for the duration of your acute withdrawal and allow your body time to process the alcohol already in your system and then reacclimate to its absence, your acute withdrawal symptoms will start to fade.
Importantly, if you experience particularly worrying symptoms associated with withdrawal (discussed more below), you may need emergency care. Severe alcohol withdrawal cannot always be “powered through” on one’s own, as it can be life-threatening and require medical interventions you won’t have access to in your home, especially if you’re in a state where it is difficult to think clearly.
Symptoms of Alcohol Withdrawal
Sweating, diarrhea, and vomiting can cause a person to become dehydrated, which can be serious if active steps aren’t taken to rehydrate.
Symptoms of alcohol withdrawal include the following:
- Tremors, especially in the hands (“the shakes”)
- Increased heart rate and blood pressure
While these symptoms are “normal” for alcohol withdrawal, you should still seek medical attention if they seem severe. If you’re ever unsure whether to consider a symptom serious or not, err on the side of caution and contact 911 or at least reach out to an addiction treatment professional.
Symptoms that should always be considered serious that are associated with severe alcohol withdrawal include the following:
- Delirium or confusion
- Extreme fluctuations in body temperature and blood pressure
- Extreme agitation
If a person experiences any of the above symptoms, call 911 and tell them that whoever is experiencing these symptoms seems to be going through severe and potentially life-threatening alcohol withdrawal. They will send emergency help.
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 risk delirium tremens, which is a form of withdrawal that causes sudden and severe mental or nervous system changes that can be life-threatening.
Some alternatives to quitting drinking cold turkey include the following:
While you should still talk to an expert, one alternative that doesn’t necessarily need an expert to start is monitoring and tapering your alcohol use. In essence, heavy alcohol use slowly causes the body to adjust to that level of drug use. When you suddenly stop your alcohol use, you experience withdrawal.
If you instead taper your alcohol use, slowly lowering it day by day, your body can adjust more slowly rather than all at once. This can make quitting less difficult on the body and reduce withdrawal symptoms if you adhere to your plan and don’t “cheat” by drinking more than your slowly lowered limit.
Medication alone does not “cure” a person’s addiction since there is no cure for alcohol use disorder. However, medications can be used to make the recovery process easier.
If you talk to a medical professional about your struggles with alcohol, they may be able to prescribe you medications to reduce cravings, eliminate withdrawal symptoms, and more. Common medications to treat alcohol use disorder include the following:
Therapy & Counseling
Some form of therapy or drug counseling is always beneficial for long-term addiction recovery. Consistent cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) sessions can help you identify what draws you to drink and teach you how to adjust your way of thinking and channel negative thoughts to better avoid alcohol misuse.
Many people who struggle with addiction also have other mental health issues that contribute to why they use drugs, and therapy and counseling can help address them. It’s important to treat all co-occurring disorders at the same time for the best chances of recovery on all fronts.
Tips for Quitting Alcohol Long Term
Here are some tips to help you quit using alcohol long term:
- Write down why you want to quit drinking in a diary. In that same diary, track how much you drink each day, where you drank, and possible reasons you may have decided to drink that day. You’ll begin to identify patterns in your alcohol use.
- Set drinking limits, restricting how much you drink even if those goals are still higher than the recommended amount a person should drink. Work to slowly lower those limits.
- Build a strong support network of people who can help you avoid drinking. Try to avoid people who pressure you to drink, especially if you’ve already told them you want to quit drinking and they aren’t supportive.
- Keep busy, engaging in healthy (or at least not actively unhealthy) activities that don’t involve drinking, such as exercising, going out to eat, or watching movies.
- Actively limit your access to alcohol, including not keeping alcohol in the house if you can manage it.
- Talk to an addiction treatment professional about how to quit using alcohol. They can design an addiction treatment program that will work best for your situation, helping you to quit drinking safely and successfully.
- Alcohol Facts and Statistics. (March 2022). National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.
- Complications of Alcohol Withdrawal. (1998). Pathophysiological Insights.
- Withdrawal Management. (2009). World Health Organization.
- Delirium Tremens. (January 2021). National Library of Medicine.
- Alcohol Misuse: Treatment. (October 2022). UK NHS.
- 11 Ways to Curb Your Drinking. (May 2022). Harvard Health Publishing.
- Recognition and Management of Withdrawal Delirium (Delirium Tremens). (November 2014). The New England Journal of Medicine.