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Drugs You Cannot Quit Cold Turkey

Some drugs you just can’t quit cold turkey. They include heroin, opioid painkillers, benzodiazepines, sleep aids, and alcohol.

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Watch a movie about addiction, and you’ll probably see a character chuck pills in the garbage as the music swells. This approach may work well on the big screen, but it can have dangerous consequences in real life. 

Several drugs cause life-threatening withdrawal symptoms. Quit them cold turkey, and you could put yourself in serious jeopardy. 

5 Drugs You Can’t Quit Cold Turkey

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A longstanding drug habit changes brain function. In time, your brain cells only work properly in the presence of drugs. 

Remove drugs abruptly, and you could feel incredibly sick. Sometimes, your symptoms are so significant that your life is at risk. 

These are five drugs most experts agree are too dangerous to quit abruptly. 

1. Heroin

A longstanding heroin habit changes dopamine pathways within the brain. Each dose remains effective for just a few hours, and some people with an addiction feel mild withdrawal symptoms between hits. If someone like this quits all at once, they’re destined to feel very ill. 

People typically describe withdrawal symptoms as “flu-like.” But be aware that people can die due to heroin withdrawal

Nausea, vomiting, and sweating cause intense fluid loss. Dehydration can harm your kidneys, heart, and more. Relapse is also incredibly likely.

2. Opioid Painkillers

Drugs like Vicodin and OxyContin work much like heroin. They hijack the brain’s dopamine system and deliver bursts of euphoria that wear off quickly. 

Painkillers are responsible for 70 percent of the world’s overdose deaths, and anyone using them should stop as soon as possible. But quitting opioid painkillers cold turkey is dangerous. 

Dehydration is a real problem with cold-turkey detox. You may also feel so desperate for the discomfort to stop that you relapse back to drug use. 

Opioids are often contaminated with stronger drugs, including the opioid fentanyl, so your next dose could be your last. Many people who overdose on opioids do so unintentionally, not knowing that fentanyl is in the substance they are taking. A professional rehab program is the best way to recover from painkiller abuse.

3. Benzodiazepines

Valium, Klonopin, and other prescription benzodiazepines come with stark warnings about dosage. If you’re using them with a prescription, your doctor likely told you to avoid a cold-turkey withdrawal. If you’re abusing these drugs, you may not know how dangerous stopping use can be. 

Benzo withdrawal typically begins within a few hours after taking a short-term drug. You might feel the following symptoms:

  • Confused
  • Delusional, including believing things others don’t
  • Paranoid 
  • Unwell, as your heart races, your hands shake, and your vision swirls 

Some people quitting quickly can develop seizures. Unless they are treated, those episodes can be fatal. 

4. Sleep Aids

Ambien, Lunesta, and other prescription medications soothe electrical activity in the brain and allow you to drop into a deep sleep. Quitting these drugs quickly can cause a serious and uncomfortable withdrawal process. 

Sleep aid withdrawal symptoms include the following:

  • Anxiety 
  • Insomnia 
  • Racing heartbeat 
  • Restlessness
  • Shivering

People often find these symptoms so uncomfortable that they start using again, triggering another cycle of addiction and withdrawal. 

5. Alcohol

Few of us think of alcohol as a drug, but a longstanding drinking habit can change your brain in major ways. When that happens, trying to quit suddenly can cause you harm. 

People in alcohol withdrawal can experience the following:

  • Disorientation
  • Hallucinations
  • Heart palpitations
  • Restlessness 
  • Vomiting

Of people experiencing alcohol withdrawal, 1 in 10 will also develop seizures. This serious form of alcohol withdrawal is called delirium tremens. It might involve high blood pressure and fever as well. Left untreated, it can be fatal. 

How Do Professionals Help You Quit?

Few experts would want you to keep using a drug that causes so much long-term pain. If you have an addiction, you must stop substance abuse, but don’t do it alone.

A treatment program can give you the help you need. This way, you can get sober safely, and you are less likely to relapse. 

Your treatment approach will vary depending on the drugs you took.

  • Benzodiazepines and sleep aids: People with addictions to benzodiazepines usually tolerate a slow taper. Your doctor helps you take less and less until you’re taking nothing. 

If the tapering process moves too quickly and you feel ill, doses are adjusted. Your doctor works to keep you comfortable.

  • Alcohol: Your team uses medications, including small doses of benzodiazepines, to help your brain adjust to a lack of alcohol. Your doctor monitors your progress carefully, so you don’t have an opportunity to abuse your medications. Over time, your dose of benzodiazepines is lowered as you wean off all substances.
  • Heroin and opioids: Proven medications such as buprenorphine ease your cravings and help you avoid a relapse. Your doctor might ask you to keep taking these medications for a long period of time, so you don’t relapse before you can participate in therapy. Some people use medication-assisted treatment (MAT) for months or years. 

Detox Isn’t Addiction Treatment

Sobriety is a critical part of early addiction recovery. But don’t consider your detox program a standalone form of care. 

More than 25 percent of people relapse the day they’re discharged from opioid detox programs. They may be sober when they leave, but they have no idea how to maintain that sobriety when they leave the facility. 

People relapse due to drug cravings and discomfort. But they can also relapse due to deep-set mental health issues such as depression and post-traumatic stress disorder

You must address these triggers in a treatment program so you can stay sober for a lifetime. If you detox without counseling, those mental health problems will stay with you, and it’s likely you’ll return to drug abuse as soon as you exit treatment.

Enrolling in an addiction treatment program and sticking with the plan can help you achieve larger goals, such as finding employment, mending relationships, and addressing past mistakes. You’ll address underlying issues and build skills you can use when you’re tempted to use again. 

You’ll also develop a support system, which is critical in sustaining long-term recovery. 

What to Do Next

Don’t attempt a cold-turkey detoxification program at home. Enter a treatment program to get the help you need to achieve sobriety safely. Then, follow up your detox with a treatment program that can help to change your life for the better. 

You can beat back an addiction and manage it for life. You just need the right kind of help. 


Profile image for Dr. Alison Tarlow
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 April 1, 2024
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