For many people who struggle with substance use disorder, quitting abruptly, or “cold turkey,” is appealing because it offers a fresh start that immediately separates a person from the people, places and other reminders of substance use. However, quitting so suddenly poses serious health complications, especially if the substance you are quitting is alcohol, opioids or benzodiazepines, or if you have been abusing any substance in large quantities and/or for a long time.
Although the decision to stop substance use is a testament to a person’s convictions, it’s dangerous to do without first considering potential withdrawal symptoms. Withdrawal symptoms range from the mild and uncomfortable to the completely overwhelming. Everyone is different, so it’s impossible to predict precisely how a person will react.
The Risks of Quitting Alcohol Cold Turkey
Over time the nervous system adapts to substances, which is why attempting to quit on your own can be so risky. When these substances are suddenly taken out of your body–especially if that substance is a high-dependency drug like an opioid or benzodiazepine–it can cause severe and potentially life-threatening medical conditions, such as heart problems or seizures. Even substances that pose less risk of physical dependence, such as nicotine, cocaine and amphetamines, can lead to unpleasant and uncomfortable withdrawal symptoms.
Dehydration is one of the most common symptoms associated with withdrawal. Sweating and vomiting deplete the body of hydration, which is difficult to replenish without proper medical care. Dehydration can cause bodily functions and organs to shut down, which could require emergency medical attention.
It’s also not unusual for people who have quit drinking or using drugs cold turkey to relapse during or after the withdrawal process. Withdrawal symptoms can be severe, and cravings can be intense, so it’s common for someone to turn to their substance of choice to get relief. Even someone who has completed the withdrawal process may struggle to resist the urge to drink or use later on because they haven’t gone through proper treatment that addresses the mental and behavioral issues that lead to and are exacerbated by addiction.
Additionally, when you quit cold turkey, the body quickly loses tolerance to substances. If you relapse and take your usual amount of the substance, you face a heightened risk of overdose.