Quitting Drinking Cold Turkey – Risk of Alcohol Withdrawal

Doctors recommend that anyone detoxing from alcohol get a full medical assessment first. In fact, going cold turkey off alcohol can put you at risk of harm. More on cold turkey alcohol detox here.

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Alcohol withdrawal should always be done under medical supervision. To safety detox, there is only one way to go: with medically-supervised detoxification in a licensed detox center.

Here, we warn against going cold turkey off alcohol at home without medical supervision. What are the risks? The dangers? The symptoms of detoxification from alcohol? More here on why going cold turkey off alcohol is not advised…and a section at the end for your questions about alcohol withdrawal.

How to go cold turkey on alcohol?

Give it a second thought.

Alcohol is a central nervous system depressant that is rapidly absorbed from the stomach and small intestine into the bloodstream. When alcohol has virtually consumed your life and you come to the conclusion that it’s time to purge it from your system, the temptation is to do it yourself. While this may seem like a harmless home remedy, certainly one that won’t cost you anything, in fact, the practice is not only not very effective, it is also a bad idea that can prove dangerous, even fatal, in some instances.

The ‘cold turkey’ method refers to the complete and abrupt cessation of drinking alcohol. This can be effective for some and it can reward a problem drinker by quickening their path to recovery; however, this method of detox can be excruciatingly difficult and should be accompanied by both support group meetings and doctor visits in order to reduce the risk of relapse.

Cold Turkey off Alcohol

Q: So what does going cold turkey off alcohol do to your body?
A: Basically, it triggers alcohol withdrawal syndrome with possibly very severe symptoms.

Withdrawal symptoms from alcoholic drinks occur when your body becomes dependent on a substance like alcohol. During withdrawal, the body manifests symptoms when that substance is lowered in dosage or no longer available. Symptoms of alcohol withdrawal show up after a period of continued drinking that is suddenly interrupted. The acute symptoms of alcohol withdrawal may worsen over two to three days and can persist for weeks. They may be more noticeable when you wake up with less alcohol in your blood.

Cold Turkey Alcohol Withdrawal

Detoxification from alcohol detox is a two-phase process. The first phase of alcohol withdrawal occurs over a period of a few days. This initial period is the most dangerous and can prove fatal. The second and longer phase of alcohol detox occurs over months, as the brain slowly begins to regulate and resume normal functioning. There may be lingering symptoms during the second phase of alcohol detox, but they are not usually life-threatening.

Symptoms of Quitting Alcohol Cold Turkey

For alcoholics in search of recovery, detoxification is often the first step towards a life without alcohol. Alcoholics’ bodies have become accustomed to large amounts of ethanol in their systems; slowing down or interrupting alcohol consumption can cause shock to the body and produce such withdrawal symptoms. These symptoms are the most severe when the cold turkey detox method is used. Cold turkey alcohol withdrawal symptoms include:

  • anxiety
  • clamminess
  • headaches
  • increased heart rate
  • insomnia
  • nausea
  • shakiness
  • sweating

The most severe type of going cold turkey is known as delirium tremens. Its symptoms include:

  • auditory hallucinations (e.g., hearing non-existent sounds)
  • extreme confusion and agitation
  • fever
  • seizures
  • tactile hallucinations (e.g., itching, burning, and numbness)
  • visual hallucinations (e.g., seeing non-existent images)

Quitting Alcohol Cold Turkey

When a person stops drinking alcohol suddenly, just up and quits because he or she thinks it’s time to do so, the consequences can be intense. Sudden alcohol cessation can cause hallucinations, convulsions, and even heart seizure that may ultimately result in death. Who should especially avoid quitting alcohol cold turkey?

  1. Anyone with a serious dependency on alcohol should never even consider going cold turkey at home.
  2. Heavy drinkers or people who have been drinking regularly for a period of 6 months, or more.
  3. Those who have experience severe symptoms during alcohol withdrawal in the past.
  4. Those who have been diagnosed with co-occurring mental health disorders.

Getting off Alcohol Cold Turkey

Instead of getting off alcohol turkey, medications or processes can help you during the detox process. For example, instead of going cold turkey off alcohol, doctors may recommend the tier method of detox. The tier method requires gradually tapering off alcohol and is considered a more feasible option for many people with drinking problems. By gradually reducing their alcohol intake – for example, eight drinks instead of ten one day, six the next, then four, and so on – an alcohol dependent person can experience withdrawal symptoms that are less severe.

During professional alcohol detox, medications may be prescribed that can make the detox more comfortable and safer for the individual. Medications such as benzodiazepines, acamprosate and naltrexone, help reduce or eliminate cravings, ease anxiety and help the individual transition more gently from an abrupt cessation from drinking. It is important to note that a person cannot just take a prescription pill and detox on his or her own, though, as these medications require constant monitoring by medical staff.

Over the course of several months of abstinence, long-term withdrawal symptoms such as insomnia, cravings and anxiety will gradually reduce in intensity. They may be eased somewhat by medications such as antidepressants or short-acting benzodiazepines but only continued sobriety and the passage of time can resolve these detox symptoms.

Can I Quit Drinking Alcohol Cold Turkey?

It is not recommended that you quit alcohol cold turkey. Instead, you’ll need a professional assessment of your physical, mental, and medical history in order to create an individualized plan for alcohol detox.

But most importantly, detox is only the first step in overcoming alcohol dependence. You need a clear head, not one that’s foggy from alcohol, in order to begin the process of learning how to live a life of sobriety. After a professionally monitored alcohol detox, the individual is ready to embark on long-term recovery. Such therapy often takes place in outpatient or residential treatment centers and includes one-on-one counseling, group therapy, educational lectures, and other treatment specifically tailored to the individual’s needs.

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Questions About Quitting Alcohol Cold Turkey

Still have questions about quitting alcohol cold turkey? Please leave your questions or share your experience from stopping cold turkey in the comments section below. We do our best to respond to you personally and promptly.

Reference Sources: Drink Aware UK: How to stop drinking alcohol
NIDA: Drugs of abuse: Alcohol
NIAAA: Strategies for Rethinking Drinking
About the author
Lee Weber is a published author, medical writer, and woman in long-term recovery from addiction. Her latest book, The Definitive Guide to Addiction Interventions is set to reach university bookstores in early 2019.
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