When you should not stop drinking cold turkey

You should not stop drinking cold turkey if you expect alcohol withdrawal. Alcohol withdrawal requires medical management. We review specific risks of complications during cold turkey withdrawal from alcohol here.

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You should not stop drinking cold turkey if you’ve been drinking heavily for a period of weeks or months. This is because your body has adapted to the presence of alcohol and will go through withdrawal when the alcohol is taken away.

Instead of gritting your teeth and jumping on the wagon “cold turkey”, it’s really best that you have medical supervision during alcohol withdrawal, perhaps at a certified detox clinic or alcoholism rehabilitation centers. We outline the reasons below, and provide a list of risk factors for avoiding cold turkey alcohol cessation.

Alcohol withdrawal is possibly fatal

What happens when you stop drinking alcohol?  First, the body tries to seek homeostasis without alcohol.  During this period, withdrawal symptoms can be uncomfortable, scary and possible complications can arise.  This is why doctors do not recommend cold turkey withdrawal from alcohol, especially without medication or medical supervision. And even in cases of young healthy people, doctors medically supervise the detox.

The outcome of “cold turkey” treatments have not been established through scientific studies or evidence-based methods. Additionally, there are medications available for alcohol withdrawal which help ease symptoms and make the experience more bearable. Plus, alcohol withdrawal is unpredictable and life threatening complications are always possible. These complications are made more risky and you should not try to stop drinking cold turkey when you:

  • are in general bad health
  • are of increasing age
  • have been diagnosed with co-occurring medical, surgical, and/or psychiatric disorders
  • have consumed high amounts of alcohol in the weeks prior to treatment
  • have poor nutritional status
  • use medications (prescription, over-the-counter, or herbal)

Each of these factors can increase the severity of alcohol withdrawal symptoms. Proper medical management of alcohol withdrawal reduces the probability of withdrawal complications and can save your life.

Cases which require medical supervision during detox

Additionally, there are other even more specific cases when you should definitely NEVER stop drinking cold turkey without medical assistance. Specifically, you should not stop drinking cold turkey if:

1. You are extremely intoxicated

When you are in the middle of alcohol intoxication, doctors need to monitor you in order preserve respiration and cardiovascular function until alcohol levels fall into a safe range. In other words, during a severe cass of intoxication, you can stop breathing or your heart can stop beating. Likewise, doctors need to monitor vital functions, protect breathing, and observe potential accidental sucking in of food particles or fluids into the lungs (aspiration), hypoglycemia, and thiamin deficiency.

2. You have been through withdrawal 3-4 times in the past

Doctors have noticed the appearance of severe withdrawal reactions in people who have experienced 3-4 previous alcohol withdrawals. In these cases, unless adequate medical care is provided, it is possible that you experience Complicated or severe medical withdrawal including: delirium, hallucinations, delusions, seizures, and/or disturbances of body temperature, pulse, and blood pressure.

3. You have a previous history of seizures or delirium tremens (DTs) during withdrawal

You should not stop drinking cold turkey if you have had seizures or DTs in the past. Instead, doctors can administer medications like benzodiazepine to help you avoid seizures and DTs. Why? Because untreated DTs or seizures may result in death and disability.

4. You have been diagnosed with co-occurring unstable medical and psychiatric conditions

Only young people in good health, with no history of previous withdrawal reactions, are considered for alcohol withdrawal without medication. Still, you need not go through detox without aid. Medications are available to help your body normalize to functioning without alcohol again.

The reasons why people drink beer, wine, and spirits are usually harmless at first.  But once your body builds an immunity (tolerance) to alcohol, and becomes dependent on alcohol … you have to address both medical and mental problems which compel you to drink.  Once your body is free from alcohol, the work of looking inside begins.  Got questions? Please leave them here. We’ll be happy to answer them.

Reference sources: Protocol for Alcohol Intoxication and Withdrawal
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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