Is it Safe to Quit Alcohol Cold Turkey?

By: Amber Leventry, Contributor

Disclaimer: Tempest is not a detox program or a medical facility. The writer of this piece is expressing their personal experience, which should not be viewed as medical advice, and this article is not intended to diagnose or treat alcohol withdrawal. If you believe you are in the stages of acute addiction and/or experiencing symptoms of alcohol withdrawal, please seek medical attention immediately. If this is a medical emergency, please call 911. 

Before I was ready to admit I had a toxic relationship with alcohol and by extension with myself, I wanted to test the severity of my drinking by seeing how dependent I was on it each day. I used a two-week diet to mask my reason for not drinking. I wanted to lose weight, I told people. I wanted to be in control, I told myself. I was like the person who says they’re “just going to look” at puppies up for adoption while longing for a puppy. Of course, the puppy came home, and of course, I experienced withdrawals. Even social drinkers experience withdrawals in the form of hangovers, but my drinking was bad. 

The first couple of days were okay, but the next several were not. I was irritable, sweaty, and nauseous at times. I was anxious and had a headache for days. After quitting cold turkey and experiencing withdrawals, I slowly started to feel better at some point in those two weeks. I would end up doing this dance several more times before I took my final drink. But was what I did—quitting without the aid of medical attention—smart? Was it safe?

I was miserable, that’s for sure. I’m fortunate that I didn’t experience some of the more severe side effects of alcohol withdrawal, which can have very serious consequences, including death. Without seeking medical advice, I didn’t know if I was acting in an unsafe way, and that can be dangerous for someone dependent on alcohol. Symptoms of withdrawal differ in severity from one person to the next, and many factors are at play, which is why it’s best to seek medical guidance if you want to quit alcohol.

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The Risks Of Quitting Cold Turkey

According to the New England Journal of Medicine (NJEM), around 20% of men and 10% of women will experience alcohol dependence within their lifetime. And of those with alcohol use disorder, about 50% will experience withdrawals. 

 Ian Stockbridge, founder and lead counselor at Hope Therapy and Mindfulness Services, says there isn’t an easy, one-size-fits-all answer in terms of knowing how someone will react to going cold turkey. 

“The symptoms of going ‘cold turkey’ are dependent on varying factors from your level of alcohol consumption and how long you have been drinking to your current health condition,” Stockbridge says.

Dr. Lawrence Weinstein, Chief Medical Officer at American Addiction Centers points out that someone may underestimate their level of drinking and that adds to the danger too. Someone who does have a severe drinking problem might perceive their own drinking as “moderate,” he explains.

These variables mix unpredictably at times, and the longer we chronically abuse alcohol, the more our bodies both deteriorate and adjust. Alcohol is a depressant so our nervous system slows down and performs at lower levels than without alcohol. When we remove the alcohol suddenly and don’t replace it within the amount of time our body is accustomed to, our nervous system overreacts and becomes hypersympathetic. In short, we become more irritable or anxious than normal, and we can even experience symptoms of burnout. Our bodies come to rely on alcohol to function properly. 

What results, says Stockbridge, are the withdrawal symptoms I experienced when I quit drinking cold turkey, and sometimes more severe symptoms occur. 

Symptoms of withdrawal can occur as early as six hours after putting down alcohol. They include:

  • Feelings of anxiety
  • Shaking in the body, especially in the hands
  • Increased blood pressure and heart rate
  • Vomiting
  • Insomnia 

Depending on one’s dependence on alcohol, some more serious side effects may occur as well. These symptoms usually occur 12-48 hours after someone stops drinking. They include: 

  • Hallucinations 
  • Seizures
  • Convulsions

Within 48-72 hours, withdrawal symptoms called Delirium Tremens (usually referred to as DTs) and can set in. They can cause serious health complications. In some cases, DTs are fatal. These symptoms, which are mental and physical according to the Journal of Clinical and Experimental Hepatology, include:

  • Confusion
  • Heart issues like a racing heartbeat or even heart attack
  • High blood pressure
  • Profuse sweating
  • Weakness
  • Hallucinations
  • Inability to sleep or sleep disturbances

It is important to note again that quitting alcohol cold turkey can be extremely dangerous and medical advice is recommended no matter the level of alcohol dependence. 

Devra S. Gordon, MSW, LCSW, says, “I tell clients who express that they wish to decrease or eliminate alcohol to make an appointment ASAP with their primary care doctor to ensure it’s safe.”

But the concern isn’t just medical. Gordon says a person has to be willing to take the time needed to address the issue, and that they need the willingness to make changes in an attempt to get sober and seek recovery. 

“Delaying the [doctor’s] appointment means a delay in the decision to address the concerns,” Gordon says. She also reiterates that “time really is of the essence”.

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Barriers to Quitting Alcohol with Medical Guidance

I wasn’t just physically dependent on alcohol; I was emotionally dependent, too. I was ashamed of myself because I needed alcohol in these ways and because of what I knew was an addiction. I quit cold turkey—and alone—because I didn’t want to tell anyone about what I was doing or publically admit my problem with alcohol. Stigma keeps people in the shadows of their problems. 

Along with stigma, logistical issues like not knowing who to speak to and concerns about cost or the practicalities of how to access a service can be a barrier to obtaining medical guidance, says Stockbridge. 

In the book, Ending Discrimination Against People with Mental and Substance Use Disorders: The Evidence for Stigma Change, researchers found that 48% of those who suffer from mental and substance use issues could not afford the necessary care and that a quarter of those surveyed did not know where to find the necessary resources for treatment. 

There are confidential support services available but these can be difficult to access, and the issue is a much bigger one that we need to address immediately, Gordon says.

Addiction needs to be treated like a chronic illness and a medical emergency because it is, especially when someone shows up in the emergency room and wants help to detox. Instead, people are often shamed, ignored, and sent home without support.

Gordon says sending someone home to detox on their own is as inhuman as sending someone with a broken leg home with a bottle of Ibuprofen and the suggestion to splint their own injury. 

“In a perfect world, a person presenting at the ER intoxicated would be treated just as respectfully as a person who shows up in an ambulance due to a car accident. But that is not consistent with what (actually)  happens,” Gordon says.

The Importance of Making a Plan

Another dangerous element to quitting cold turkey is not having a plan. Finding a program and support system that works for you is vital to sustaining an alcohol-free life. Making it through the withdrawals is only the first step. 

While many people can safely detox at home and without medical supervision or medications, it’s best to talk to a doctor or addiction specialist to make a plan that will not only help you stop drinking in a safe way but also allows you to continue on your path to recovery. 

There are inpatient and outpatient detox programs as well as residential and partial hospitalization programs. Individual and group therapy sessions are options too. And thanks to the ever-increasing presence of the internet, online recovery groups exist as well.

* * *  

The decision to quit drinking is one of the most important, and potentially most impactful decisions you can make for yourself. 

“A person's relationship to alcohol must be assessed to figure out what course of treatment could be the most beneficial. What I believe to be the most important factor in learning to live a sober life is to practice self-compassion,” Gordan says.

Part of that self-compassion is to find the safest way to quit drinking. That will look different for everyone, but finding someone who can help you through it is an act of self-kindness that could save your life. 

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About the author: Amber Leventry is a queer, nonbinary writer and advocate. Their writing appears on The Washington Post, Ravishly, Grown and Flown, Longreads, Babble, The Next Family, and Sammiches & Psych Meds. They are a staff writer for Scary Mommy. They also run Family Rhetoric by Amber Leventry, a Facebook page devoted to advocating for LGBTQ families one story at a time. Visit their website to hire them for speaking engagements and LGBTQ training sessions or follow them on Instagram @amberleventry.

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