Is Quitting Alcohol Cold-Turkey a Bad Idea?

Quitting alcohol cold turkey can be extremely difficult, as the man whose hand is pictured denying a drink is experiencing.What happens when you detox from alcohol “cold turkey”? Read about alcohol withdrawal symptoms and the safest way to detox from alcohol.

If you’re a heavy drinker, your brain and central nervous system now depend on alcohol. They require it in order to function normally. You’ve likely found this to be true when you wake up in the morning and feel you need a drink to get your day started.

Quitting alcohol cold-turkey is a form of detoxing done without the supervision of medical detox professionals at an alcohol addiction treatment center. Many people believe they can detox safely at home, but your body ridding itself of alcohol can be a dangerous process. While your body learns to function without alcohol, you suffer the effects of sudden deprivation of what your body used to depend on.

Why Is Quitting Alcohol Cold-Turkey Dangerous?

When you go from drinking frequently and/or in large amounts to not drinking at all, you’ll experience withdrawal. Withdrawal symptoms range from mild and uncomfortable to deadly.

When regular and heavy drinkers stop drinking, the body compensates for the depressive effect of alcohol. This is done by increasing hormones and brain chemicals such as serotonin, epinephrine, and dopamine. If you stop drinking alcohol cold-turkey, your body floods with high levels of these chemicals in an effort to re-establish balance and normal functioning without alcohol.

The severity of alcohol withdrawal symptoms depends on factors such as:

  • How long you’ve been abusing alcohol
  • How much alcohol you’ve been abusing
  • Your physical and mental health
  • Co-occurring physical and mental conditions

Approximately 50% of people who are addicted to alcohol have severe withdrawal symptoms when they stop drinking. These symptoms generally set in six hours after your last drink. They can only be effectively eased with medical assistance.

graphic of quitting alcohol cold turkey statistics

What Is Alcohol Withdrawal Like?

Besides insomnia, headaches, diarrhea, and irritability, common symptoms of alcohol detox and alcohol withdrawal include:


An alcohol withdrawal seizure is often the first sign of alcohol withdrawal. It usually involves convulsions and involuntary muscle contractions. Withdrawal seizures can occur within six to 48 hours of your last drink. Without medical treatment, multiple seizures occur in 60% of people. The time between the first and last seizure is usually less than six hours.

Delirium Tremens (DTs)

About 30% to 40% of people who experience seizures get delirium tremens, also known as DTs. Considered a medical emergency, DTs typically occur 24 to 48 hours after the last drink. They’re characterized by:

  • Confusion
  • Delirium
  • High blood pressure
  • Shakiness

Without medical assistance, delirium tremens can put you at risk for:

  • Head injuries
  • Lethal dehydration
  • Heart attack or stroke
  • Choking on vomit

In many cases, DTs cause death.

Abnormal Heart Rhythms

As part of delirium tremens, your heart beats erratically. Unusual shifts in breathing, temperature, and circulation can contribute to a racing heart. You may also experience blood circulation issues such as high blood pressure.

Nausea and Vomiting

These symptoms may linger for a week after quitting alcohol cold-turkey. They occur as your brain tries to rebalance chemicals without alcohol, which it’s become dependent upon.


Alcohol is a diuretic that increases your urine output and can increase sweating. You may already be dehydrated going into alcohol withdrawal. You may get even more dehydrated due to vomiting and diarrhea, which can lead to dangerous electrolyte imbalances. This can throw off your central nervous system, causing:

  • DTs
  • Seizures
  • Mental confusion
  • Anxiety
  • Suicidal thoughts
graphic of quitting alcohol cold turkey symptoms

How Much Alcohol Causes Withdrawal?

The amount of alcohol it takes to cause withdrawal symptoms varies from person to person. Even brief binge drinking or heavy drinking can cause withdrawal symptoms such as headaches, dehydration, nausea, and gastrointestinal issues the next day. Heavy drinkers and binge drinkers are most at risk for alcohol withdrawal symptoms. The National Institute on Alcoholism and Alcohol Abuse (NIAAA) reports drinking levels as:

  • Moderate drinking – No more than one drink a day for women and two drinks a day for men.
  • Binge drinking – Five or more drinks for men and four or more drinks for women on one occasion.
  • Heavy drinking – Five or more days of binge-drinking episodes in one month.
  • Low-risk drinking – No more than three drinks in one day and no more than seven in one week for women. And no more than four drinks in a single day and no more than 14 drinks in one week for men.

Alcohol Use Disorder Levels

If you have an alcohol use disorder (AUD), you’re at an even greater risk of experiencing alcohol withdrawal while quitting alcohol cold-turkey. You may have an AUD if you meet two or more of the following criteria:

  • Drinking alcohol in larger amounts or for longer time periods than intended
  • Repeated failed attempts to quit alcohol or cut down on alcohol abuse
  • Spending large amounts of time obtaining alcohol, using it, and recovering from it
  • Craving alcohol and experiencing strong urges to drink
  • Failing to fulfill school, work, and personal obligations because of alcohol abuse
  • Continuing to abuse alcohol despite negative effects on your relationships and social interactions
  • Decreased involvement in occupational, recreational, and social activities
  • Using alcohol in physically dangerous situations
  • Continuing to abuse alcohol despite knowing it has caused a physical or psychological condition
  • Needing more and more alcohol to feel buzzed or drunk
  • Experiencing withdrawal symptoms in the absence of alcohol or using alcohol or other substances to help ease withdrawal symptoms

For more information on alcohol detox or to start the detox process, call Promises Treatment Centers at 866.852.0605 today.