Is Quitting Alcohol Cold Turkey a Bad Idea?
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.1 Many people believe they can detox safely at home, but your body ridding itself of alcohol can be a dangerous process. While it learns to function without it, you suffer the effects of sudden deprivation of what your body used to depend on.
Why Is It Dangerous to Quit “Cold Turkey?”
When you go from drinking frequently and/or in large amounts to none 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.1
The severity of alcohol withdrawal symptoms depends on factors like:
- 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.1
1 Trevisan LA, Boutros N, Petrakis IL, Krystal JH. Complications of alcohol withdrawal: pathophysiological insights. Alcohol Health Res World. 1998;22(1):61–6.
What Is Alcohol Withdrawal Like?
Besides insomnia, headaches, diarrhea, and irritability, common alcohol withdrawal symptoms 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 6 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, or DTs. Considered a medical emergency, DTs typically occur 24 to 48 hours after the last drink. They’re characterized by:
- High blood pressure
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.1
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 like high blood pressure.
Nausea and Vomiting
These symptoms may linger for a week after you stop drinking. 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:
- Mental confusion
- Suicidal thoughts2
1 Delirium Tremens (DTs) Clinical Presentation. Medscape website.http://emedicine.medscape.com/article/166032-clinical Updated: April 27, 2018. Accessed July 19, 2018.
2 Becker, HC. (2008). Alcohol dependence, withdrawal, and relapse. Alcohol Research & Health, 31(4), 348-361.
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, like 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 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.1
If you have an alcohol use disorder (AUD), you’re at an even greater risk of experiencing alcohol withdrawal. 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 alcohol abuse 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 2
1 Drinking Levels Defined. National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism https://www.niaaa.nih.gov/alcohol-health/overview-alcohol-consumption/moderate-binge-drinking
2 American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.). Arlington, VA: American Psychiatric Publishing.
Alcohol Addiction with Dr. David Sack
What is the Difference Between Withdrawal and Detox?
The safest way to detox from alcohol is in a medical detox setting with trained physicians, nurses, and other detox specialists.
Here’s what alcohol detox is like in an addiction treatment center:
- Medical staff eases painful alcohol withdrawal symptoms with safe and effective research-backed medications. Benzodiazepines are a class of drug commonly used for alcohol withdrawal symptoms. They can also reduce the risk of seizures and DTs.1
- You’re monitored around the clock to make sure you’re safe and as comfortable as possible. Your treatment team swiftly attends to any alcohol withdrawal symptoms that make you uncomfortable.
- 24/7 medical detox staff immediately intervenes if you experience any life-threatening withdrawal symptoms.
- Medical staff may help you begin repairing the physical damage of alcohol abuse. B12 and thiamine deficiencies are common in people who abuse alcohol. Treatments may include nutritious, well-balanced meals and vitamin supplements.2
Addiction treatment should always follow alcohol detox. Treatment helps you understand the biological, emotional, and social reasons you drank. You’ll learn what triggers you to drink and develop healthy coping skills. You’ll also benefit from the support of addiction professionals and sober peers.
1 Sachdeva A, Choudhary M, Chandra M. Alcohol Withdrawal Syndrome: Benzodiazepines and Beyond. J Clin Diagn Res. 2015 Sep;9(9): VE01–VE07. Published online 2015 Sep 1. doi: 10.7860/JCDR/2015/13407.6538.
2 Martin PR, Singleton CK, Hiller-Sturmhofel S (2003). The role of thiamine deficiency in alcoholic brain disease. Alcohol Res Health 27:134–142
Why Is Alcohol Detox Important?
Regular alcohol abuse causes chemical changes that alter the way your brain functions and lead to very uncomfortable withdrawal symptoms and powerful alcohol cravings. These cravings can feel impossible to resist when you don’t have the proper medications and support to ease them. That’s why it’s extremely challenging to simply quit drinking alcohol cold turkey and not relapse.
Handling alcohol withdrawal symptoms on your own isn’t safe. Even if you think friends or family can help, only trained professionals have the skills to safely assist you through the detox process. Self-detox can be fatal. Rely on medical staff and detox specialists to safely and comfortably get you past this difficult first hurdle on the path to recovery.
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1. Schmidt KJ, Doshi MR, Holzhausen JM, Natavio A, Cadiz M, Winegardner JE. Treatment of Severe Alcohol Withdrawal. Ann Pharmacother. 2016 May;50(5):389-401. doi: 10.1177/1060028016629161. Epub 2016 Feb 9.
2. Trevisan LA, Boutros N, Petrakis IL, Krystal JH. Complications of alcohol withdrawal: pathophysiological insights. Alcohol Health Res World. 1998;22(1):61–6.
3. Delirium Tremens (DTs) Clinical Presentation. Medscape website.http://emedicine.medscape.com/article/166032-clinical Updated: April 27, 2018. Accessed July 19, 2018.
4. Becker, HC. (2008). Alcohol dependence, withdrawal, and relapse. Alcohol Research & Health, 31(4), 348-361.
5. Drinking Levels Defined. National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism https://www.niaaa.nih.gov/alcohol-health/overview-alcohol-consumption/moderate-binge-drinking
6. American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.). Arlington, VA: American Psychiatric Publishing.
7. Sachdeva A, Choudhary M, Chandra M. Alcohol Withdrawal Syndrome: Benzodiazepines and Beyond. J Clin Diagn Res. 2015 Sep;9(9): VE01–VE07. Published online 2015 Sep 1. doi: 10.7860/JCDR/2015/13407.6538.
8. Martin PR, Singleton CK, Hiller-Sturmhofel S (2003). The role of thiamine deficiency in alcoholic brain disease. Alcohol Res Health 27:134–142