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What Happens When You Quit Drinking Cold Turkey?

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You’ve decided to stop drinking and get your life back on track. That’s great. Recovery is better than you can imagine. Before you embark on this journey, you should know some important information on quitting alcohol cold turkey, and why it can be dangerous.

What Is Quitting Alcohol Cold Turkey Like?

About half of people with an alcohol use disorder have withdrawal symptoms when they quit drinking. These can range from mild to severe alcohol withdrawal symptoms. Their intensity depends on:

  • How long you’ve been drinking alcohol.
  • How much alcohol you drink regularly.
  • Your overall health.
  • Co-occurring medical conditions or psychological issues.

Alcohol withdrawal syndrome is a set of symptoms that people who engage in regular, heavy drinking experience when they quit alcohol. If this describes you, when you quit drinking cold turkey, you may have:

  • Delirium tremens (DTs)
  • Dehydration
  • High body temperature
  • Abnormal heart rate
  • Shakiness
  • Seizures
  • Vomiting
  • Hallucinations
  • Headaches
  • Anxiety
  • Restlessness
  • Confusion
  • Sleep problems
  • Nightmares

If you detox in a treatment facility, medical professionals can ease these alcohol withdrawal symptoms. They can also attend to life-threatening emergencies like seizures and dehydration.

How Long Does Alcohol Withdrawal Last?

The time it takes to detox from alcohol is different for everyone. For people with an alcohol use disorder, withdrawal symptoms usually occur in three phases.

First Phase of Alcohol Withdrawal

The first phase of alcohol withdrawal can begin around six hours after your last drink. These symptoms may feel like a very intense hangover. The first phase of alcohol withdrawal symptoms may include:

  • Tremors
  • Sweating
  • Agitation
  • Headache
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Sleeplessness

Second Phase of Alcohol Withdrawal

The second phase of alcohol detox is the most dangerous one if you quit drinking cold turkey. It usually begins within a day after you quit alcohol. It may last around 48 hours or longer. During the second phase of alcohol detox, you’re most at risk for severe withdrawal symptoms. Acute alcohol withdrawal symptoms may include:

  • Anxiety
  • Hallucinations
  • Convulsions
  • Delirium tremens
  • High blood pressure
  • High body temperature
  • Whole body tremors
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Insomnia
  • Sweating

Third Phase of Alcohol Withdrawal

During the final phase of alcohol withdrawal, you may experience psychological symptoms. This phase is known as post-acute withdrawal syndrome (PAWS). Psychological symptoms can last several months as the brain slowly begins to regulate and resume normal functioning. Common symptoms during the third phase may include:

  • Anxiety
  • A sense of unease or dissatisfaction
  • Depression
  • Mood swings
  • Low motivation
  • Intense urges to drink when experiencing emotional or situational triggers

Is Quitting Alcohol Cold Turkey Dangerous?

Quitting cold turkey is dangerous because of certain alcohol withdrawal symptoms. That’s why it’s best to detox with the help of medical professionals. They monitor you around the clock for painful or life-threatening withdrawal symptoms.

When you abuse alcohol regularly, your body and brain start thinking you need it to function. You develop a tolerance and a dependency on it. Alcohol abuse causes the body to compensate for the depressive effects of alcohol by increasing certain hormones and brain chemicals. When you quit drinking cold turkey, your system is flooded with abnormally high levels of these chemicals. That’s a sign your body is trying to adapt to the absence of alcohol, which it thinks it needs to survive. This imbalance in your central nervous system can cause dangerous alcohol withdrawal symptoms like:

  • Delirium tremens (DTs)
  • Dehydration
  • High body temperature
  • Abnormal heart rate

These severe symptoms that can put your life in danger. Some research shows 20% of people with the DTs die without the help of medical detox. With medical treatment, that percentage drops to 1%.

Some people are at higher risk for dangerous complications from alcohol withdrawal because of health conditions or age. These include:

  • Liver diseases or cancer
  • Advanced age
  • Heart conditions
  • Central nervous system injuries or infections

Can You Quit Drinking Cold Turkey Successfully?

It’s difficult to quit drinking cold turkey and maintain sobriety without a formal addiction treatment program. One study followed people who had stopped drinking for several years and found that after three years, over half of the people who did not receive treatment had relapsed. Quitting alcohol cold turkey without medical detox puts you at risk of relapse because of withdrawal symptoms. Severe alcohol withdrawal symptoms can be painful, and many people cannot resist the urge to drink to stop the discomfort. Additionally, many people relapse in early recovery because they want to self-medicate depression, anxiety, and uncomfortable feelings that come with PAWS.

Quitting cold turkey is never recommended, but if you’re going to attempt this, it’s imperative that you reach out to a medical professional prior to quitting so they can discuss the risks with you.

After you detox from alcohol, attend a substance use treatment program to help you stay sober. If you don’t learn healthy coping skills and address the reasons why you abuse alcohol, relapse is almost inevitable.

What About Quitting Drugs Cold Turkey?

The same reasons why it’s not a good idea to quit drinking cold turkey apply to quitting drugs cold turkey. Depending on the substance you’ve been using, drug detox can bring about painful or dangerous withdrawal symptoms. When you have a drug addiction, your brain has gotten used to having substances to help it function. Quitting cold turkey can send your body into withdrawal. Going through this process in a detox center is the safest way. Only a medical professional knows the appropriate medications and taper schedules that are safe for your physical make-up and history of drug abuse. Medical detox is especially important for people with heroin addiction, painkiller addiction, benzo addiction, and alcohol addiction.

What Are Alcohol Detox Programs Like?

Instead of quitting alcohol cold turkey on your own, make sure you’re safe and as comfortable as possible by undergoing it in an alcohol rehab center. Without the help of medical professionals, alcohol withdrawal can be painful, and even fatal.

Here’s what you can expect:

Assessment

The first step in medical detox is an assessment. Medical staff will check your vital signs and ask about any alcohol withdrawal symptoms you’re already having. They’ll take a medical history, and you’ll tell them about your substance abuse and any medications or health conditions. This helps determine the best medications and approaches to use during alcohol detox.

Medical Detox

A medical team will monitor you throughout the detox process. They’ll treat alcohol withdrawal symptoms with medications and potentially alternative approaches as clinically appropriate. Research-backed treatment medications can lessen the severity of symptoms. A medical team ensures you’re safe and attends to any medical emergencies.

Substance Use Disorder Treatment

Medical detox is just the first step in alcohol addiction treatment. An alcohol use disorder is a disease. Without behavioral health interventions that address the causes of addiction, you’re very likely to relapse. Common components of addiction treatment include:

  • Individual therapy to help you explore emotional issues in a safe space.
  • Group therapy to provide peer support and accountability in recovery.
  • Alternative treatments for alcohol addiction like mindfulness, fitness, and art and music therapy.
  • Family therapy to begin healing the effects of alcoholism on loved ones.
  • Relapse-prevention skills training to help you stay sober.
  • Medication management for co-occurring disorders / dual diagnosis.
  • Medication-assisted treatment for opioid use disorders.
  • Exposure to 12-step programs like Alcoholics Anonymous as well as 12-step alternatives like SMART Recovery.
  • Aftercare planning and alumni programs that support long-term addiction recovery.

You can do this. We can help.

Many people who are addicted put off getting help because they fear alcohol withdrawal. The truth is that under the care of physicians, alcohol detox is safe and much more tolerable. Footprints to Recovery offers medical detox for alcohol abuse that is overseen by physicians, nurses, and detox specialists. We’ll be with you every step of the way, ensuring you’re safe and as comfortable as possible. Following detox, we offer a full continuum of evidence-based treatment that helps you address the root causes of your addiction and learn to live a healthier, more fulfilling life. We can help you take the first step to a rewarding life in recovery. Call us at 844.952.2517.

References

  1. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/26861990
  2. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4606320/
  3. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK65581/
  4. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3268458/
  5. http://www.mjmsr.net/article.asp?issn=0975-9727;year=2013;volume=4;issue=2;spage=86;epage=89;aulast=Chandini
  6. https://academic.oup.com/alcalc/article/45/2/151/134927
  7. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1976118/
  8. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6007645/
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