The term ‘cold turkey’ can seem almost comical, when in fact, it is hazardous. Coined to describe the immediate process of withdrawing substances, going cold turkey is often misinterpreted as a viable means of recovery.
In this blog, we outline the dangers of cold turkey.
What is Cold Turkey?
The phrase ‘cold turkey’ originates from people who developed goosebumps shortly after quitting opiate drugs. In many instances, they would say that their skin resembled that of a refrigerated cold turkey upon attempting to withdraw from substances alone.
The United States has one of the highest numbers of substance addiction rates globally. According to figures gathered by the National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS), more than 70,000 people died due to mainstream illicit and prescription drug abuse in 2019. Between 2011-2015, the annual average number of deaths attributable to excessive alcohol consumption exceeded 95,000.
Evidently, tackling the substance misuse epidemic requires a thorough approach from legislators and institutions. However, from an individual perspective, securing immediate medical help for substance dependence is always the best option. This means avoiding the potential temptation to attempt going cold turkey.
Why is Cold Turkey Dangerous?
Cold turkey is dangerous for a multitude of reasons. Unbeknown to many, the dangers associated with cold turkey vary and often depend on the substance abused. Additionally, the severity of a substance’s addiction or addictive potency will provide each user attempting to recover with a unique experience.
Though going cold turkey may seem like the quickest way to find freedom from addiction, extreme withdrawal symptoms cause many to relapse. Some of the most common withdrawal symptoms are:
- Headaches and migraines
- Nausea and vomiting
- Feeling anxious
- Changes in appetite
- Issues sleeping
When attempting to quit a drug or alcohol addiction, these side effects amplify. Sufferers of addiction who try to go cold turkey may experience delirium tremens or DTs. This occurrence comprises a rapid onset of confusion and irregular heart rate. Seizures and high body temperatures, which can be fatal, may also be experienced.
Attempting to go cold turkey isn’t just dangerous because of the withdrawal symptoms. Unmedicated withdrawal is highly uncomfortable, and people often relapse as they cannot bear the symptoms. However, when you stop substance use for any period, tolerance diminishes. An amount that may have only prevented you from feeling unwell before the detox could cost you your life after a few days of abstinence.
Alternatives to Cold Turkey
Effective methods of recovery are critical for substance users to follow to recover safely.
Medical detoxification, or detox, describes the process in which substances are flushed from the body. Here, FDA-approved drugs are used to stop the body from going into shock. This alternative to going cold turkey is widely considered the most effective way to embark on and manage the road to recovery.
For example, in managing withdrawal from opioid drugs, a medical taper can assist those with severe physical addiction. This may involve switching to stable doses of buprenorphine or methadone to reduce the level of dependence in the body gradually. Ultimately, this reduces the intensity of withdrawal symptoms.
In the case of alcohol and benzos, a sedative is prescribed to calm the nervous system and allow it to adjust to functioning without risking seizure or other extreme withdrawal symptoms.
Detox is typically the first stage of a more comprehensive rehabilitation program. To ensure that a user’s recovery is complete, it’s imperative to address the physical aspect of addiction before tackling psychological hurdles.
The average detox time scale varies between individuals based on:
- The severity of their withdrawal symptoms
- The number of drugs and alcohol consumed
- Their mental and physical functional ability
- Previous experience of detox, remission, and relapse
The detox process aims to minimize the negative impact of withdrawal symptoms and make the experience as safe and comfortable as possible. The most effective form of detox is one that is medically assisted and supported by trained specialists.
This usually happens within a specialist detox center or facility under the care of doctors, nurses, and other healthcare professionals. Attempting to detox on your own is rarely successful, and you may become demotivated by failed attempts.
Remaining in Remission
For people who have reached abstinence, the temptation to resume the misuse of alcohol or drugs is a significant concern — avoiding relapse while in remission requires individuals to be resilient and strong-minded.
Once treatment is completed, those in recovery are advised to be mindful of their social network. Acquaintances that may not support the person’s new lifestyle may tempt them back into consuming alcohol or illicit substances. Finding a new support network that is dedicated to your recovery is critical for maintaining long-term sobriety.