Why do people go cold turkey?

“Cold turkey” is a quick-fix method to quitting tobacco, alcohol, or drugs. Rather than gradually tapering off the substance, you stop taking it immediately.

The term comes from the goosebumps people sometimes get in the days after they quit, which look like the skin of a “cold turkey” in the fridge.

Some people go cold turkey because they think it will be easier to stop taking the substance right away than to taper off. They believe they won’t be as tempted to use the drug or tobacco product if they just get rid of it.

But cold turkey may not be the most effective way to quit — especially for people who are dependent on a substance. Quitting too quickly can lead to uncomfortable withdrawal symptoms and a powerful urge to start using the substance again.

The effectiveness of going cold turkey depends on what substance you’re trying to quit and your preferences.

Research on quitting smoking is mixed, but some studies have found abrupt stopping to be more effective than a gradual reduction.

In a 2016 study of nearly 700 smokers with tobacco addiction, 49 percent of people who quit cold turkey were still off cigarettes a month later, compared to 39 percent of those who tapered off gradually.

Support may be key. In the study, participants who quit cold turkey received help to quit. Among people who try to quit smoking cold turkey on their own, only 3 to 5 out of 100 stay off cigarettes long-term.

Quitting addictive drugs such as heroin can be much harder cold turkey. These substances cause physical changes in the brain that lead to severe cravings and withdrawal symptoms when you stop taking them.

The safety of quitting cold turkey depends on the substance you’re trying to quit. Getting off cigarettes or alcohol may be safe to do on your own.

Quitting highly addictive drugs or a severe alcohol dependence can cause serious side effects, and in some cases, death. It’s better to be under the care of a doctor or addiction treatment center.

Your brain becomes accustomed to addictive drugs, such as opioids. When you cut off its supply too quickly, you can develop seizures, irregular heart rhythms, and other withdrawal symptoms. Some of these symptoms can be serious or even life-threatening.

Unpleasant withdrawal symptoms can drive you back into using the substance again to make them stop. Going back to using a drug or alcohol after you’ve stopped is called a relapse.

After you’ve quit, your tolerance to the substance is lowered. If you do start to take it again, you’ll be more likely to overdose.

Withdrawal is a collection of symptoms that involve both your body and mind. These symptoms range from mild to severe based on how long you took the drug, and how much of it you took.

Physical symptoms of withdrawal include:

  • nausea and vomiting
  • diarrhea
  • pain
  • fatigue
  • sweating
  • difficulty sleeping
  • muscle aches
  • fast or slow heartbeat
  • runny nose
  • goosebumps
  • shaking

Mental and emotional symptoms of withdrawal include:

  • anxiety
  • irritability
  • depression
  • cravings for the substance
  • confusion
  • hallucinations
  • paranoia

These symptoms can last anywhere from a few days to a couple of weeks.

The first thing to do once you’ve decided to quit is to call your doctor or healthcare provider. A medical professional can give you advice on the safest way to quit.

Your doctor can recommend medications and rehabilitation programs that can help. For example, they can offer prescription drugs to ease the cravings that come with quitting smoking or opioid drugs.

Also, let your friends and family know that you’re planning to quit. They can help you through the process and distract you if you’re tempted to start using again.

Get rid of every temptation. If you smoke, throw out all cigarettes, lighters, and ashtrays. If you have alcohol use disorder, pour out all of the alcohol in your fridge and pantry. Take any unused medications to a police station or other authorized collection site.

Also plan for cravings by have lots of distractions nearby. Snacks like carrot sticks and licorice can keep your hands and mouth occupied when you want a cigarette. A good movie might take your mind off the urge to use drugs.

Finally, line up support. Seek help from a professional counselor or therapist. Or, join a 12-step program such as Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) or Narcotics Anonymous (NA).

If you try to quit cold turkey, but the urge to use remains strong, reach out to a medical professional for help. You may need to be under the care of a supervised addiction recovery program.

Call your doctor or go to the emergency room right away if you have these serious symptoms:

  • a high fever
  • seizures
  • vomiting that won’t stop
  • chest pain
  • trouble breathing
  • hallucinations
  • severe confusion
  • irregular heartbeat

Substances like tobacco, alcohol, and opioid pain relievers are highly addictive. After long-term use, it can be hard to stop taking them.

Going cold turkey is one method to quit, but it doesn’t work for everyone. See your doctor before you try going cold turkey to make sure you have the support and services you need to succeed.