Many people think that a reasonable way to overcome an addiction is to stop drugs or alcohol cold turkey, as opposed to attending drug or alcohol detox treatment centers. Because those dealing with addiction use alcohol or drugs in an unrestrained manner, it would seem much simpler to just stop using that substance as opposed to tapering off of the substance over time. But every major scientific study indicates that trying to quit cold turkey may be doing more harm than good.
Instead, it is often recommended that patients take part in drug detox programs and substance abuse aftercare programs. These programs are designed specifically to help patients throughout the detoxification process (when withdrawal occurs), as well as afterward when any underlying mental or physical illness can be addressed.
Problems with Quitting Cold Turkey
Trying to end an addiction all at once is ill-advised for a number of reasons. Here are some of the most significant issues with quitting cold turkey:
- Mental impact: Some people who deal with substance abuse issues have underlying, often unaddressed, mental illnesses. Whether mental illness is present or not, alcohol and drugs interact with the brain. This means that during a person’s battle with addiction, their brain function changes. When an addictive substance is ingested, dopamine (a neurotransmitter) causes a feeling of pleasure or a high. After this high subsides, the person who is addicted will have to consume even more of the addictive substance than they had previously to feel that high. Once a person has become dependent upon a substance, if they stop taking that substance, symptoms of withdrawal will begin to show. While going through withdrawals from alcohol, people may experience irritability, mood swings, nightmares, trouble thinking clearly and depression. Withdrawal symptoms when it comes to other drugs include aggression, impaired mental function, and paranoia. These symptoms alone can be reason enough to seek a substance abuse aftercare program. Pairing those symptoms with any type of mental illness that is not being addressed can be a detriment to sobriety. When taking part in inpatient rehab programs, patients can be sure that their mental health will be addressed and kept track of throughout the detox and treatment process.
- Increased suffering: Withdrawal from alcohol and/or drugs can also cause patients to exhibit many physical symptoms. There are many factors to consider when thinking about the severity of withdrawals. Depending on how long a person has been taking part in substance abuse, as well as the rate of substance consumption, withdrawal symptoms can vary greatly, making the process unpredictable. Physical withdrawal symptoms from alcohol can feel like a simple hangover, but can also cause nausea and vomiting, muscle aches, tremors, elevated heart rate, shallow breathing, clammy skin, and sweating. Drugs like benzodiazepines, opiates, and methamphetamines come with even more severe withdrawals, including symptoms such as memory loss, tremors, anxiety, panic attacks, seizures, loss of consciousness, stroke, and heart or respiratory failure.
- Attempting to quit: any of these substances all at once will do nothing but increase the severity of withdrawal symptoms, as well as increasing the likelihood of experiencing the more significant symptoms. Because of this, it is important to attend detox and treatment centers instead of trying to do things all by oneself. As well, because the body develops a much lower tolerance to drugs and alcohol during the withdrawal and detoxification process if substance abuse is stopped cold turkey, suffering from a relapse is even more dangerous as it increases the likelihood of an overdose.
- Potential danger: Drug and alcohol detox programs are ideally supervised by a medical professional. During detox, withdrawal symptoms can be very dangerous and frightening to patients. Drug and alcohol detox centers are specifically designed to make the process of becoming and staying sober easier. When entering a medical facility to begin detoxing, patients will often be given medications that can help to mitigate physical withdrawal symptoms. The patient’s progress will be continuously monitored for the duration of their detox, in an effort to make the detoxification process as smooth as possible. Having support around 24 hours a day while clients are detoxing helps ensure their success when it comes to recovery. The risk of relapse as a patient of an alcohol detox treatment center or drug detox program is also lower than that of quitting cold turkey. Relapses in cases where patients have stopped substance abuse cold turkey are much worse as their tolerance has been lowered and have an increased potential to lead to overdose. Even if relapse is avoidable, patients are not in the clear. The most severe, life-threatening form of withdrawals is known as delirium tremens. Delirium tremens side effects include high fever, confusion, body tremors, hallucinations, and seizures. This form of withdrawal can begin anywhere from 48 hours to 10 days after quitting substance abuse.
Patients who may have underlying health conditions also must be closely monitored during the detox process. Those who have pre-existing conditions (heart problems or respiratory problems, for example) are at increased risk for complications when it comes to physical withdrawal symptoms.
Medical and Emotional Safety
1. Not detoxing: Quitting drugs or alcohol cold turkey and going through a drug detox program are two very different things. Quitting something cold turkey simply means suddenly stopping the consumption of that particular vice, be it alcohol or drugs. Stopping a habit or something one is dependent upon suddenly without any help has the potential to pose a lot of complications. The detoxification process is different. At a detox and treatment center patients give their bodies time to stop their physical craving for the addictive substance, and then receive help for any underlying mental or physical illness. If done properly, the detoxification process takes place in a safe environment where patients can go through whatever physical and mental changes have to take place before sobriety can begin.
Any adverse symptoms of withdrawal will be closely monitored by professionals at the substance abuse aftercare treatment center. Doctors that are present will be able to explain exactly what is happening during a patient’s aftercare program, as well as prescribe medication to help calm patients and make them less of a danger to themselves and others. During withdrawals, feeling confused is a common occurrence. Having medical professionals there to help explain to patients what withdrawals are and any withdrawal symptoms they experience often leads to more success in recovery.
2. Doesn’t address the addiction: Quitting drugs or alcohol cold turkey does not actually address the root problems that could have an influence on the addiction. Oftentimes substance abuse problems stem from or are made worse by underlying mental illness. This means that in order to actually treat the addiction, the mental health problems present in a patient must be treated as well. When quitting drugs and alcohol cold turkey, patients don’t have access to the trained professionals they would in an aftercare program. These doctors, therapists, and nurses all know exactly what to expect from withdrawals, and will have a treatment plan for patients through their detox and into protracted withdrawal afterward. Having a support system of medical personnel and therapists available 24 hours a day can help mitigate the physical and mental symptoms of withdrawal. Quitting cold turkey, on the other hand, ignores the idea that a support system is needed to be the most successful in one’s recovery. Most patients who quit cold turkey as opposed to entering an alcohol detox treatment center have to go through withdrawal and becoming sober on their own, which can be a lot of pressure, especially once withdrawal symptoms start to take place. Being alone at this time in recovery can be a very frightening experience.
3. Ineffective: Trying to end an addiction by quitting cold turkey is not actually very effective in practice. When suffering from withdrawals, people facing addiction issues can be driven to the brink by their symptoms. Trying to deal with these withdrawals without professionals around – either alone or surrounded by people who do not have the proper training to deal with withdrawal symptoms – can be disastrous. Not being monitored, and still having access to drugs or alcohol can result in an overdose if the patient is suffering from withdrawal symptoms. Those dealing with addiction with feel like they need to do almost anything in the moments of withdrawal to make the pain stop. If they drink or use drugs again during this time, their chance of a fatal overdose increases greatly. Those who try to quit cold turkey are also at risk for having medical emergencies take place during their withdrawals. These emergencies would require treatment and, if severe enough, hospitalization. Without proper supervision, if something of emergent nature were to take place, there would be a risk of dying from the physical symptoms of withdrawal. It is safer for patients to be monitored by doctors during this time, as they can prescribe medication for withdrawal symptoms and are able to keep patients calm and explain what is happening to them.
As opposed to trying to quit cold turkey, there are other options when it comes to getting clean and staying sober.
- Inpatient rehab programs: The most recommended programs for those trying to end their battle with addiction (especially for serious cases of addiction) are inpatient rehabilitation programs. Inpatient programs take place in alcohol and drug detox centers. These detox and treatment centers provide patients with medical personnel who specialize in treating addiction. The detoxification process is the first thing that takes place at a drug and alcohol detox center. Medical services at these centers work by giving patients safer, less addictive medications in order to combat the physical symptoms of withdrawal. After the detoxification program is done, inpatient treatment is designed to help patients learn skills that will help them maintain their sobriety. Therapy and counseling are often provided. Factors that may have impacted the client’s addiction are discussed and coping skills are put in place to deal with those factors.
- Outpatient rehab programs: Outpatient programs are often started after leaving an inpatient program, but outpatient therapy can be given without a prior inpatient program being completed. Oftentimes an office or clinic will be available for patients to visit, where they can receive the medications that will help lessen their withdrawal symptoms. Counseling and therapy are provided as well. These services help patients maintain their sobriety. In addition, patients are often recommended to take part in peer self-help groups in order to strengthen their support system.
At the end of the day, when those dealing with substance abuse issues attempt to stop partaking in drugs or alcohol cold turkey as opposed to attending alcohol and drug detox centers, they’re putting themselves at increased risk. While it may seem smart to quit completely as soon as possible, there are more factors to consider than the time it takes to detox. Quitting cold turkey puts those facing addiction at risk for relapse and overdose. The cold turkey method does not account for withdrawal and the effects it has on the human body. Both physical and mental withdrawal symptoms need to be monitored by medical professionals, as they are the only people qualified to prescribe the medications needed to lessen the withdrawal symptoms. Going to a detox and treatment center allows patients access to a larger, close-knit support system, and helps them deal with what is happening to them during the process of becoming sober.
Quitting drugs or alcohol cold turkey is not safe, and therefore is not often recommended. When trying to get sober it is important to take part in some kind of drug or alcohol treatment, as this increases the likelihood of remaining sober for longer. Having a support system and doctors around to help patients makes getting sober easier, and treatment centers teach patients how to deal with the cause of the addiction, as well as the addiction itself. Becoming sober is a difficult process and no one needs to be alone during this time.