Does Quitting Cold Turkey Work?

A pensive man looks out of a window

Ed smokes five cigarettes a day and wants to quit. Peter has become dependent on opioids and wants to break his addiction. David is ready to give up alcohol, which has taken over his life. All three men are considering quitting cold turkey. They are ready to be done with their addictions, so they want to stop using the substance immediately. Does quitting cold turkey work? 

Is this a good idea? It might be ok for Ed, but Peter and David may want to reconsider. 

Depending on their history of use, quitting cold turkey may be a shock to their systems and cause withdrawal. General withdrawal symptoms can include:1

  • Cravings
  • Headaches
  • Shaking
  • Nausea
  • Anxiety
  • Sleep issues
  • Appetite changes
  • Agitation
  • Concentration issues
  • Sadness

Can You Die from Quitting Cold Turkey?

With certain substances, withdrawal effects can be severe or even life-threatening. The body has become dependent on the drug, and an abrupt “cold turkey” approach could be dangerous if the person doesn’t receive treatment.

Here’s a breakdown of what happens with various types of substances:


There are no serious health risks if Ed wants to quit smoking cold turkey. However, he may have better success if he does this with support. A study found that only 3-5% of individuals who tried to quit cold turkey without help achieved long-term abstinence from nicotine.2


David has severe alcohol dependency. If he quits cold turkey, there are severe health risks. Alcohol withdrawal can include delirium tremens (DTs). These can start within two days of stopping alcohol cold turkey and can last up to five days. Without appropriate treatment, the mortality rate for DTs can be as high as 37%.3

DT symptoms can include:4

  • Hallucinations
  • Loss of consciousness
  • Severe confusion
  • Extreme hyperactivity
  • High blood pressure
  • Seizures
  • Disruptions to cardiovascular function


Like David, Peter may be putting his life in danger if he abruptly quits opioids without treatment. Opioid withdrawal typically causes flu-like symptoms. This includes vomiting and diarrhea. If severe, these can cause dehydration, which can lead to chances of heart failure.5

Other Drugs

Other drugs, such as meth and benzodiazepines, can cause similar withdrawal symptoms, including seizures, dehydration, heart issues, and psychotic reactions.6 If untreated, these can be life threatening.

Alternatives to Quitting Cold Turkey

Fortunately, there’s good news for Peter and David (and Ed, too). To avoid these physical dangers of quitting cold turkey, and to increase their chances of long-term success, they can turn to an alternative method of quitting the substance.

Their options include:


Rather than stop taking opioids all at once, David can partner with a physician or other healthcare provider to taper off the drug. This involves slowly reducing the amount he takes over time until he eventually stops taking opioids completely. 

The length of time it takes to taper off a drug depends on how long you’ve been using it and how much you’ve been using. It can take a few weeks or a few months to complete this process, but it can provide a safer and more effective long-term solution than quitting cold turkey.


To quit smoking, Ed can use nicotine replacement therapy (NRT). He may choose patches, sprays, or gum to prevent withdrawal symptoms. One study found that NRT can increase the chances of successfully quitting smoking by up to 70%.4

Medications are also available to help stop or reduce alcohol use. The FDA has approved acamprosate, naltrexone, and disulfiram for the treatment of alcohol use disorder. Disulfiram and naltrexone alter how alcohol is processed in the body to make drinking less appealing, and acamprosate can help ease withdrawal symptoms.7

Several drugs are also FDA-approved for the treatment of opioid use disorder: naltrexone, buprenorphine, and methadone.8 The use of these medications to stop using drugs or prevent relapse is known as medication-assisted treatment (MAT).

Medical Detox

To safely withdraw from drugs or alcohol, David and Peter can find a medical detox program. During medical detox, medical professionals offer treatment for withdrawal symptoms and provide 24/7 supervision to prevent complications. This may include sedation or other medications to help David get through the most severe, initial phase.

Medical detox usually lasts several days. When it’s complete, David’s body will be cleansed of alcohol, and he can begin his life of recovery. Medical detox programs are available for all types of substances, so Peter can also choose this method to detox from opioids.

Social Detox

This method can involve quitting cold turkey, but it’s done with support. If Peter’s symptoms aren’t life-threatening, he may find a social detox program where he can be monitored by professionals and receive counseling to help him through his withdrawal symptoms. This method does not involve the use of medication.

Cold Turkey Support

If Ed, Peter, or David choose to go “cold turkey,” it’s crucial that they get support. This may include formal services such as the medical detox described above, but it can also include other types of support. Many resources are available, including:

  • Counseling
  • Smartphone apps
  • Support groups
  • Medication
  • Drug rehab programs

Does quitting cold turkey work? The bottom line: Yes, quitting cold turkey can work, but depending on the substance, you may need additional support to do so safely and effectively. 

If you or someone you love is experiencing a substance use disorder, help is available. Call 800-934-1582(Who Answers?) today to learn about your treatment options.


  1. Withdrawal management. (2009, January 1). NCBI Bookshelf.
  2. World Health Organization: WHO. (2023, January 4). No level of alcohol consumption is safe for our health. World Health Organization: WHO.
  3. Rahman, A., & Paul, M. (2023, August 14). Delirium tremens. NCBI Bookshelf.
  4. Rowden, A. (2021, March 23). The risks and benefits of quitting “cold turkey.” Medical News Today.
  5. Yes, people can die from opiate withdrawal. (n.d.). NDARC – National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre. Retrieved March 1, 2024, from
  6. Ashenafi, W., Mengistie, B., Egata, G., & Berhane, Y. (2021). The role of intimate partner violence victimization during pregnancy on maternal postpartum depression in Eastern Ethiopia. SAGE Open Medicine, 9, 2050312121989493.
  7. Medications for alcohol dependence. (n.d.). WebMD. Retrieved March 1, 2024, from
  8. (DCD), D. C. D. (2018, April 18). How do medications treat opioid addiction? HHS.Gov.

the Take-Away

Does quitting cold turkey work? The bottom line: Yes, quitting cold turkey can work, but depending on the substance, you may need additional support to do so safely and effectively.