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Quitting Cold Turkey: Why it’s Not a Good Idea

Quitting Cold Turkey: Why it’s Not a Good Idea - man with head in handFamily members and friends of people who have lived with a substance abuse issue often wonder, “Why can’t they just stop?” It’s common for someone addicted to drugs or alcohol to think or say to their loved ones, “I can quit anytime I want to.”

The reality is that stopping all at once, or going “cold turkey” isn’t the best decision.

Quitting Cold Turkey Doesn’t Solve the Addiction Problem

If drug or alcohol addiction treatment was solely about chemicals, then simply getting someone to give them up would stop it. Unfortunately, this is not accurate.

Addiction is a chronic disease characterized by relapses. Effective treatment requires a multi-phased approach, including

  • Detoxification (freeing the body from chemicals)
  • Drug and alcohol addiction treatment (counseling, relapse prevention, healthy living strategies)
  • Aftercare (sober living house, outpatient counseling, 12-step program, job search support, volunteering)

Alcohol Dependence and Withdrawal

Alcohol dependence is a common problem in the United States. In small amounts, alcohol can create a sense of relaxation and well-being. Among regular and heavy drinkers, it becomes a depressant. The body responds by increasing its production of hormones and brain chemicals like serotonin, dopamine and epinephrine.

Alcohol Withdrawal. When an alcohol dependent person tries to quit cold turkey, the brain releases large doses of these chemicals. Since the brain is no longer receiving the stimulus the alcohol was providing, it changes quickly to continue functioning normally. The person feels these changes as withdrawal symptoms. In severe cases, they include:

  • Abnormal Heart Rhythm
  • Dehydration
  • Vomiting

Delirium tremens (DTs) is another serious complication from alcohol withdrawal. It occurs in up to 40 percent of people who experience seizures during withdrawal and is likely to happen 24-48 hours after the last drink. Along with seizures, symptoms are

  • Agitation
  • Confusion
  • Fever
  • Hallucinations
  • High Blood Pressure
  • Sweating

Heroin Dependence and Withdrawal

Opioids like heroin can be snorted, smoked or injected. Once these types of substances enter the brain, they are converted to morphine and bind to its opioid receptors. With repeated use, the neurons adapt to the morphine levels.

It’s possible to use opioids and not become addicted. The reasons some people become addicted while others don’t are complicated. They include a person’s genetic makeup, the amount used, length of exposure to the drug, and environmental factors.

Heroin dependence and addiction occurs in some users with repeated exposure. The signs (and their intensity) vary from person to person, but may include any or all of:

  • Agitation
  • Anxiety
  • Cravings
  • Difficulty Concentrating
  • Fatigue
  • Insomnia
  • Problem Finding Pleasure
  • Restlessness
  • Tremors

Heroin Withdrawal. Heroin withdrawal symptoms can start within 12 hours of the last dose of heroin, peaking at approximately 48-72 hours after the last exposure to the drug.

  • Abdominal Cramps
  • Agitation
  • Anxiety
  • Bone Aches
  • Cold Sweats
  • Diarrhea
  • Dilated Pupils
  • Goosebumps
  • Insomnia
  • Nausea
  • Runny Nose
  • Teary Eyes
  • Vomiting
  • Yawning

Physical withdrawal can last for approximately 10 days, with some former heroin users reporting psychological symptoms (anxiety, depression, fatigue and insomnia) for six months or more.

Withdrawal Can Kill

DTs are a medical emergency and the person in this condition must be closely monitored for their own wellbeing. If not, he or she is at risk for a head injury, severe dehydration, heart attack or stroke. Some people with DTs have choked on their own vomit.

The physical symptoms of heroin withdrawal are challenging for addicts to cope with on their own. They can result in dehydration from the vomiting and diarrhea. The psychological symptoms (agitation, anxiety, etc.), insomnia and physical discomfort can lead to self-harm and suicidal thoughts or actions.

Medical Detox for Alcohol and Heroin Addiction

Rather than trying to detox “cold turkey,” medical detox is a much safer option. Clients are monitored during the entire process. If needed, medications will be administered to treat physical symptoms and keep clients comfortable during the process. Drug-free comfort measures and support are provided on an individual basis to each client.

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For more information about our treatment programs at Waypoint Recovery Center, please contact us anytime at (888) 978-5188.

Withdrawal symptoms and timeline.
“How to Detox from Alcohol: Is Going Cold Turkey a Bad Idea?”. (n.d.). Retrieved from URL: https://www.promises.com/resources/detox-information/detox-alcohol-going-cold-turkey-bad-idea/
“Is Quitting Heroin Cold Turkey a Good Idea?”. (n.d.). Retrieved from URL: http://americanaddictioncenters.org/heroin-treatment/cold-turkey/
“Going It Alone—The Danger of Quitting Drugs Cold Turkey”. January 23, 2017. Retrieved from URL: http://cornerstonerecoverycenter.com/everyone-who-has-faced-addiction-has-wondered-how-to-quit-drugs/