Is it Dangerous to Stop Drinking Cold Turkey?
The use of alcohol has become such a popular pastime in many cultures that we often fail to recognize how much we consume daily or weekly. For many people, alcohol enables them to relax, feel more comfortable socially, and even celebrate victories and life’s meaningful milestones. For those who consume alcohol safely and in moderation — approximately one drink or less daily for women and two drinks or less daily for men — alcohol poses few risks. But for the 14.5 million people ages 12 and older in the U.S. with an alcohol use disorder, what once was merely an innocent way to take the edge off or revel in joy can become a legitimate threat to their health.
It takes courage for a person to realize that alcohol is negatively impacting their life and make the decision to stop drinking. Those who recognize they have an unhealthy relationship with alcohol and opt to make a change have many options at their disposal, including abruptly discontinuing use without gradually weaning themselves off alcohol — a strategy known as quitting “cold turkey.” However, suddenly ceasing alcohol use can be dangerous and it is important a person understands why before deciding to take that path.
What is an Alcohol Use Disorder?
To better understand the dangers of cold turkey alcohol cessation, you should first know how an alcohol use disorder is defined. Though the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism describes an alcohol use disorder as “a medical condition characterized by an impaired ability to stop or control alcohol use despite adverse social, occupational, or health consequences,” there is a set of criteria that helps to define it.
Healthcare professionals will use a set of 11 questions provided by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5), to assess if a person has an alcohol use disorder. The number of “yes” answers to questions like those below will help a doctor diagnose the severity of the condition:
In the past year, have you:
- Had times when you drank more or longer than you intended?
- Frequently wanted to cut down or stop drinking but couldn’t?
- Spent a lot of time drinking, feeling sick, or getting over other aftereffects?
Why Do We Become Addicted to Alcohol?
Even though alcohol is legal for those over a certain age — and is readily available at any number of brick-and-mortar or online retailers, restaurants, and bars — it is still a drug. And like other drugs that cause addiction, alcohol “appeals to the pleasure centers of the brain.”
Alcohol releases the chemical dopamine, which links positive emotions with drinking. In turn, those chemically induced sensations motivate you to want more. However, as with other drugs, you can develop a tolerance — which means you’ll need to drink more than before to achieve the desired effects. In time, you begin to feel bad when alcohol is not in your system, and regaining a feeling of normalcy can only be achieved by drinking.
Is Quitting Drinking Cold Turkey Dangerous?
We want to point out that everyone’s body reacts differently to consuming — and quitting — alcohol. That said, it certainly can be dangerous to stop using alcohol cold turkey. It can even lead to potentially life-threatening withdrawal symptoms.
For someone with a severe alcohol use disorder, withdrawal symptoms usually begin between 12 and 24 hours after their last drink. During this period, they may experience intense anxiety, depression, agitation, and mood swings, in addition to physical symptoms like vomiting, fatigue, sweating, diarrhea, and an increased heart rate.
In extreme cases of alcohol withdrawal following quitting cold turkey, a severe condition called delirium tremens, also known as DTs, can set in. DTs can be deadly, with symptoms including shaking, seizures, hallucinations, extreme confusion, and sensitivity to light. While anyone can experience DTs, they’re more prevalent in alcohol users with a history of attempting to quit cold turkey and those abusing alcohol for many years.
Another potentially dangerous outcome to quitting alcohol use cold turkey is ketoacidosis, a condition not unlike what those who battle Type 1 diabetes face. With alcoholic ketoacidosis, the pancreas may stop producing insulin thanks to prolonged, rampant alcohol use. When that happens, the person may develop metabolic problems, cardio issues, and excessive thirst that becomes exacerbated when they stop drinking.
How to Safely Stop Drinking Alcohol
Not only is quitting drinking cold turkey dangerous to your health but there’s also a high rate of failure. Studies show that giving up alcohol without professional help is risky because withdrawal symptoms can be hard to manage, and the cravings are too tempting to resist. Additionally, even if you can stop drinking cold turkey in the short-term, many people who go this route eventually relapse.
And although DTs or ketoacidosis occur in a relatively small percentage of those withdrawing from alcohol, either can be deadly. A much safer and more effective route is completing a medical alcohol detox program under the watchful eye of trained healthcare professionals who can monitor your symptoms, treat the cravings, and protect you from uncomfortable withdrawal symptoms. Medically supervised detox ensures the individual remains safe and comfortable throughout the process.
Once you’ve completed detox, a tailored substance use treatment program can help you stay sober by addressing the underlying conditions that may have driven you to drink and provide you with the skills needed to avoid a future relapse.
Midwest Recovery Centers is Here When You Need Us
As mentioned, the best and safest way to reclaim your life from an alcohol use disorder is through a supervised detoxification process. Midwest Recovery Centers offers a residential detox program led by licensed healthcare professionals in a comfortable and serene environment. Safety is always the top priority in our detox program, which is why our clients have 24/7 access to medical care. Following detox, we encourage clients to enroll in our multi-phase treatment program, where they will undergo individual and group therapy, develop new life skills, repair relationships, and continue on the path to sober living.
To start your recovery, contact us today.
Reviewed and Assessed by
Taylor Brown, B.A.Com., CADC
Tim Coleman, M. of Ed.