Cold turkey detox refers to the complete cessation of the use of any kind of addictive substance, often without medical supervision. Going cold turkey means no more alcohol, cigarettes, opiates, or whatever drug is involved until it’s out of the person’s system; there is no tapering-off period and no medication used to alleviate withdrawal symptoms.

Though this kind of detox strategy can seem attractive to some, there are safer and more effective methods available. In fact, many people believe that this is the only type of “quitting” that works, and therefore avoid quitting at all because they are anticipating the discomfort of withdrawal. Fortunately, through medical detox, getting clean does not have to be an ordeal. With medication and medical supervision, anyone dealing with drug or alcohol addiction can get on the road to recovery with minimal discomfort and a lower chance of relapse.


The Effects of Cold Turkey

Unsupervised detox can not only be dangerous, it can also be fatal. Alcohol detox in particular carries the risk of sudden death if not managed with medication. Risky detox is also associated with opiates such as heroine, barbiturates, and benzodiazepines (“benzos”) such as Valium and Xanax.

Common effects of cold turkey detox associated with these substances include:

  • Anxiety
  • Insomnia
  • Sweating
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Headache
  • Tremors
  • Extreme cravings
  • Higher rate of relapse


Alcohol withdrawal, if it becomes severe enough, can progress into a potentially deadly set of symptoms referred to as delirium tremens or DTs. According to the New England Journal of Medicine, the condition is fatal in 1-4 percent of cases, usually from hypothermia, cardiac arrhythmia, or withdrawal seizures. Symptoms of delirium tremens include:

  • Hallucinations
  • Disorientation and confusion
  • Profuse sweating
  • Severe anxiety
  • Seizures
  • High blood pressure
  • Racing and irregular heartbeat
  • Severe tremors
  • Low-grade fever

Anyone experiencing DTs should seek immediate medical attention. In addition to the risk of death, delirium, hallucinations, and intense mood swings can cause detoxing individuals to hurt themselves or those around them. The risk of suffering DTs is increased for those who have been addicted to alcohol for many years, but it can be mitigated through medical treatment during the detox process.

According to the National Center for Biotechnology Information, benzo and barbiturate withdrawal can cause potentially deadly seizures in heavy users as well as psychosis and suicidal urges. Opiate withdrawal is usual not life-threatening, but it can be very uncomfortable, and relapse after cold-turkey detox from heroine or prescription painkillers is especially common. Complications from symptoms, such as dehydration from vomiting and diarrhea, can become dangerous.


Risk of Relapse

Black and white image of a young woman crying and covering her fBesides the physical effects of cold turkey detox, there is an increased chance of relapsing into substance abuse and addiction without the aid of medication and doctor supervision. Relapse rates vary depending on the type of drug involved, how heavily it is used, the method of consumption (snorting, injection, taken orally, etc.), and genetic predisposition to addiction. The availability of emotional support and positive life events also play a role.

Due to the fact that addiction is a medical disorder, treatment and management is a lifelong process, and temporary relapse is very common. According to studies on the subject, as many of 80-90 percent of those suffering from addiction disorders relapse (if defined as any re-use of the substance) at least once when trying to quit on their own.

The risks of cold turkey detox don’t end once the withdrawal symptoms have ended. Overdose is not an uncommon occurrence when addicted individuals attempt to quit. Once the drug leaves their system for a while, tolerance for the drug decreases. Then, upon relapse, users may take the same amount of the drug that they would have before quitting, and their lack of tolerance causes a potentially fatal overdose.

Though there is always a possibility of a temporary relapse, medically supervised detox causes the likelihood of both relapse and overdose from relapse to decrease significantly. Medical professionals can provide those with addiction disorders with information about the risks of overdose from relapse, and that knowledge alone can save lives. At the same time, the use of medication and other methods to treat withdrawal symptoms as well as ongoing mental health treatment can reduce the rate of relapse significantly. A study in the American Journal of Addictions of a group undergoing buprenorphine treatment found that those who did not take their medication as prescribed for treatment of opioid dependence were 10 times more likely to relapse.

According to a study in the U.S. National Library of Medicine, short-term abstinence rates for those who received treatment for alcohol addiction were 62 percent, compared to 43 percent for untreated individuals. Of those who remained abstinent for the first three years, 61 percent of the untreated group relapsed within the next 16 years compared to 43 percent of the group that received help. Those who received treatment were also more likely to stick with addiction support programs through the course of 16-year study.


Advantages of Medical Detox

The most obvious advantage of medical detox is the fact that the goal of this treatment is to make withdrawal as comfortable as possible. Many people are aware that the symptoms of withdrawal are incredibly unpleasant when experienced without medical intervention, and this deters many people suffering from substance abuse from attempting to quit. In medical detox, any sign of discomfort is taken as a sign that the treatment isn’t ideal, and doctors will do what they can to adjust medication and therapies until the person is comfortable again.

As explained by the National Institute of Drug Abuse, each addiction is unique and therefore requires an individualized approach. Medical professionals also take into account the person’s psychological state, medical history, previous attempts at sobriety, related health issues such as liver function, age, gender, size, and all other factors that affect the detox process. They can then offer tailored aftercare options and recommend support programs for managing addiction disorders. All of this contributes to the lower relapse rates that occur for those who seek medical help with detox and addiction disorder management.

There is no reason to go through detox alone. Addiction is a disease that can and should be treated by medical professionals, especially considering the fact that quitting cold turkey can be so risky. There is no need to punish oneself by going through withdrawal symptoms alone when you can receive treatment that will make the process bearable, and receive information and treatment plans that will make it easier to stay sober.

It’s also important to keep in mind that medical detox alone without continuing treatment creates a high risk of relapse. Ongoing addiction treatment and support are needed to keep the recovering individual on the right path. There are many programs available that are dedicated to helping those with addiction disorders get clean safely.