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Risks & Dangers Of Quitting Alcohol Cold Turkey

Posted on July 20, 2023

Risks & Dangers Of Quitting Alcohol Cold Turkey

When we talk about the importance of detoxing with a rehab provider, we often refer to quitting alcohol ‘cold turkey’ as being unsafe – but what does this mean?

Quitting alcohol cold turkey means the alcohol user stops drinking alcohol completely, rather than gradually reducing their consumption over time.

Is it Possible to Quit Alcohol Cold Turkey?

It is possible to quit alcohol cold turkey and not experience dangerous withdrawal symptoms, but because the risk of a dangerous withdrawal is so high, we would never recommend it.

Why Do People Choose to Quit Alcohol Cold Turkey?

A man reading in bed

There are no benefits to quitting alcohol cold turkey when it comes to your physical health, so we discourage anyone from trying this. However, there are some reasons people are attracted to the cold turkey method.

Firstly, some people become very motivated to give up alcohol, and they may believe that going all the way is the only way they will ever be able to stay sober, as they struggle with moderation. This all-or-nothing thinking is very common among people with addiction problems (1).

Secondly, some people are simply not educated in alcohol withdrawal, and they do not realise that it is dangerous to quit alcohol cold turkey. They may jump to detoxing as soon as they experience a desire to get sober, without getting in touch with medical professionals for advice.

Finally, if an alcohol user has built their whole lifestyle on alcohol, it is very difficult for them to slowly withdraw from this lifestyle, so they may prefer to give it up completely.

For example, if they have friends who are also alcohol users, and they frequent pubs and clubs often, they may be inclined to stop seeing these friends and stop going to these places immediately.

Though it can be difficult to withdraw from alcohol gradually, it is the safest and the most effective method. When you work with medical professionals to do this, they put your health first, and this means a slow detox that often includes medication.

What Usually Happens If You Quit Alcohol Cold Turkey?

Two people holding hands

When you quit alcohol cold turkey, the chance that you will stay sober is significantly reduced than if you had a medical detox. You only have a 20% chance of long-term sobriety, whereas detoxing at residential rehab has much higher success rates.

Some symptoms of quitting alcohol cold turkey are irritability, tremors, headaches, sweating, anxiety, insomnia, loss of appetite, high heart rate, depression, and restlessness.

These symptoms can also occur when you follow the tapered method (gradually detoxing), but they tend to be less severe, and there is less chance that they will occur at all.

Serious Risks & Dangers Of Quitting Alcohol Cold Turkey

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There are many risks and dangers of quitting alcohol cold turkey, from symptoms as mild as nausea to the risk of death.

Though you could experience dangerous withdrawal symptoms at rehab, the risk is lower as you would be gradually reducing your intake. What’s more, you would receive medication to help with the detox, which would hopefully prevent you from experiencing severe withdrawal symptoms.

On the other hand, quitting alcohol cold turkey without medical intervention can lead to the following dangers.


When you withdraw from alcohol, there is always a chance of seizures. However, the risk of having a seizure increases significantly if you quit alcohol cold turkey.

Seizures occur in approximately 5% of people who undergo alcohol withdrawal, with this figure increasing in people who quit cold turkey (2).

The warning signs of a seizure are: being unresponsive or less responsive than usual, losing consciousness, experiencing confusion, staring, falling over, jerking of the limbs, stiffening of the body, rapid blinking, nodding the head rhythmically, struggling to breathe, a loss of bowel or bladder control (3).

Seizures tend to occur within 6-48 hours of someone withdrawing from alcohol, and they are more common in people with a severe addiction and people who consume large amounts of alcohol in a short space of time (binge drinkers).

In rare cases, people who withdraw from alcohol can experience status epilepticus. This is when multiple seizures occur in a short timeframe, or when a seizure lasts a very long time (over 5 minutes) (4).

Thiamine deficiency

Thiamine (vitamin B1) deficiency can occur in chronic, long-term alcohol users. When a large amount of alcohol is consumed frequently, the intestines are damaged, and this can reduce the amount of thiamine that is able to be absorbed into the blood.

Thiamine deficiency can have other causes, such as eating disorders, AIDS, dialysis, or weight loss surgery, but heavy alcohol use is one common cause.

The result of a lack of thiamine (vitamin B1) can be irritability, fatigue, blurry vision, loss of appetite, nerve damage, nausea/vomiting, a tingling sensation in the limbs, and even delirium.

In patients who experience delirium, there is an increased chance of Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome occurring. This is a disorder characterised by memory issues relating to alcohol use. It can cause vision problems, confusion, disorientation, tremors, hallucinations, delirium, and coma.

Though thiamine deficiency is a symptom of alcohol use and not detoxing, if you attempt to detox alone and you have a vitamin B1 deficiency, it can cause you to experience severe withdrawal symptoms, including delirium.

For this reason, it is essential that you get a medical detox that will allow you to quit alcohol slowly and steadily.


Kindling is a phenomenon that is common in people who keep getting sober, but fail to stay sober; it occurs when people have relapsed multiple times. When we talk about kindling, we are referring to the concept of withdrawal symptoms being more severe each time an individual tries to get sober again.

The reason withdrawal symptoms get more dangerous is that the body and brain get more sensitive to the changes that occur with detoxing from alcohol, and this means that each detox is more difficult and more painful.

This is further proof that quitting alcohol cold turkey is not the best method. People who experience kindling are less likely to stay sober, as they may give into drinking alcohol due to their withdrawal symptoms causing so much pain or discomfort.

The only way to avoid kindling is to get inpatient treatment, where you will be able to detox from alcohol safely. If you have done this multiple times, your withdrawal symptoms are still likely to be worse, but they won’t be as bad as they would be if you quit cold turkey.

Deliriums Tremens

Deliriums Tremens is a condition that affects some patients of alcohol withdrawal – particularly patients who attempt to quit cold turkey. DTs is simply the experience of severe withdrawal symptoms that can result in serious illness or even death.

Some symptoms of DTs are bursts of energy, stomach pain, seizures, deep sleep, increased startle reflex, nausea, increased heart rate, excessive sweating, light/sound/touch sensitivity, pale skin, involuntary muscle contractions, tremors, fever, chest pains, headaches, loss of appetite and fatigue.

There can also be psychological symptoms of DTs, such as fear, confusion, depression, nervousness, hallucinations, mood swings, anxiety, delirium, disorientation, irritability, nightmares, and delusions.

Individuals are more likely to experience DTs if they have consumed alcohol excessively over a long period of time, and suddenly stop. You are also more at risk if you suffer from seizures, you don’t eat enough food, you are an older patient, you have an infection, you have a head injury, or you have a history of DTs.

We often see DTs in patients who have used alcohol for over ten years. This is why we always recommend inpatient detoxes to people with a long history of alcohol addiction.


Though this danger is one of the less risky on our list, it is still something that is best avoided. This is because it can lead to seizures, organ failure, brain damage, and death.

The reason dehydration commonly occurs in people who quit alcohol cold turkey is that they are likely to experience vomiting, diarrhoea, and sweating. All of these symptoms can cause dehydration as they remove water from the body, so if the patient is not replacing this water, they will be dehydrated.

If you detox in a medical environment, doctors will keep an eye on your hydration to ensure you do not risk dehydration, whereas if you are at home, you may miss the early signs of dehydration.

Here are some of the signs to look out for fatigue, dry mouth, dizziness, nausea, headaches, dark urination, confusion, and fainting. You can counteract this by drinking enough water early on in the detox, which will be encouraged if you are in rehab.

Cardiac problems

One sinister symptom of quitting alcohol cold turkey is cardiac problems. When you use alcohol chronically, you are likely to have an electrolyte imbalance, which can lead to cardiac arrest.

If you withdraw from alcohol all at once, the sudden change in your electrolytes can cause complications with the heart, which could potentially result in death.

In some patients, the heart rate increases to a dangerous amount when they give up alcohol suddenly, which can lead to death. One well-known example of this is the death of actor Nelsan Ellis, who tried to detox from alcohol at home and suffered heart failure (5).

Who is More Prone to Severe Alcohol Withdrawal Symptoms?

A woman sitting on the floor looking anxious

As we have discussed, people with a severe addiction are more prone to experiencing severe withdrawal symptoms, as the body has to work harder to adapt to the lack of alcohol in the system, and it has become extremely dependent on alcohol as part of its functioning.

You are also more prone to a risky withdrawal if you have used alcohol for a long period of time, for the same reasons as above. Your body gets used to the alcohol, and therefore the recovery takes longer.

Anyone who has frequently attempted to get sober is more likely to have a dangerous withdrawal from alcohol, as the body gets used to these withdrawals and is more alert when they occur, which can result in more pain for the patient.

People who recover without medical intervention should be warned that their withdrawal may be more severe, as they will not have access to medications that can make the experience safer and smoother.

For example, rehab facilities may provide patients with anti-convulsants, antipsychotics, anti-anxiety drugs, and drugs that make seizures less likely.

If you do not take care of your body while you detox, serious withdrawal symptoms are more likely.

Some examples of this are if you eat unhealthily, you don’t drink enough water, and you do not take medication that is prescribed to you (if you are detoxing with a treatment provider).

Finally, if you take other drugs as well as alcohol, your experience of alcohol withdrawal is likely to be worse.

This is because people who use several substances usually have significantly worse symptoms as it is, so when they detox, their body has to heal more than it would in the average alcohol user.

If they are detoxing from all substances at once, they have to deal with a wider range of withdrawal symptoms, as certain drugs cause specific symptoms, and some are notoriously worse than others.

There is no one drug that is deemed the worst to detox from, as this is subjective, and every patient has a different experience of drug withdrawal, even if they are using the same substance as another patient.

However, alcohol is up there as one of the hardest substances to detox from, along with methamphetamines and heroin. As you can imagine, if an individual is using two or more of these substances at once, they are risking an extremely severe withdrawal.

Can You Quit Other Substances Cold Turkey?

A woman taking a pill

Technically, you can quit any substance cold turkey. However, the question shouldn’t be whether it is possible to quit cold turkey, but whether it is sensible or safe to do so, and it is not.

You should never consider quitting a substance cold turkey, as the risk of severe withdrawal is simply not worth it. We always recommend that you speak to a treatment provider about your addiction and allow them to recommend the best course of treatment for you.

We can do this for you if you contact us on 0800 088 66 86. It is most likely that we will offer to refer you to a private rehab facility in your area, but we may suggest a home detox or detox as part of an outpatient programme.

Myths About Quitting Alcohol Cold Turkey

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Statistics don’t lie, and they show that quitting alcohol cold turkey is less effective, and less safe, than tapering. However, some people get caught up with the myths about quitting alcohol cold turkey, so we want to clear these up today:

Myth 1: My loved ones can supervise me as well as a medical professional could

If you detox without medical help, it is of course better for your loved ones to monitor you than for you to try to withdraw from alcohol without any help at all.

However, this does not mean your loved ones are a suitable replacement for a medical professional.

Not only will they not be able to provide you with medication, but they will not be trained to spot the early signs of serious withdrawal symptoms, and they will most likely not be monitoring you around the clock like a medical professional would. All of these factors increase the likelihood that your detox will be dangerous.

What’s more, you cannot trust that your loved ones will be as pro-abstinence as a rehab facility would be. Due to a lack of education or a warped perception of alcohol use, they may enable you in your addiction, whether willingly or unwillingly.

For example, they may allow you to consume some alcohol, they may use substances around you, or they may convince you that your addiction isn’t as bad as it is.

It is much more effective to be monitored by someone who is trained in addiction, and therefore will not enable it, as well as someone who is unbiased, and therefore will be able to treat you in an objective manner.

Myth 2: I do not need medication to be able to detox successfully

It has been known for people to detox successfully without medication, but it is far from ideal.

Every individual that makes this decision is putting their life at risk, and there is no need to do this when there are so many treatment programmes available in the UK that provide you with medication.

Medication can firstly reduce the severity of withdrawal symptoms, which may end up saving your life. It reduces your chance of having a seizure when you detox from alcohol, and from experiencing serious hallucinations.

Another use of medication is to reduce cravings, which is essential to many people’s recovery. When you first withdraw from alcohol, your cravings are likely to be very intense, especially if you have a severe addiction, and you have tried to recover in the past.

If you attend rehab for a detox, you could receive medication to keep these cravings to a minimum, and this would allow you to get through the first, most difficult, part of the detox.

Finally, anti-anxiety medication is often offered at inpatient rehab, which keeps you mentally well while you are healing from chronic alcohol use. You would not have access to this at home, and this could result in a deterioration of your mental health, which may be life-threatening.

Myth 3: Rehab is a waste of time and money, so quitting cold turkey is the best method

We know that rehab tends to be the most expensive of all the treatment options, so we do not want to give the impression that it is no more of an investment than getting sober at home.

The same goes for the time spent recovering; you will spend between 7-28 days in rehab, depending on whether you have therapy as well as the initial detox.

That being said, we view the time and money spent on rehab as essential. There are some things you shouldn’t compromise on, and your health is one of them.

Though rehab can be costly and can take up a lot of your time, the success rates prove that it is worth it for most people.

Furthermore, you may end up wasting more time and money if you attempt to recover alone. This is because it is much more likely that you will relapse frequently, which will involve spending lots of money on alcohol.

You may even pay for less intense treatment programmes, such as home detoxing, but by the time you have done this two or three times, you have already spent the same amount of money that you would need to spend on residential rehab.

Finally, there are ways to keep rehab more affordable, such as choosing treatment centres that are closer to your home, going for a detox alone instead of therapy, and selecting a shared room at the rehab facility.

Inpatient treatment does not have to break the bank, so it is certainly not something that you can only do when you are wealthy.

As aftercare is included as a part of most residential rehab programmes, you aren’t only paying for 28 days in rehab, but also a full year of treatment in the sense that you will receive support for 12 months after you complete treatment. In our eyes, this makes the money more than worth it.

If you are facing serious financial challenges, ask us about NHS-funded treatment. It is very competitive as it’s hard to come by, but it’s definitely worth looking into if you would otherwise not be able to attend rehab for alcohol detox.

Suggestions to Quit Alcohol Safely

A doctor typing with a stethoscope beside the laptop

By now, you can probably guess what our number one suggestion is for quitting alcohol safely: go to rehab. This is the best way to ensure your risk of severe withdrawal is as low as possible.

It also means you can receive immediate care if your health deteriorates, as doctors will be performing the medical detox over a period of 3-10 days.

If you are not comfortable with staying in rehab for a detox, the next best thing would be to attend rehab on an outpatient basis. In other words, you would go to rehab every day for the detox, and then you would spend your nights at home, with the support of your loved ones.

The third option is to have a home detox. This does not mean that you should take it upon yourself to withdraw from alcohol. It involves finding a treatment provider that offers home detoxing and signing up to a 10-day alcohol detox with them.

The reason professional home detoxing differs from arranging your own detox is that you will be prescribed medication, you will have a helpline number to call, you will have regular appointments with medical professionals, and the company will only agree to provide a detox if you have enough support at home, and your addiction is not severe (therefore home detoxing is well-controlled).

In terms of small changes you can make to increase the chances of a safe detox, we would recommend that you tell your family and friends about your desire to get sober and ask them to support you in any way they can. This may involve providing emotional support, helping you to access resources in your local area, cooking healthy meals for you, or staying with you if you are having a home detox.

Another tip is to keep busy. If you are attending rehab, you don’t have to worry about this, as your time will be occupied with therapy sessions for the entire duration of your stay.

However, you will need to think about how you’re going to spend your time when you leave rehab, as too much free time can increase temptation. Perhaps get in touch with old friends, find a new hobby, or get involved with charity work in your area.

Finally, try your best not to replace alcohol with another unhealthy addiction such as an illegal substance, food, or gambling.

People with addiction sometimes do this as they are used to the cycle of addiction and they struggle to break free from it. However, it will only lead to more addiction symptoms, and potentially another rehab stay.

It is easier said than done to stay away from addictive behaviours, as addiction is a disease. However, if you find a therapist and attend regular sessions, you will learn how to manage your addiction without having to use substances to self-medicate.

Patients who attend rehab will often be able to see a therapist at their treatment centre for a full year after their rehab stay, so you wouldn’t even have to find a therapist yet.

Get Sober With Rehab Recovery

Rehab Recovery is a treatment referral company. We can help you to gain a place at a treatment programme in your area or even one in another part of the country.

To do this, we need to have a chat with you about your needs. This is because there is no one-size-fits-all treatment option.

Generally, residential rehab works for our patients, but it is possible that a different programme would work better for you, so the initial conversation we have with you is crucial.

Once we have spoken to you about your addiction history, we will start to browse treatment programmes in your chosen area to find one that has great success rates and is equipped to handle your specific needs.

Please don’t be deterred by the idea that rehab is the same for everyone. This couldn’t be further from the truth. On one hand, it is true that rehab follows a similar pattern for each patient; there will be a detox, then regular sessions of group and individual therapy, and then aftercare.

However, the patient’s needs are essential to each and every part of the rehabilitation experience.

Patients will have access to different resources depending on what their history of addiction looks like, what their mental health is like how severe their addiction is, what substance they are addicted to, and various other factors that influence the tools a patient needs in order to stay sober.

One example of the personalisation of rehab is the fact that different patients have different forms of therapy. Some will follow a plan that consists mainly of holistic therapies, others will focus on brief interventions, some will attend group therapy every day, and others occasionally.

Another example of how rehab treatment is moldable is that no patient has the same aftercare plan. The plan is created based on what the patient needs, whether this is regular check-ins, support groups, therapy sessions, or something else.

The aim of aftercare is to reduce the chance of relapse by meeting each patient’s individual needs and providing them with personalised support.

If you are still not convinced that rehab is not a vague treatment, perhaps the success rates will convince you. A King’s College London study in 2018 found that 59% of rehab patients successfully completed treatment within a year and did not need further treatment within six months (6).

This demonstrates that most people who attend rehab for addiction issues benefit from the treatment they receive, as the majority of them do not relapse within six months.

It was also noted in this study that structured care leads to better outcomes, and therefore inpatient rehab is more effective than outpatient rehab or home detoxing.


[1] All-or-nothing Thinking in Addiction

[2] Alcohol and seizures

[3] Evaluation of a First-Time Seizure

[4] Alcohol as a Seizure Trigger

[5] Nelsan Ellis Dies From Heart Failure Due to Alcohol Withdrawal at 39

[6] Effectiveness of inpatient withdrawal and residential rehabilitation interventions for alcohol use disorder: A national observational, cohort study in England **

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