Quitting Alcohol Cold Turkey
Medically Reviewed by Dr. Francine Mends, MD on June 23, 2020
Alcohol dependency can be just as dangerous as addiction to any other substance. After years of heavy and repeated exposure to alcohol, the function of the body and brain begins to change. If you’re an alcoholic, you could be far more dependent on alcohol than you realize.
Quitting without medical assistance could have serious consequences. Recognizing the signs of severe alcoholism and understanding those consequences can help you decide the best way to get your addiction under control.
What Happens When You Become Dependent on Alcohol?
Alcohol increases levels of dopamine and gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), the chemical messengers that control body functions like pleasure, memory, sleep, stress, heart rate, blood pressure, and so on.
Constant exposure to alcohol disrupts the body’s normal production of these chemicals, and forces your body to become dependent upon the regulating effects of alcohol.
Withdrawal from alcohol under these circumstances becomes dangerous, because the body is unable to regulate itself without outside interference. Symptoms can be uncomfortable, frightening, and even life-threatening. Going “cold turkey” without help or advice from a medical professional is not recommended.
Why Going “Cold Turkey” Can Be Dangerous
Many people suffer from symptoms when they stop drinking, and sometimes those symptoms can be severe. The worst withdrawal symptoms, called delirium tremens, include delirium, tremors, sweating, agitation, hallucinations, confusion, cardiac arrhythmias, and/or grand mal convulsions. For some people, delirium tremens (DT) can be fatal.
What Are the Symptoms of Withdrawal?
No two addictions are the same, and symptoms of withdrawal can vary from one person to the next.
Some common symptoms include:
- Muscle weakness
- Loss of appetite
- Mood swings
- Short-term memory loss
- Clammy skin
- Rapid heart rate
- Short-term memory loss
When Do Withdrawal Symptoms Start and End?
Depending on the severity of the condition, symptoms of withdrawal may begin the same day after the last drink, but take around 3 days to hit their peak.
The more severe the dependency, the worse the symptoms are.
Many people don’t anticipate the worst symptoms to come days after they stop drinking. The onset of DTs can take them by surprise, and if they’re not prepared or in the presence of a medical professional, withdrawal can be fatal.
What Happens During an Alcohol Withdrawal Seizure?
During an alcohol withdrawal seizure, patients may see, feel or hear things that are not there.
Their body may seize and they may temporarily lose the ability to control their muscles. Sometimes seizures involve little movement, others involve obvious shaking.
Alcohol withdrawal seizures often happen about 6-48 hours after finishing the last drink, and may be an indication that the worst is yet to come.
Anyone who is withdrawing from alcohol and who experiences this type of reaction should seek help from a medical professional as soon as possible.
Other Factors that Complicate Withdrawal
In addition to all of the above symptoms, people who suffer from alcoholism may have a variety of complicated conditions. For example, some people who suffer from alcoholism may also be malnourished or chronically dehydrated. This can affect their health and may lead to problems or complications during withdrawal.
Some people regularly mix alcohol with other drugs, like sleep-aids and anti-anxiety medications. Withdrawal from these medications can intensify or complicate withdrawal.
How to Stop Drinking Safely
The safest way to stop drinking is by enrolling in a medical detox program where alcohol usage can be reduced slowly. Some medications can be used to stop drinking and allow toxins to exit the body safely, while other medications, like mood stabilizers, help curb the effects of withdrawal.
In addition, fluids are distributed to patients during detoxification to eliminate dehydration. In detox programs, patients are fed nutritious meals that can help strengthen their body, while their medical provider monitors their status.
While withdrawal is always a challenge, but it becomes far safer when it happens in the presence of a professional. Medical detox for alcoholism usually lasts about a week, and after that point, the patient can be transferred to a detox program for ongoing addiction treatment.
Should You Quit Drinking Cold Turkey?
So, is it safe to stop drinking cold turkey? The real danger in quitting drinking cold turkey is that you could experience serious withdrawal symptoms.
These symptoms are usually experienced by people who have been drinking excessively—more than 7 drinks per week if you’re a woman, more than 14 per week if you’re a man—for many years.
If you are not a heavy drinker, you’re unlikely to experience these problems. To be safe, consult with your doctor. Your physician can evaluate your condition and recommend a medically-assisted detox program if needed.
For information on detox centers and treatment programs available in your area, browse through our directory for a facility near you.
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