Can an Alcoholic Quit Cold Turkey?

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A person with alcohol addiction can quit cold turkey. However, it comes with risks, some of which may be life-threatening depending on their condition.

Read ahead to learn why this might not be the best approach to quitting alcohol, the sometimes severe withdrawal symptoms it can cause, and what to do instead.

What Is Alcohol Dependence?

Alcohol dependence is when you experience a strong urge to drink alcohol despite it causing harm to your physical and mental health.

People dependent on alcohol experience physical and psychological symptoms (alcohol withdrawal symptoms) when they don’t drink. These include:

  • Anxiety
  • Inability to sleep
  • Tremors
  • Headache
  • Vomiting

It is because of these symptoms that quitting alcohol cold turkey is not recommended.

Also, someone with alcohol dependence is highly likely to have developed alcohol use disorder (AUD). There are multiple criteria to diagnose AUD, such as if a person:

  • Has a strong urge to drink alcohol
  • Is drinking more than ever before
  • Has to drink increasing amounts of alcohol to experience the same effects
  • Tries to quit alcohol but fails
  • Experiences withdrawal symptoms when they stop drinking

AUD is an addictive disorder and requires proper medical treatment to overcome. This means any attempts at quitting alcohol cold turkey are likely to fail and there’s a high chance ofl relapse.

What Happens if You Stop Drinking Cold Turkey?

When you stop drinking cold turkey, your body starts experiencing withdrawal symptoms.

The central nervous system of a heavy drinker is usually “toned down” by alcohol. When there is an abrupt cessation of alcohol, the nervous system goes into overdrive, leading to physical and mental symptoms.

Here is a timeline of what happens if you stop drinking cold turkey:

  • Uncomplicated alcohol withdrawal syndrome (6-24 hours after stopping alcohol). You can experience sweating, a racing heartbeat, high blood pressure, elevated body temperature, inability to sleep, tremors, anxiety, nausea, vomiting, and headaches.
  • Alcohol withdrawal seizures (8-48 hours after stopping alcohol). These are brief, generalized seizures. There are two phases: stiffness and loss of consciousness followed by jerking movements, facial muscle contractions, and loss of bladder or bowel control. Some people might experience seizures without any of the other withdrawal symptoms described above.
  • Alcoholic psychosis (12-24 hours after stopping alcohol). Patients hear sounds that are not there (auditory hallucinations) and see things that are not present (visual hallucinations). Some people might also feel something invisible is touching them (tactile hallucinations).
  • Alcohol withdrawal delirium (72-96 hours after stopping alcohol). This is a life-threatening complication where some patients develop delirium tremens; an altered consciousness level and their fight-or-flight mode goes into overdrive. Serious withdrawal symptoms include a racing heart, dangerously high blood pressure, seizures, tremors, and hallucinations.

The treatment for these complications depends on the symptoms. For example, patients who are seizing are given intravenous benzodiazepines (anti-seizure drugs). Those with psychosis are given antipsychotic drugs like haloperidol.

Patients with withdrawal delirium are usually admitted to a critical-care unit for constant monitoring.

What Are the Risk Factors for Life-Threatening Alcohol Withdrawal?

Risk factors for life-threatening alcohol withdrawal (alcohol withdrawal delirium) include:

  • A previous history of withdrawal delirium
  • Presence of alcohol withdrawal seizures
  • A co-existing infection
  • A family history of withdrawal delirium

If you have any of these, it’s best to avoid quitting alcohol cold turkey.

What’s the Best Way to Quit Alcohol for Long-Term Recovery and Relapse Prevention?

The best way to quit alcohol for long-term recovery is to reduce intake gradually and get medical treatment from an experienced center like Curednation.

The process begins with a detailed session where an expert addiction specialist provides you with information on AUD and assesses your motivation to quit alcohol. They might also advise healthy lifestyle changes, such as:

  • Quitting smoking
  • Joining a support group like Alcoholics Anonymous
  • Enrolling in cognitive-behavioral or family therapy
  • Eating healthy. People with alcohol addiction are often starved of vital nutrients like folate, vitamin B12, and vitamin B6. Your treatment provider might refer you to a food bank or nutritional support program to make up for these deficiencies.

They should also offer you medical detoxification if you have moderate to severe AUD. The first-line medical drugs for quitting alcohol are naltrexone and acamprosate. Both act at specific receptors in the brain to reduce alcohol cravings.

If you don’t improve with first-line options, your healthcare provider might advise you disulfiram. It is an oral drug that leads to unpleasant symptoms like nausea, vomiting, and headache if you drink alcohol with it.

The most important part of a medically-managed detoxification program is regular follow-ups for monitoring clinical improvement and treatment adherence. These ensure patients don’t relapse.

Supportive Measures for Quitting Alcohol

If your loved one is trying to quit alcohol cold turkey, here’s how you can support them:

  • Explain to them the risks of quitting cold turkey and why it’s not a good idea
  • Encourage them to quit drinking under medical supervision
  • Build a supportive network for them. It can consist of friends and family or a support group like Alcoholics Anonymous
  • Once your loved one has tapered down their alcohol intake as a result of medical treatment, remove it from your house to prevent relapse
  • Avoid social gatherings where drinking is prevalent or encouraged
  • Eat out at restaurants that serve non-alcoholic wines or beers

These are just a few recommendations. A holistic treatment provider will be able to provide you with a much longer list.

Frequently Asked Questions

What Factors Impact the Success of the Cold Turkey Method of Quitting Alcohol?

A mild drinking habit, a short duration of drinking, and a strong supportive network might make the cold turkey method successful. But it’s still important to seek medical advice when quitting alcohol.

What Is Delirium Tremens?

Delirium tremens is the other name for alcohol withdrawal delirium, a life-threatening condition characterized by an altered consciousness state, seizures, high blood pressure, and elevated body temperature.

How Does Delirium Tremens Differ From Regular Alcohol Withdrawal?

Regular alcohol withdrawal is mild and occurs early on (first 24 hours) after stopping alcohol. Delirium tremens occurs (72-96 hours) later and is marked by much more severe symptoms that can be life-threatening.

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