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Dangers of Cold Turkey Detox

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The first step toward recovery is ridding the body of the toxins and poisons an individual has been ingesting. During detoxification, the drug and/or alcohol abuser experiences a wide variety of withdrawal symptoms, which vary in intensity depending upon the substances they’ve been abusing. For example, an alcohol abuser can expect to experience side effects such as:

  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Headaches
  • Anxiety
  • Perspiration

In contrast, someone withdrawing from heroin might experience cramping, diarrhea, dilated pupils, and muscle aches in addition to the same symptoms alcohol withdrawal brings.[1] In 2012, 23.1 million Americans over the age of 11 were addicted to drugs or alcohol.[2] Despite being in need of help for their substance abuse troubles, only 2.6 million sought and received treatment that year.[3] For the remaining 20.5 million, most chose to continue their substance abuse; however, some opted to attempt detox at home on their own. This is where the phrase “going cold turkey” comes into play.

Cold Turkey Detox

When the body has grown accustomed to the delivery of certain substances on a regular basis, and those substances cease to be present, the body reacts in a rather unpleasant manner. Withdrawal symptoms are often one of the primary reasons drug and alcohol abusers aren’t very successful at completing detox on their own, because the unbearable symptoms drive them to use drugs or drink again just to make them stop.

The terminology “cold turkey” detox actually stems from the image of chilled poultry; the goosebumps that a Thanksgiving bird might have are often similar to those that a withdrawing addict experiences. Substance abusers who opt for the cold turkey detox method go through withdrawal without professional or medical help. This means there are no drug therapy interventions or medications to alleviate the discomfort addicts feel when withdrawing from a substance.

Dangerous Territory

Attempting to detox at home can be very dangerous to your health. During detox from some substances, many addicts have seizures. At times these can be life-threatening, making detoxing without a doctor’s guidance highly dangerous. In patients with acute alcohol withdrawal who aren’t being properly treated, over five percent are at risk for seizures.[4] Other risks include losing consciousness or throwing up and aspirating one’s own vomit.

Alcohol is involved in 41.4 percent of treatment admissions,[5] and it often complicates matters greatly, as detoxing from alcohol leaves the abuser open to developing alcohol withdrawal syndrome. Only around 20 percent of all alcoholics succeed at permanently putting down the bottle without outside help.[6] Of course, the worst case scenario is death — an uncommon but entirely possible side effect of withdrawing from certain substances. It isn’t the absence of a substance alone that can inflict dire consequences, but rather the symptoms of that absence. To top off the list of reasons cold turkey detox isn’t worth your time, it has a 95 percent failure rate — meaning only about five percent avoid relapse.[7]

Riskiest Substances to Detox From

Albeit ever common, alcohol is one of the most dangerous substances to detox from. Detox from alcohol carries the risk of delirium tremens — a potentially fatal consequence of alcohol withdrawal that about five percent of hospitalized alcohol withdrawal patients will have to endure.[8] Among those who do experience DTs, up to five percent die.[9] In alcohol withdrawal syndrome patients, some may develop a thiamine deficiency that grows into Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome, which can impact a person’s ability to move freely and also carries a risk of coma and even death.[10] Among those who develop this disorder, around 80 percent experience amnesia afterward.[11] Three to 10 percent of patients struggling with severe alcohol withdrawal experience hallucinations,[12] and another five to 10 percent endure intense convulsions within 48 hours of cessation.[13]

Of equal importance, detoxing from opioids should always be done under the supervision of a qualified medical professional. Withdrawing from heroin can be a volatile experience, even for the newly addicted. There were 3,635 heroin overdose deaths in 2012.[14] Another class of opiates — opioid pain relievers — are continually growing in popularity and thereby, continually claiming and wrecking the lives of many. In 2008, approximately 305,900 people were treated in American emergency rooms for the misuse of prescription opioid painkillers.[15] That same year, 14,800 people died from using these drugs.[16] Both forms of opium-based drugs can cause a user to grow dependent on them very quickly. Around nine percent of the population is thought to have misused an opiate drug at some point in their lives.[17]

Last but not least, benzodiazepines carry a significant risk when it comes to quitting cold turkey. These prescription drugs are generally used in the treatment of anxiety and mood disorders. Sometimes they’re even used during detox to treat the side effects patients feel from withdrawal, especially among alcoholics. People using or abusing benzos should always slowly taper off the drug in controlled increments.

Research shows that half of all patients who take benzodiazepines with a medical purpose experience some withdrawal symptoms upon cessation, with nearly all experiencing intense symptoms when the drug is stopped abruptly.[18] Likewise, 35 to 45 percent of patients can detox from benzos without much trouble. These statistics apply to patients using these drugs under normal circumstances; whereas, the risk of intense withdrawal and relapse are always higher among the drug-abusing population. In 2008, approximately 271,700 people were seen in emergency rooms across the nation for the non-medical use of benzodiazepines.[19]

Mental Wellness

Detox is complex enough on its own, but when you add an underlying mental health disorder to the mix, the side effects can be quite difficult to manage. You should never try to self-treat a mental health problem on your own. Not only are you at risk for making your symptoms worse, but self-diagnosis only goes so far. Don’t assume that you can discern what you’re suffering from via an online symptom search or because you know someone else with a disorder who has similar symptoms.

Furthermore, the presence of other disorders you aren’t aware of is entirely possible, even when you already had a formal diagnosis in your past. In fact, having one mental health problem predisposes you to an increased likelihood of having another. Case in point, those suffering from bipolar disorder have been shown to be six times more likely to experience post-traumatic stress disorder.[20]

Interestingly, people who are addicted to illicit drugs or alcohol are two times as likely to struggle with mood and anxiety disorders, as compared to the general population. Despite 53 percent of drug addicts and 37 percent of alcoholics having one or more serious mental health problems, the brain is only one part of the body to worry about when it comes to addiction. Other medical problems can increase your likelihood of addiction, too. For example, research shows that in sufferers of multiple sclerosis, co-occurring mental health disorders are present almost three times as often as they are in non-MS patients, with anxiety and depression being particularly common.[21] Additionally, some studies have supported the theory that drug withdrawal can contribute to mental decline, signaling a need for regimented, controlled treatment rather than cold turkey cessation.[22]

Home-Based Detox

A lot of people think they can continually flush their system out by drinking a lot of water and eating healthier. It sounds simple, but it’s also silly. If water and fats help to rid the body of toxins like heroin at all, their effect is minimal. That being said, they are no replacement for opiates, and that’s what the body is craving during opiate detox. Thus, drugs like methadone and buprenorphine have been approved for opiate addiction treatment in America, and they’ve been quite successful. These drugs are administered from the get-go, because detox from opiates requires a weaning-off process.

Buprenorphine showed initial success rates of 88 percent when studied in the first recovery program that used the drug in America.[23] Since then, varying results from 40 to 60 percent have stemmed from multiple studies that measured success by both completion of treatment and staying clean for at least a year.[24] Thus, while keeping water and snacks on hand to feed hunger and ease an upset stomach is ideal, replacing your electrolytes with sports drinks is not going to spare you from the effects of withdrawal or help you to get through it faster.

Some people go as far as to purchase detox kits for their venture to sobriety. These supply packs can be bought online rather easily and are rarely — if ever — effective. The contents of these packages are not regulated and personal safety cannot be assured.

Speaking of safety, tapering is a very common method used by home detox proponents, and it isn’t exactly as safe as it sounds. Sure, heroin addicts are treated with drugs like methadone as a way of gradually weaning the user off substances altogether, but skipping the lengthy period of time most users spend in maintenance programs and trying to cut right to the finish line hardly ever works out.

Tapering off an illicit substance on your own isn’t as easy as it may seem, especially one like heroin. The drug isn’t controlled, and you actually have no idea how much more potent your current supply may be than the last stash you bought. Even with careful dosing and timing, the potency of drugs and the likelihood of your supply being cut with something else cannot be ruled out. American heroin supplies are thought to be anywhere from 20 to 70 percent pure heroin.[25] Thus, tapering doesn’t work in an uncontrolled setting.

Getting the Help You Need

To ensure you have the best chance at a full recovery, we always recommend that you follow any detox program with a comprehensive substance abuse treatment plan. In fact, patients who received addiction treatment within a month of completing detoxification took 40 percent longer to return to substance abuse if they did at all.[26]

For many, one of the biggest fears about detox is not being able to endure it. Your chances of this are much higher in a high-quality addiction treatment program. Addiction is a tough battle; there’s no shame in needing a team to conquer it. Give us a call at 269.280.4673.


[1]Opiate withdrawal.” (n.d.). MedlinePlus. Accessed October 29, 2014.

[2]Prevention of Substance Abuse and Mental Illness.” (2014 Oct 3). Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. Accessed October 29, 2014.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Trevisan, L., Boutros, N., Petrakis, I. & Krystal J. (1998). “Complications of Alcohol Withdrawal.” National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. Accessed October 29, 2014.

[5]DrugFacts: Treatment Statistics.” (March 2011). National Institute on Drug Abuse. Accessed October 29, 2014.

[6]Alcohol Withdrawal.” (n.d.). Accessed October 29, 2014.

[7] Davis, J. (January 2005). “Instant Detox.” Wired Magazine. Accessed October 29, 2014.

[8]Alcohol Withdrawal Delirium.” (n.d.). Healthline. Accessed October 29, 2014.

[9] Trevisan, L., Boutros, N., Petrakis, I. & Krystal J. (1998). “Complications of Alcohol Withdrawal.” National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. Accessed October 29, 2014.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Finn, D. & Crabbe, J. (1997). “Exploring Alcohol Withdrawal Syndrome.” National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. Accessed October 29, 2014.

[14] Zadrozny, B. (2014 Oct 2). “Heroin Overdoses Double in Two Years.” The Daily Beast. Accessed October 29, 2014.

[15]Emergency Department Visits Involving Nonmedical Use of Selected Prescription Drugs – United States, 2004 – 2008.” (2010 June 18). Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Accessed October 29, 2014.

[16] “Policy Impact: Prescription Painkiller Overdoses.” (n.d.). Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Accessed October 29, 2014.

[17]Opiate Withdrawal.” (n.d.). MedlinePlus. Accessed October 29, 2014.

[18]Benzodiazepines (BZs).” (n.d.). Accessed October 29, 2014.

[19]Emergency Department Visits Involving Nonmedical Use of Selected Prescription Drugs – United States, 2004 – 2008.” (2010 June 18). Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Accessed October 29, 2014.

[20] Lohano, K. & El-mallakh, R. (2011 Sep 6). “The Anxious Bipolar Patient.” Psychiatric Times. Accessed October 29, 2014.

[21] Simpson, R., McLean, G., Guthrie, B., Mair, F. & Mercer, S. (2014 June 13). “Physical and mental health comorbidity is common in people with multiple sclerosis: nationally representative cross-sectional population database analysis.” Biomedcentral Neurology. Accessed October 29, 2014.

[22] Kemsley, T. (2013 Nov 9). “Quitting Drugs ‘Cold Turkey’ May Trigger Mental Decline.” Nature World News. Accessed October 29, 2014.

[23] Matesa, J. (n.d.). “The Great Suboxone Debate.” The Fix. Accessed October 29, 2014.

[24] Stuckert, J. (n.d.). “How is Suboxone Treatment Different than Drug Abuse?.” Psych Central. Accessed October 29, 2014.

[25]Heroin.” (n.d.). Gale Science. Accessed October 29, 2014.

[26] Join Together Staff. (2006 Nov 21). “Relapse Rates Lower When Treatment Follows Detox.” Partnership for Drug-Free Kids. Accessed October 29, 2014.