Drugs Not to Quit Cold Turkey
When you are ready to take the first steps onto the road to recovery, it may be tempting to quit “cold turkey” — stopping drug or alcohol use altogether with a tapering off period. However, addiction is a complex condition and willpower and sheer force of will are often not enough to overcome cravings and the side effects of quitting drugs or alcohol cold turkey. Additionally, there are certain types of substances that if are stopped suddenly, or “cold turkey,” intense and even life-threatening withdrawal symptoms can occur.
Trying to stop using drugs or alcohol without help can put you in danger of withdrawal, cravings, and relapse. The professional addiction treatment specialists at River Oaks can provide effective and evidence-based care to help you safely stop using drugs and alcohol, and get you on the road to recovery.
Risks of Quitting Drugs or Alcohol Cold Turkey
In 2011, the Drug Abuse Warning Network (DAWN) reports that around 2.5 million people in the United States visited an emergency department (ED) for a medical emergency related to drug abuse and about 250,000 of these ED visits were people seeking detox (or substance abuse treatment) services. In 2020, there were almost a million alcohol-related emergency department visits.
Drugs that can have severe withdrawal symptoms that can lead to a medical emergency or even death should never be stopped “cold turkey.” These drugs include:
- Prescription painkillers (e.g., oxycodone, hydrocodone, fentanyl)
- Prescription sedatives and tranquilizers (e.g., benzodiazepines, sleep aids, and “z-drugs”)
These drugs are often tapered off slowly during medical detox in order to allow the body and brain time to stabilize and reach a level of balance before treatment is continued. Medical detox is typically considered the safest way to help the body process opioids, benzodiazepines, and alcohol, and to avoid potential life-threatening consequences during withdrawal. Specialists can provide medications that can to help with difficult withdrawal symptoms and cravings, monitor vital signs, and ensure your comfort and safety during the process.
Central Nervous System Depressants
Opioids, benzodiazepines, and alcohol are all central nervous system depressant drugs, meaning that they slow some of the body’s life-sustaining functions like body temperature, heart rate, respiration rate, and blood pressure while acting on some of the brain’s chemical messengers.
Dependence on these drugs is formed quickly and can be more significant when large amounts are used for a long time. The method by which these drugs are abused can also influence the level of drug dependence (e.g., snorting, smoking, injecting, or swallowing them) as can biological, genetic, and environmental factors. The more heavily dependent on one of these drugs a person is, the more intense the withdrawal symptoms are likely to be.
The journal Psychology Today warns that withdrawal from opioids, benzodiazepines, and alcohol can be fatal; therefore, it should never be attempted cold turkey and without the help of trained professionals.
Opioid drugs include both the street and illicit drug heroin and prescription narcotic pain relievers, like OxyContin, Vicodin, Percocet, morphine, codeine, fentanyl, and more. The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) places warnings in the drug prescribing information on drugs such as OxyContin, for example, indicating that these drugs should not be stopped suddenly after taking them for a period of time and instead should be tapered off slowly. These drugs attach themselves to opioid receptors in the brain and along the central nervous system, blocking pain sensations and also elevating mood.
Withdrawal symptoms from an opioid drug typically begin within about 12 hours after stopping use, the National Library of Medicine (NLM) reports. Withdrawal can include both physical and emotional symptoms, such as:
- Insomnia and restlessness.
- Chills and goosebumps.
- Irregular heart rate.
- Trouble breathing.
- Concentration and memory issues.
- Mental health concerns, like depression and anxiety.
- Muscle aches and bone pain.
- Suppressed appetite and weight loss.
- Nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea.
- Inability to feel pleasure.
- Dilated pupils.
- Increased blood pressure.
Opioid withdrawal is often physically similar to the flu. It can also be emotionally difficult, which is why these drugs are often tapered off slowly instead of stopped suddenly. Opioid withdrawal symptoms can be effectively managed with medications during medical detox.The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) reports that a combination of medications and therapies is ideal when treating opioid addiction.
Opioid dependence is managed by slowly lowering the dosage of an opioid drug over a set period of time during detox or by replacing shorter-acting opioids with longer-acting ones or partial opioid agonists.
Alcohol is perhaps one of the most dangerous addictive substances to stop cold turkey once a dependence has formed. Half of those who battle alcohol addiction will experience withdrawal symptoms, and 3-5 percent will suffer from the most severe and potentially life-threatening form of withdrawal, delirium tremens (DTs), the New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM) publishes.
Delirium tremens is extremely dangerous, as it may not develop until a few days after stopping drinking, while other withdrawal symptoms typically begin within eight or so hours after the last drink. Side effects of DTs include hallucinations, extreme confusion, fever, and potentially fatal seizures.
Additional side effects of alcohol withdrawal include:
- Increased heart rate.
- Hypertension (high blood pressure).
- Sweating and heightened body temperature.
- Body aches.
- Nausea, abdominal cramps, and vomiting.
- Shallow breathing.
- Trouble focusing and concentrating.
- Short-term memory loss.
- Sensitivity to sound and light.
- Irritability and agitation.
Alcohol withdrawal symptoms can range in severity. It is recommended that when stopping alcohol use, that you consult with a healthcare professional such as your doctor, or reach out to qualified addiction specialists who can work with you to develop a treatment plan that best meets your needs.
Benzodiazepines are typically prescription sedatives and tranquilizers that serve to reduce anxiety, manage seizure disorders, and act as sleep aids. Benzodiazepine drugs include:
- Xanax (alprazolam)
- Valium (diazepam)
- Klonopin (clonazepam)
- Ativan (lorazepam)
Benzodiazepines, or benzos for short, can be quickly habit-forming especially when used with other substances. When these drugs are discontinued, withdrawal can be similar to that of alcohol withdrawal, and rebound anxiety, insomnia, and even possible seizures can occur. These side effects can range greatly and they can be potentially dangerous. They are therefore best managed with medical detox to avoid any possible medical or mental health complications.
Other prescription drugs for insomnia that are similar in mechanism to benzodiazepines, but chemically different, are nonbenzodiazepine sleep aids or z-drugs. These drugs include:
- Ambien (zolpidem).
- Lunesta (eszopiclone).
- Sonata (zaleplon).
The Importance of Medical Detox
When you use substances, like benzos, opioids, and alcohol, you should not be stop cold turkey — especially if you have been using them regularly. Withdrawal symptoms can be significant and even life-threatening in some instances. It’s always best to reach out to a qualified medical or addiction treatment professional to get the help you need for addiction to drugs or alcohol.
River Oaks Treatment Center uses effective evidence-based treatment to help people with struggling with addiction. We offer flexible levels of care at our Tampa Bay drug and alcohol rehab. Call us today at to learn more about our Riverview, FL rehab and how you can get the help you need to live a rewarding life in recovery.
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