By Margaret R. Kohut, MSW Master Addiction Counselor (Ret.)
Are you thinking of quitting drinking abruptly? I applaud you if you have done some honest self-exploration and believe you have an alcohol problem. However, if you are planning to quit “cold turkey”, I would like to give you a “heads up” on what to expect as you withdraw from alcohol and why you really need to think thoroughly about your decision and perhaps take a slower approach.
Alcohol, as you know, is an addictive drug. The more you drink, and how long you have been drinking, will determine whether your body changes its chemistry to make the presence of alcohol your new “normal.” When that occurs, you are addicted to this drug. Your body now needs and craves alcohol in order to function. There is no chance for a “do over” once you are addicted, that’s what you’re stuck with.
Alcohol Withdrawal Symptoms to be Aware of
Have you ever wondered why quitting abruptly is called “cold turkey?” It is because one of the symptoms of alcohol withdrawal is feeling chilled; your shivering skin may develop bumps like those that you would see on a refrigerated turkey you are about to roast. Here are some of the other symptoms of alcohol withdrawal:
- Intense cravings for alcohol
- Sweating profusely and/or shivering
- Feeling nauseous; dry-heave vomiting
- Intense hand tremors
- Fleeting hallucinations
- Increased blood pressure
- Potentially fatal seizures
- Development of delirium tremens, also called “D.T.s” which is a withdrawal psychosis with hallucinations, delusions, and a potentially fatal high fever. Not many people develop D.T.s, but of those that do, about one-third die from fever.
If you stop drinking cold turkey, you are going to be very physically uncomfortable for at least 72 hours. If you’ve been drinking heavily for several years, you’re at serious risk for withdrawal seizures and D.T.s. Do you really want to do this on your own, without medical help?
As an addiction professional, I don’t recommend you do this. It is too dangerous. Of all the addicting drugs, only alcohol, benzodiazepines (minor tranquilizers) and barbiturates (major tranquilizers) have potentially fatal withdrawal syndromes. Quit, by all means, but let a physician help you. He/she will monitor your blood pressure to prevent seizures and give you some medication that will make your withdrawal less physically distressing and will reduce your urge to drink. After taking a history of your alcohol use, your physician may advise that you stop drinking gradually instead of abruptly. He/she will recommend a drug counselor to help you through alcohol cessation and support you during your first weeks of abstinence.
Statistics in the US and UK tell us that people who quit drinking cold turkey have a very high rate of failure because of the unpleasant withdrawal symptoms. If you try to do it this way, your intense craving for alcohol and the nasty physical symptoms will most likely cause you to drink to avoid withdrawal. Your chances of getting sober and staying sober with the help of addiction medical and counseling personnel are excellent.
Congratulations on your decision to stop drinking! Be safe, please.
Learn how to give up alcohol or how to moderate your drinking in the privacy of your own home without going to groups or expensive counseling with the How to Give Up Alcohol Course.