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Is It Dangerous To Stop Drinking Suddenly?

Medically Reviewed By: Benjamin Caleb Williams RN, BA, CEN

Written By: Phillippe Greenough

Article Updated: 09/14/2020

Alcoholism is extremely damaging to the body and mind, but quitting alcohol cold turkey can actually make things even worse. It’s extremely uncomfortable and can significantly reduce the likelihood of long term sobriety while also producing serious physical and mental health complications. Attempting to stop drinking cold turkey can lead to serious health problems and can even result in death. We take an in-depth look at each of the top 5 greatest risks below.

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1. Quitting Alcohol Cold Turkey Can Be Fatal

The greatest danger in going cold turkey is that simply put, it can kill you. Alcohol withdrawal syndrome is a serious condition that may result in multiple health issues, seizures, and death. Due to the changes the brain makes from the chronic presence of alcohol, the brain is suddenly unable to function properly without alcohol present.

Finally, delirium tremens is a condition unique to alcohol withdrawal. It is a comprehensive condition involving both the mind and body and is very dangerous – especially to those who detox at home. It is estimated that untreated delirium tremens has a mortality rate of 35% which is extraordinary. While delirium tremens is still extremely dangerous, modern medications and treatment available at alcohol detox centers will reduce the mortality rate to about 5%.

These risks can typically be managed with medication and medical supervision, but unmonitored they are a very real concern.

2. Lower Chances of Staying Sober

While putting an exact number on this is difficult, a cohort study done by the VA and Stanford provides an effective illustration. This study looked at two groups, alcoholics who received treatment and alcoholics who were untreated over two milestones at 3 and 16 years. It was found that of those who were untreated, only 43% were still sober after 3 years. Of those that did receive treatment, 62% had stayed sober after 3 years. This shows that receiving treatment significantly increases someone’s chances of staying sober long term.

Furthermore, at the 16-year mark this trend continued. Of those who were not treated but who were sober at 3 years, only 40% of them remained sober at 16 years. Of the group who did receive treatment and were sober at 3 years, 58% of them remained sober at the 16-year mark.

To summarize, the chances of successful long term recovery are increased if someone reaches out for help and undergoes treatment.

3. It’s Unnecessarily Painful

Even if someone is not addicted to the point where it poses a risk to their life or health, the pain and discomfort of cold turkey alcohol withdrawal is awful. Shakes, sweats, nausea, hallucinations, anxiety, delirium, and insomnia are just a few of the issues which heavy drinkers can look forward to experiencing if they try to quit alcohol cold turkey.

Alcohol withdrawal medications and medical supervision can help manage the severity of these symptoms. If they can be kept in check, someone has a much better chance of making it through acute withdrawal and moving forward with their recovery. Aside from medications to calm the hyperactive symptoms, some treatments can be used to help the body handle the symptoms to the best of its ability. Sleep aids, IV fluids, and vitamin supplements can possibly reduce the symptoms, and they may help speed up the body’s recovery.

4. Mental Health Concerns

For many people withdrawing from alcohol, depression and anxiety are increased significantly both during and especially after, one stops drinking suddenly. Without psychiatric support, dangerous circumstances are created not only for someone’s chances of recovery but often to their mental health and maybe even their life as well.

A long time drinker has typically used alcohol as a coping mechanism for smothering unwanted feelings and emotions, even if this was not the reason they initially began drinking. Once that is taken away and there can be a massive increase in baseline anxiety and depression coupled with the possible delirium from quitting alcohol cold turkey, the stage is set for dangerous outcomes. Suicide, self-harm, and harming others are very real dangers that are frequently associated with addiction.

As for the long term mental health of a recovering alcoholic, there is often a period known as post-acute withdrawal syndrome where symptoms will linger for many months. Without medication and counseling to manage this, the quality of life of a recovering addict will certainly decline and there is also an increased risk of relapse.

5. Lack of Support and Continuing Care

Lasting recovery requires support. This could be in the form of family, friends, others in recovery themselves, or trained treatment providers. Either way, quitting alcohol cold turkey is a lonely method and is unlikely to produce positive or long term results. The care and support of others in recovery, doctors, psychiatrists, therapists, caseworkers, and support groups can make all the difference in the world.

Support while going through withdrawal is crucial to success. Aside from the direct risks, the first few days of detox pose the highest risk of relapse by far. Someone who is going the cold turkey route will probably be alone and will definitely be miserable. The prospect of ending the discomfort with just a single drink may look more and more appealing as the alcohol withdrawal symptoms intensify.

Alternatives To Stopping Cold Turkey

There are many less painful and more effective methods for detoxing from alcohol. There is the taper method, where someone drinks less and less alcohol over a time to minimize the symptoms. This method, while being less painful, has very low chances of success and often leads back into heavy drinking. Another much more effective method is entering an alcohol treatment and detox center.

Facilities that treat addiction on a daily basis often have very wide-ranging connections with the recovery community at large. This can benefit a recovering alcoholic in the form of referrals for continuing care as well as acting as a liaison for healthcare, employment, or housing programs. For example, after a detox program, someone may be referred to an inpatient or outpatient treatment program, followed by a sober living facility. These benefits and many more would have been impossible if someone had not reached out for help.

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