The Dangers of Quitting Alcohol Cold Turkey

Safe Alcohol Withdrawal: A Path to Recovery

Navigating Alcohol Withdrawal: Safety and Support

If you’re wondering what happens when you drink alcohol every day and then stop, this article will help you understand. We’ll cover questions including ‘Can an alcoholic just stop drinking?’ and ‘Can you die from alcohol withdrawal?’.

First, we’ll look at what happens when you stop drinking cold turkey and what symptoms you can expect when you go through alcohol withdrawal. We’ll look at some of the more common symptoms, as well as more severe ones such as delirium tremens.

This article will also outline the withdrawal timeline and post-acute withdrawal syndrome, before examining some of the benefits of quitting alcohol and top tips on how to go about it. It wraps up by looking at how to safely treat alcohol withdrawal symptoms and signposts on where to go from here if you need help. 

Executive Summary

  1. 8% of males and 5% of females in the UK report drinking every day
  2. Alcohol-specific deaths in the UK are currently 27.4% higher than pre-pandemic levels 
  3. Symptoms associated with alcohol withdrawal include nausea, headaches, shivering, irritability and intense cravings
  4. One of the most severe symptoms of alcohol withdrawal is delirium tremens (DT), which affects around 3 – 5% of people going through withdrawal 
  5. Symptoms of delirium tremens include hallucinations, seizures and high blood pressure
  6. Alcohol withdrawal symptoms typically start by eight hours after your last drink and peak between 24 and 72 hours 
  7. Some people experience post-acute withdrawal syndrome, this longer withdrawal phase can last up to two years
  8. Quitting alcohol can improve your health, sleep quality and finances 
  9. While on the road to recovery, you can support yourself by getting new interests, establishing boundaries and seeking support 
  10. The best way to get through alcohol withdrawal is a medically-assisted detox
  11. Afterwards, support such as therapy and peer groups can help uncover the underlying causes of addiction 

What Happens When You Stop Drinking Alcohol Cold Turkey?

Alcohol consumption in the UK is common, as is problem drinking and binge drinking. In the UK, 8% of males and 5% of females report drinking alcohol almost every day.

There are some signs that this type of problem drinking is on the rise too. For example, while the rate of alcohol-specific deaths in the UK has remained stable between 2012-2019, there has been a statistically significant increase since the pandemic. The latest data attributed 9,641 deaths to an alcohol-specific cause, which is 27.4% higher than in 2019. 

Given the concerns around alcohol levels, it makes sense that more people, including frequent drinks, are looking at ways to quit alcohol. But have you ever wondered what happens when you drink alcohol every day and then stop abruptly? This is known as quitting alcohol ‘cold turkey’ and it can be potentially dangerous and in some cases life-threatening. 

Research has found that around half of people with alcohol use disorder who suddenly stop or cease drinking experience alcohol withdrawal syndrome. This syndrome, which happens due to overactivity of the central and autonomic nervous systems, can result in tremors, insomnia, sickness, hallucinations and anxiety. Left untreated, it can progress to seizures, delirium tremens and even death.

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Symptoms of Alcohol Withdrawal 

The extent to which a person experiences alcohol withdrawal symptoms will depend on several factors including their general health and for how long, and to what extent, they have been drinking alcohol. 

Everyone will experience withdrawal symptoms differently and, as such, they can vary from mildly unpleasant to severe and life-threatening. 

Here are some of the withdrawal symptoms you could experience when you stop drinking alcohol. 

Physical Symptoms 

  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Headaches
  • Sweating
  • Shaking
  • Shivering
  • Stomach pain
  • Lethargy 
  • High temperature 
  • Chills
  • Tremors 
  • Irregular/increased heart rate
  • Decreased appetite
  • Insomnia

Psychological Symptoms 

  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Mood swings
  • Confusion
  • Irritability and agitation
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Intense cravings for alcohol
  • Unpleasant, vivid dreams

Other Dangerous Side Effects of Alcohol Withdrawal

One of the most severe symptoms that can happen in alcohol withdrawal is delirium tremens (DT). Research has found delirium tremens happen to about 3 – 5% of people going through alcohol withdrawal. 

Even though they are fairly uncommon, it’s important to recognise the signs, as it can be fatal. Delirium tremens typically happen as early as 48 hours after abruptly stopping alcohol in those who have chronically abused alcohol and can last up to 5 days. Symptoms include: 

  1. Disorientation 
  2. Hallucinations 
  3. Seizures 
  4. Fever
  5. High blood pressure 

Alcohol Withdrawal Timeline

There is no set time frame for alcohol withdrawal and the details will vary between individuals. However, it is useful to have a rough idea of what to expect when you decide to stop drinking alcohol. 

Typically, the first withdrawal symptoms will happen within eight hours since you last consume alcohol and will peak somewhere between 24 and 72 hours. 

Early symptoms might start off mild, such as nausea or a headache, and then you’ll often experience the onset of alcohol cravings which can become quite intense. 

After around 48 – 72 hours, the symptoms should start to decrease in intensity as your body relearns how to cope and function without alcohol. All in all, you can expect the process to take up to about a week from the last drink you had. 

What Is Post-acute Withdrawal Syndrome (Paws)?

Alcohol withdrawal can be broken down into two stages. The first stage is known as the acute stage, which is when you will typically experience withdrawal symptoms. However, some people who are withdrawing from alcohol can experience a longer withdrawal phase, which is called post-acute withdrawal syndrome (PAWS). 

Typically people who experience PAWs have fewer physical symptoms but experience psychological symptoms instead. These could include disturbed sleep, poor focus, lethargy, anxiety and mood swings. 

PAWS happens as your brain chemistry continues to relearn how to function without alcohol. As this improves, you should start to feel better. While recovery from PAWS can be an up-and-down process, you can expect your symptoms to gradually decline over time.

So how long do PAWS last? It can last for up to two years, however, once you’ve been in recovery for some time, you’ll find that the onset of symptoms doesn’t last as long and the stretches between the symptoms increase. 

cold turkey alcohol

Is Quitting Cold Turkey Ever Successful?

Can an alcoholic just stop drinking? It’s understandable why some people would prefer to quit this way. It sounds like an instant fix; like the quickest way to reach recovery. Perhaps you have even heard stories from friends about how they successfully quit alcohol cold turkey. However, if you’ve got an alcohol abuse problem, it’s not a good idea. 

Alcohol withdrawal can be intense, uncomfortable and dangerous. While all withdrawal symptoms can be unpleasant to endure, there is the risk of severe symptoms too which can put your life at risk. 

So if you’re wondering ‘Can you die from alcohol withdrawal?’ the answer is yes. Because of this, it is best to withdraw from alcohol with support, ideally in a medical setting with experienced professionals on hand to help ease you through the process and maximise your chances of recovery. 

Benefits and Tips for Quitting Alcohol

When it comes to the benefits of quitting drinking, there are plenty. Here are just a few reasons why quitting alcohol might be the best thing you do.

  • Improve health: Quitting alcohol lowers your risk of heart disease, stroke, high blood pressure, liver disease, sexual dysfunction and gut problems.  
  • Better sleep: It’s well documented in research that alcohol consumption has a negative impact on the quality of sleep. Removing alcohol could result in a better night of sleep, which over time has a huge number of benefits from memory consolidation to reducing your stress levels. 
  • Stay hydrated: Alcohol dehydrates you, cut it out and you’ll find you stay hydrated which will help you to feel more energetic, improve skin health and can resolve ongoing health issues like headaches. 
  • Save money: Alcohol is expensive. Even if you buy it from the supermarket and consume it at home, doing so regularly soon adds up. Quitting alcohol means you can use that money for other things, such as hobbies, experiences or holidays. 
  • Some useful tools to help you in your journey to recovery include:
  • Develop new interests: If alcohol, and the socialising that went with it, previously monopolised your time you will find yourself with a vacuum to fill. Find ways to fill that time that feel good to you – this could be starting a new hobby, getting into exercise, taking a class or spending more quality time with friends and family. 
  • Establish boundaries: If alcohol has been a big part of your life, you might have weak boundaries around it. Friends who are used to you drinking might offer you a drink and some people might even try and tempt you when you say no. You’ll need to develop strong boundaries to combat these situations. This may even involve removing yourself entirely from such situations for a while. 
  • Get help: Don’t be afraid to ask for help, it’s vital when you’re in recovery. This could involve joining a group, like Alcoholics Anonymous or reaching out to friends, family or professionals such as therapists for support when you need it. 

How to Safely Treat Alcohol Withdrawal Symptoms

A medically-assisted detox can help you effectively beat your addiction and make withdrawal as comfortable as possible. Not only will this improve your overall experience of quitting, but it will also maximise your chances of making a full recovery. 

Alcohol detox usually takes place at a residential rehab where experienced professionals offer 24/7 care to support you through this challenging process. As well as providing psychological support, they can administer medications to help manage your symptoms and reduce your discomfort. 

Once you have physically detoxed, or during this process if you feel up to it, you will typically stay on and engage with a range of therapies aimed at addressing the underlying causes of your alcohol addiction. 

Therapy, such as cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), along with peer support and holistic treatments can help you progress through this stage of recovery. You should leave your inpatient treatment physically stable and armed with a toolbox to help you deal with triggers in the future. 

However, recovery from alcohol addiction is an ongoing process so you will want to pick a program which includes a robust and lengthy aftercare package to help support you as you reintegrate into your daily life afterwards. 

Reaching Out

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Reach Out Today

If you, or someone you care about, found that what happens when you drink alcohol every day and then stop is you develop symptoms of alcohol withdrawal, it could be a sign that you have an alcohol dependency problem. 

If you’re concerned, it’s important to reach out for some support. With the right help, it is possible to get better and make a full recovery. If you’d like to find out more, please contact our friendly team on +353 41 214 5142.

FAQs 

What Does Cold Turkey Mean?

Quitting alcohol cold turkey means stopping it abruptly. This can cause intense withdrawal symptoms which can be difficult to manage and it can also be dangerous and even fatal. 

Is It Harmful to Suddenly Stop Drinking?

Quitting drinking cold turkey can cause intense withdrawal symptoms and can be dangerous. Symptoms can range from mild to fatal and could include seizures and hallucinations. 

Can a Person Stop Drinking by Themselves?

If someone has an alcohol addiction or dependence, it is inadvisable to stop drinking without support. Doing so can not only be challenging, but it can also be dangerous, and, in some cases, fatal.

What Is the Most Serious Withdrawal Symptom Associated with Alcoholism?

One of the most severe symptoms associated with alcohol withdrawal is delirium tremens (DT), which can result in death. Symptoms include hallucinations, seizures and high blood pressure. 

References

  1. Health Survey for England, 2019: Data tables
  2. Alcohol-specific deaths in the UK: registered in 2021
  3. Alcohol Withdrawal Syndrome: Outpatient Management
  4. Alcohol-related liver disease
  5. Mark S. Allen, PhD , Emma E. Walter, PhD, Health-Related Lifestyle Factors and Sexual Dysfunction: A Meta-Analysis of Population-Based Research, The Journal of Sexual Medicine, Volume 15, Issue 4, April 2018, Pages 458–475, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jsxm.2018.02.008
  6. Bishehsari F, Magno E, Swanson G, Desai V, Voigt RM, Forsyth CB, Keshavarzian A. Alcohol and Gut-Derived Inflammation. Alcohol Res. 2017;38(2):163-171. PMID: 28988571; PMCID: PMC5513683.
  7. Alcohol and Sleep I: Effects on Normal Sleep

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