- When the body develops a dependence on a substance, the individual cannot stop taking that substance without experiencing withdrawal symptoms. The intensity and duration of withdrawal symptoms will vary depending on a variety of factors, including the drug in question, the severity of the addiction, and the individual’s biological makeup.
- The withdrawal symptoms of some substances are so uncomfortable or disorienting that doctors recommend tapering off them. For other substances though, it is possible to quit cold turkey without experiencing any serious negative side effects. This article will compare and contrast going cold turkey and tapering off drugs, as well as when each method is most appropriate.
Cold Turkey: When Is It Okay or Recommended?
- Quitting something “cold turkey” simply means to stop using it all at once without any kind of adjustment period. The greatest benefit of quitting a substance using the cold-turkey method is that it allows the individual to focus on leading a life of sobriety immediately instead of merely continuing the addiction in smaller doses like the tapering off method does; however, it is dangerous to quit certain drugs cold turkey as doing so could result in life-threatening withdrawal symptoms.
- Additionally, individuals who quit a substance cold turkey are at a high risk of relapse because the cravings are often intense and the withdrawal period can be incredibly uncomfortable. Drugs that are reasonably safe to quit cold turkey include marijuana and nicotine.
- When it comes to smoking, research has actually indicated that quitting cold turkey is the most effective way to do so. According to a study published in the Annals of Internal Medicine, 49 percent of subjects who quit smoking abruptly were still nicotine-free one month later, and 22 percent of them remained that way six months later, whereas just 39 percent of the subjects who had quit gradually were still smoke-free at the one-month mark, and just 15 percent of them remained that way at the six-month mark.
- Two other drugs that are possible to quit cold turkey without experiencing intense physical withdrawal symptoms are ecstasy and LSD; however, these drugs can have powerful psychological withdrawal symptoms, and doctors recommend only quitting them with the help of healthcare professionals and addiction experts.
How Does Cold Turkey Affect Withdrawal?
- Quitting a substance cold turkey will almost always result in an uncomfortable withdrawal period; however, for most drugs, the worst of the withdrawal symptoms typically subside within one week. For that reason, some people actually prefer quitting certain drugs abruptly. By tapering off the substance, they believe they are merely prolonging less intense withdrawal symptoms for weeks or even months.
- It is important to remember that it can be dangerous to quit some substances cold turkey, especially outside of a medical detox facility and away from qualified medical professionals. For some drugs, the best way to stop using them is by tapering off them slowly.
Tapering Off: When Is It Okay or Recommended?
Individuals typically develop a physical dependence on a substance before they become addicted to it. That means the body adjusts to life with the substance in its system, and quitting abruptly could result in a painful physical reaction as the major organ systems try to readjust to life without it. Drugs that are dangerous to quit abruptly include Opioids, Barbiturates, Benzodiazepines, Methamphetamine.
- Even people who take opioids, barbiturates, or benzodiazepines as prescribed can develop a dependence on them; however, they have the guidance of a doctor who will help them taper off their medication slowly. In addition, doctors typically try to prescribe highly addictive drugs like benzodiazepines for short periods of time to minimize the risk of developing dependence, according to the National Institute of Mental Health.
- The problem with tapering off illegal drugs like heroin and methamphetamine is that many individuals do so without the guidance of a doctor. If they do not reduce their dosage by the correct amount gradually, their bodies could go into withdrawal, which might prompt them to use again at their once regular dose, putting them at risk of overdose. Since quitting drugs like heroin abruptly can prompt painful withdrawal symptoms but tapering is not ideal, detox facilities offer an alternative to tapering called opioid replacement therapy (ORT).
- ORT is similar to tapering in that it continuously supplies the body with small amounts of substances that are similar to heroin to reduce withdrawal symptoms and cravings. For example, the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) reports that methadone, a slow-acting opioid agonist, is a popular medication for treating heroin addiction.
- Once individuals who were addicted to heroin enter a stable recovery period with the help of methadone, doctors will then taper them off the methadone. According to the US Department of Veteran Affairs, individuals should taper off methadone by reducing their dosage by 20-50 percent every day until they are taking 30 mg per day. Then, they should decrease the dose by 5 mg every 3-5 days until they are taking 10 mg per day. Finally, they should decrease the dose by 2.5 mg every 3-5 days.
How Does Tapering Off Affect Withdrawal?
The two main purposes of tapering off a substance are to reduce any uncomfortable withdrawal symptoms and to prevent life-threatening complications from arising. It is still possible to experience some withdrawal symptoms when tapering off a substance, but they are usually mild. The particular symptoms depend on the drug in question and the extent of the addiction. Some of the most common symptoms of withdrawal that occur during tapering off any substance include headache and anxiety.
Kicking an Addiction
According to NIDA, illicit drug use is increasing around the country, and an estimated 9.4 percent of the population over the age of 12 admitted to using an illegal drug in a 30-day period in 2013. Addiction is a disease though, and there is no shame in seeking treatment. Tapering off drugs under the guidance of doctor and relying on replacement therapy have proven to be two successful ways to kick an addiction. Quitting cold turkey works for certain individuals in some scenarios as well, but quitting in a medical detox facility is the safest way to do so.