Cold turkey describes the abrupt cessation of a substance after physical dependence has been established and the resulting unpleasant (and sometimes life-threatening) experience. It is opposed to gradually easing the process through reduction over time (tapering) or by using replacement medication; however, there are some cases in which going cold turkey may be preferred since tapering can take more self-discipline. It is a practice which is less recommended than tapering because stopping one's extended usage abruptly can result in unpleasant withdrawal symptoms, which can sometimes be life-threatening.
For example, the sudden discontinuation of alcohol, benzodiazepines, and barbiturates can result in fatal seizures, delirium tremens, and death. In the case of dependence upon certain drugs, including opiates such as heroin, going cold turkey may be extremely unpleasant but less dangerous (unless one has a pre-existing condition).
In some cases the cold turkey method can be preferred by individuals or even more effective than tapering for some substances. For example, studies show that the cold turkey method of tobacco cessation is more likely to be effective for individuals looking to quit smoking. In other cases, cold turkey can be a result of lack of access or a sense of personal trial, which may also motivate someone to deal with withdrawal rather than tapering or seeking alternatives.
- Canadian Guideline for Safe and Effective Use of Opioids for Chronic Non-Cancer Pain - Appendix B-6: Benzodiazepine Tapering | http://nationalpaincentre.mcmaster.ca/opioid/cgop_b_app_b06.html
- A fatal case of benzodiazepine withdrawal. (PubMed.gov / NCBI) | http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19465812
- Opiate withdrawal. Medline Plus — NIH.
- Gradual Versus Abrupt Smoking Cessation: A Randomized, Controlled Noninferiority Trial | http://annals.org/article.aspx?articleid=2501853