Quit Smoking Cold Turkey: Long Term Success Or Short Lived Satisfaction?

Quitting cold turkey has the lowest rates for success among those who are looking to quit smoking for good.

cold turkey road sign with arrow

Of all the smoking cessation methods, the “cold turkey” method has the worst reputation. Many smokers hesitate to use this method at all, since it is known for causing withdrawal symptoms and sometimes intense cigarette cravings.

Despite this, most smokers who try to quit go cold turkey at some point. Success rates vary.

What is the Cold Turkey Method?

The cold turkey method, or “quitting cold turkey” as it is more commonly referred, simply means that someone tries to quit smoking using no cessation aids. Cessation aids are medications, devices, or methods to make quitting easier. Those who go cold turkey forgo these methods and try to stop smoking without using any replacement products.

What are the Benefits of the Cold Turkey Method?

Overall, healthcare professionals tend to like the cold turkey method. It promotes smokers to quit without replacing the habit with something else. Going gold turkey can also save quitters money, as they won’t have to worry about buying nicotine replacement items or cigarettes.

What are the Downsides of the Cold Turkey Method?

Despite the apparent benefits in terms of health, there are several reasons quitting cold turkey is not the right option for many smokers.

One of the main issues with quitting cold turkey is that cutting off all access to nicotine at once can lead to intense withdrawal symptoms. Nicotine is the substance found in tobacco products that makes them addictive, and smokers can experience a withdrawal period similar to that experienced by users of any other drug.

According to WebMD, cigarette withdrawal symptoms can include:

  • Lowered heart rate and blood pressure
  • Nausea
  • Constipation and/or diarrhea
  • Fatigue
  • Increase in hunger
  • Increased sugar cravings
  • Foggy brain/trouble concentrating
  • Intense tobacco or nicotine cravings
  • Headache
  • Irritability/short temper
  • Anxiety and/or depression
  • Insomnia

These symptoms will affect some more than others. The degree to which symptoms are experienced will depend largely on how heavy a smoker someone is before quitting. Those who do not smoke many cigarettes or who have not smoked very long may have a shorter or less intense withdrawal period than long-time and heavy smokers.

Most of these symptoms are not dangerous to one’s health, although if blood pressure or heart rate drops too low, issues might arise. Those who already have blood pressure or heart issues should consult with a physician before trying to quit.

Planning It Out

Withdrawal is going to happen. There is no getting around that. Symptoms of withdrawal can be managed, in both the short and the long term. Week one is usually the hardest for many smokers since this is when the physical dependence on nicotine is at the forefront. Initial withdrawal can begin in less than an hour after having a cigarette. In order to keep nicotine levels in the blood at what has become a ‘normal’ volume, the first withdrawal symptoms will be cravings for a cigarette. These cravings may seem constant, particularly over the first three days, but after that cravings slowly begin to decline.

Tips for working through cravings:

  • Drink water when cravings begin.
  • Use distraction methods.
  • Remember that the craving is short lived.
  • Breathe deeply and slowly.
  • Use logic to dismiss the demands of the craving.

Other common physical withdrawal symptoms include headache, dizziness, fatigue, cough, excessive mucous production, and stomach upset. Again, the first week should see the end of these symptoms, and many people find them to be a mild discomfort at worse. Most are symptoms of the body returning to normal and working to reverse the damage done by nicotine.

Most smokers who have tried to quit but failed tend to note that the psychological withdrawal symptoms to be far worse than the physical. Extreme mood swings, anxiety, anger, even depression, are all commonly reported. These emotional roller coasters work alongside the cravings and reinforce the idea that nicotine use is necessary to be ‘normal’, ‘calm’, or ‘happy’. Relapse becomes an easy option when rationalizing that just one cigarette is the only thing necessary to feel good again.

How Effective is Quitting Cold Turkey?

Overall, most people who attempt to quit smoking cold turkey will eventually begin smoking again, although some may at least cut down from their previous tobacco usage. This is in large part due to the withdrawal symptoms previously mentioned, but many also start smoking again due to social pressures and triggers. For instance, someone who smokes socially may be more likely to return to smoking after having “just one” while out with friends.

According to the American Cancer Society, it is hard to determine success rates for any given method. On average, those who try to quit smoking are only successful between four and seven percent of the time.

Other Smoking Cessation Aids

Due to the high failure rate for those who try to quit cold turkey, smoking cessation aids have been developed to help smokers quit. These have varying levels of success. Some of the most common types of cessation aids include:

  • Nicotine Replacement Therapy – This method includes patches, gums, and inhalers which contain nicotine. The theory is that users can eventually wean down from higher levels to lower levels until they no longer feel the need to smoke. Many smokers find these methods unsatisfying.
  • Prescription Medications – Several prescription medications have been developed to help smokers quit. Welbutrin is one of the most common, but there are others. Success rates with prescription drugs vary, and not all smokers have access to them. Those who do not have health insurance, for instance, may find that prescription aids are out of reach financially.
  • The “Weaning” Method – This method goes on the premise that smokers can slowly wean themselves off cigarettes. While this method is similar to nicotine replacement methods, it is much harder to control for those who are addicted to cigarettes. The lure of having “just one more” is often too much to resist.


More Information

To read more about the effects cigarette smoke has on the human body visit The Effects of Smoking.

For the complete guide to quitting smoking for good visit Quit Smoking for Good — The Best Quit Smoking Guide.

Check out more of our great articles:

• Nicotine Dependence and Freedom

Top 10 Tips and Tricks for Quitting

• Secondhand Smoke: Think Twice

• Support Your Quitter

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