Quitting smoking cold turkey means stopping smoking – but it could also mean drinking, drug-taking – immediately, without any preparation, and without the use of any quit-smoking aids like patches, gum or medication. It is one of the oldest, if not the first, smoking cessation method.
For smokers, going cold turkey means smoking one day and not smoking the next. Some succeed. Others do not. Now that there are NRTs and pills to help with withdrawals and cravings unassisted cessation is not as popular. Only many people still try with varying results.
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Cold Turkey Explained
Going “cold turkey” sounds very easy: a person stops doing something they do not want to anymore. It does not involve seeing a doctor, signing up for NRT, or have any negative health effects.
But in the context of giving up something as addictive as nicotine, this method is not as easy as it sounds. Stopping smoking all at once requires willpower, which is the enemy of addiction.
Quitting nicotine, or any drug for that matter is difficult because of withdrawal. When the body stops receiving nicotine from cigarettes, smokers experience withdrawal symptoms like:
- Nicotine cravings
- Weight gain
The frequency and intensity of these symptoms are what cause most quit attempts to fail. Without the use of nicotine replacement aids like patches or gum, there is not much help for smokers who take the total abstinence route.
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, like vape juices and e-liquids that makes them addictive, and smokers can experience a withdrawal period similar to that experienced by users of any other drug.
Smokers should have at least some kind of plan for any sudden quit attempt.
Anyone thinking about making an abrupt-stop as opposed to a gradual-stop (weaning off method), or using NRTs to quit, should:
- Know what kind of smoker they are: Someone who is a light, or intermittent smoker (anyone who smokes less than 10 cigarettes/day or who is a “social” smoker) may benefit more from cutting off smoking entirely than someone who is a heavy smoker, and may experience harder-to-control withdrawal symptoms if they stop all of a sudden.
- Make a personalized quit plan: Having a plan in place can make it easier to deal with sudden cravings, instead of having to waste time thinking about the best ways to deal with withdrawal.
- Write down all the benefits of quitting: Have this list ready whenever cravings start. The good thing about nicotine urges is that they do not last long, maybe ten to fifteen minutes and do not impact overall health. In that time, read over all the good things about not smoking: better health, improved physical activity, saving money, etc.
- Use friends and loved ones: Quitting smoking can be a lonely fight for a smoker. Being surrounded by a support system that listens and can help stop relapses, or prevent a smoker from giving in to their urges.
Does Going Cold Turkey Work?
There is evidence to show quitting nicotine abruptly is useful, and there are studies that say it is not, or at least anywhere between 5-10% effective. It is not impossible to quit smoking cold turkey, but it may be harder, as the evidence suggests.
There is even debate as to the definition of the term. The above study out of Oxford University that demonstrated the worth of quitting cold turkey was controversial for a few reasons:
- Researchers divided smokers into two groups – an abrupt-cessation group and a gradual-cessation group – however, “both groups received behavioral support from nurses and used nicotine replacement before and after quit day.”
- The fact that even the “abrupt-cessation group” received nicotine patches, and counseling, flies in the face of the traditional understanding of what abrupt-cessation means.
- The most accepted meaning, according to Dr. J. Taylor Hays, the head of the Nicotine Dependence Center at the Mayo Clinic, of stopping right away is “to quit abruptly with no treatment support or replacement medications.”
Even though the media touted the study as proof that abrupt cessation works, there was a catch. The catch was that smokers did receive some assistance in quitting, unlike, in the past when quitting with willpower alone meant using no help at all.
Choosing What Works Best
Quitting tobacco without any help has become an outlier among the other ways to quit smoking. It does not have any negative health effects, but it may not be so effective. In a comparative study looking at the most effective quitting methods, “willpower” scored as low as e-cigarettes and non-nicotine drugs in overall effectiveness.
The same study found that a combination of nicotine replacement therapy, the prescription medication Champix, and counseling was the method most likely to help people quit. Even though the Oxford study’s findings were called into question, one thing it did discover was that people who opted to quit gradually, instead of stopping right away, were less likely to succeed in remaining abstinent.
So maybe willpower alone does have a role to play in helping people stay off cigarettes. The truth is though that many people have stopped smoking cold turkey. Quitting smoking is a challenge in itself. Stopping without any help or treatment is even more of a challenge. It is hard, but not impossible.