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Why Cold Turkey Detox Isn’t Safe


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Medically Reviewed by Dr. Mohammed Saeed, MD.

Should anyone attempt to detox from drugs or alcohol at home without any medical supervision? The short answer is no.

When Jack decided to stop drinking after 30+ years, he was drinking between six and eight drinks each day. He experienced intense cravings every morning. After his wife approached the family doctor with her concerns, Jack, surprisingly, agreed to an assessment at a nearby treatment center. He received a diagnosis of late-stage alcoholism and was advised to go to the hospital to manage his withdrawal process. He refused. Instead, he decided to stop drinking without anyone’s help.

By 11 p.m. that evening, Jack’s wife found him in bed, barely conscious, delirious, covered in sweat, and experiencing hallucinations. She phoned 911 and Jack ended up in the emergency room. Once his condition was stabilized, three days later, he was transported to a 90-day treatment facility. He was lucky to live through this experience.

Not everyone has a case as severe as Jack. Still, there’s no reason to suffer in silence without medical supervision when detoxing. Even mild symptoms of anxiety and irritability can be lessened with medical supervision and guidance. Medical professionals with experience in addiction recovery can predict detox symptoms and severity.

Simply put, there are two main problems with detoxing at home: medical complications and a lack of physical and emotional support.

What is Drug or Alcohol Detox?

Detox is the initial period of time after a substance dependent person, diagnosed with a substance use disorder, quits using drugs or alcohol. The detoxification process varies in terms of symptoms and timeline depending on a number of medical factors, like the person’s length of use and the type of substance.

Different substances create different detox experiences. Alcohol, for instance, is a depressive. If you chronically use alcohol for years, your body will compensate with increased function in the nervous system. When alcohol levels decline, your body can’t adjust quickly enough, and your heightened nervous system stays on alert.

Medical complications and symptoms of detoxification run the gamut from mild anxiety to hallucinations and delirium tremens.

Consider two detox situations:

  • Maybe you struggle with opioid dependence but only take a small dose daily. You think quitting without telling your doctor is a good idea, mainly because you’re embarrassed. However, if you’re over the age of 60 and you’ve been taking a painkiller daily for the past five years, your body could have a severe reaction. If there’s a heart condition in the mix, the situation could be fatal.
  • Younger individuals can also run into problems. A 30-year-old daily marijuana user trying to quit will likely experience everything from extreme irritability to depression and insomnia during detox. Because marijuana takes time to leave your system, these symptoms can hang around for several weeks to months.

Don’t attempt to predict your own detox experience. Instead, arrange an appointment with a medical doctor or other trained addiction recovery professional before starting detox at home. Your doctor needs to know the substance you are quitting, your overall health, age, length of use, and the average daily amount you normally use of the substance.

Admitting You Need Help

Recovering from addiction is rarely successful when someone goes it alone. This is particularly true of detox. Simply abstaining from a drug isn’t recovery. In fact, attempts to control your use of a substance without the right support is a symptom of addiction.

Having the right kind of support during addiction recovery is vital for success. For most people, this means creating a support team including addiction recovery treatment professionals, doctors, fellow people in recovery, and more.

Success rates for individuals detoxing at home without this support are dismal. Often, once detox symptoms begin, there’s an increased chance of substance use simply because it’s natural to take action when you feel uncomfortable, even if it means taking the drug you’re trying to quit.

True recovery means getting honest about your problem with a substance and asking for help. Bypassing this step rarely works.

Knowing, ahead of time, what to expect of detox and how to offset the discomfort with supportive folks around you is the best strategy.

If shame is keeping you from reaching out, remember how many people are impacted by addiction in the United States. Forty million people in America struggle with this same disease.

You’re not alone. More importantly, your recovery matters. Consider the impact your recovery could have on your family, friends, and even strangers who themselves need support to choose a better life.


Dr. Mohammed Saeed, MD.

Dr. Saeed is a psychiatry specialist with over 40 years of experience in the medical field. He received training in General Psychiatry at the University of Texas Medical Branch, where he was selected as the Medical Director of the Division of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. He currently serves as the medical director at Into Action Recovery Centers. Full Bio

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