Quit Smoking Cold Turkey: The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly

If you've ever tried to quit smoking cold turkey, you may already know everything you need to know about this method.  Cold turkey.  It's fine for a late night Thanksgiving snack, but as a quit smoking method, most people find it pretty challenging.  If you're not already familiar with the phrase, to 'quit smoking cold turkey' is basically to quit all at once without tapering or using any aids to alleviate withdrawal symptoms. 

If you've been around for awhile, you almost certainly know someone who has tried to quit cold turkey, if you haven't tried it yourself. When I was growing up we had a family friend who claimed that she 'just threw those nasty things away one day, and never had another one.' She was an older lady who had started smoking in a different era, when it was considered glamorous. When it became clear that smoking is more 'cancerous' than 'glamorous,' she decided to give it up. She also confessed that she continued to have cravings, even 17+ years after quitting.

Effectiveness

The long term success rate for people who quit smoking cold turkey is around 5%.  Of course, this includes people like our family friend, who, although she managed to refrain from smoking for 17+ years, continued to have ongoing cravings for cigarettes.  She certainly deserves credit for her accomplishment, to be sure, but for most of us a better measure of success would include the extent to which the person is able to eliminate the desire to smoke, and become a happy and comfortable ex-smoker, not someone who continues to struggle with cravings for cigarettes on a daily basis.

Side Effects

There are no 'side effects' per se when you quit smoking cold turkey, but you can expect significant withdrawal symptoms from nicotine.  In other words, unlike quit smoking drugs, or patches or nicotine gum, there aren't any negative effects from the method of quitting.  However, when you stop smoking cold turkey, you're much more likely to experience significant nicotine withdrawal symptoms.

Nicotine withdrawal symptoms can include:

Headaches

Anxiety

Itchiness

Insomnia

Restlessness

Muscle cramps

Fatigue

Cotton mouth

Heart palpitations

Drowsiness

Dry/sore throat

Poor concentration

Tremors

Constipation

Digestive Problems

Irritability

Hunger

Dizziness

Sensitivity

Thirst

 etc.

[More on nicotine withdrawal coming soon...]

Pros and Cons

What are the pros and cons of trying to quit smoking cold turkey?

There are pros and cons to quitting cold turkey, and although I think the 'cons' outweigh the 'pros' for this method, if you've never tried to quit cold turkey, (or if you haven't yet tried to quit at all), you may consider it, simply because you'll probably learn a lot about yourself and your habit during the process.

Pros

  • It's free, with no 'side effects' from the quitting method (although you can expect significant withdrawal symptoms).

  • It has a 5% success rate, so it's not hopeless - 5 out of 100 people do manage to quit this way (although there is no way to tell how many of them actually eliminate the urge to smoke).

  • If you have never tried to quit smoking cold turkey, it will likely be a learning experience.  Even if you don't successfully quit using this method, you may learn things about yourself and your habit that will help you quit on a future attempt.

Cons

  • A 5% success rate means a 95% failure rate - there are many things you can try besides cold turkey quitting to improve your chances of success.

  • When you quit smoking cold turkey, you have to deal with unmitigated physical withdrawal symptoms, which can be a significant barrier to success.

  • This method does nothing to help you with the psychological dependence on smoking.  While it's true that the physical addiction will eventually take care of itself, if you don't address the psychological dependence, it can continue to plague you long after you quit.

My Recommendations

Generally speaking, I don't recommend that folks try to quit smoking cold turkey.  The success rate is quite low, the physical withdrawal symptoms are unpleasant, and there is a risk of never really eliminating your desire to smoke, even if you manage to refrain from smoking for a long time.  Most alternative methods to quit smoking help deal with one or more of these issues, which improves your chances for success.

That said, if you are brand new to the idea of quitting, and you've never tried to quit, you may want to try to quit smoking cold turkey, at least as an experiment.  There is a fair amount of research that shows that most people make several attempts to quit before they are successful.  That may be partly because people often try several methods before they find one that is 'right' for them.  However, in my experience, it is also true that most folks learn something about themselves and their habit with every attempt, increasing their odds for the next try. 

So if you've never tried to quit before, you could start by trying cold turkey.  Who knows, you might be one of the 5% that is successful with this method.  Alternatively, even if you've never tried to quit before, you could try to stack the odds in your favor by combining one or more techniques or products with a better success rate.

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