Is quitting heroin cold turkey a good idea?

You’re likely aware of the “cold turkey” method advised by family and friends to “conquer any form of addiction”. You may have the older generation telling you it’s all about willpower and to “stop being weak”. With our modern-day knowledge of addiction, psychology and treatment, the cold turkey approach is left seeming ineffective, especially when it comes to heroin. In fact, the cold turkey method can potentially be life-threatening if used to overcome heroin addiction.

In today’s blog post, we aim to delve into the complexities that may arise when attempting to quit heroin cold turkey. We also offer avenues of support so you or your loved one can get the help needed to overcome heroin addiction.

Is quitting heroin cold turkey a good idea? - Man suffering after quitting heroin cold turkey

What exactly is “cold turkey”, and where did the phrase come from?

“Cold turkey” is a phrase that refers to quitting a habit or addiction abruptly and completely, without any gradual reduction or tapering off. It’s often used when quitting drugs, alcohol, or nicotine. When someone goes “cold turkey,” they stop using the substance all at once, which can lead to withdrawal symptoms and a challenging adjustment period.

So, where does the name come from? While the exact origin of the phrase is unclear, the theory that makes the most sense is its physiological origin.

This theory connects the phrase to the physical reactions that occur during withdrawal. Quitting certain substances, such as heroin, “cold turkey” can lead to symptoms like goosebumps, which resemble the bumpy texture of a plucked turkey’s skin. Similarly, the muscle spasms associated with withdrawal could be likened to a turkey’s jerky movements.

Reasons why you shouldn’t quit heroin cold turkey

While some individuals may successfully detox through the cold turkey method, it’s generally not recommended due to the potential risks and discomfort.

To illustrate this point vividly, let’s delve into the 1995 movie “The Basketball Diaries”, featuring a young Leonardo Dicaprio. In the movie, DiCaprio portrays Jim Carroll, a character deeply ensnared in heroin addiction. In this gripping narrative, we witness Jim’s close friend Reggie making a pivotal decision: he insists that Jim undergo a cold turkey detox.

Reason 1: The initial stages of cold turkey detox can put you and others at risk

Is quitting Heroin cold turkey a good idea? - Jim being aggressive

In the movie, Reggie tells Jim he needs to stay in the apartment to detox whilst taking away a wrap of heroin that Jim had just bought on the streets.

Herein lies the first problem; Reggie was instantly put in a situation where violence could occur. Jim was prepared to confront Reggie aggressively to retrieve the drug, endangering himself and those around him. Only after Reggie managed to subdue Jim and restore some calm did Jim admit his need for assistance. However, it’s crucial to recognise that not everyone in a similar situation might possess the same physical strength as Reggie did in the movie.

What if others cannot overpower and calm someone undergoing such a distressing experience?

Reason 2: Severe withdrawal symptoms

The second notable scene is where Jim is withdrawing from heroin over the watchful eye of Reggie. Jim is visibly uncomfortable, sweating, shaking and pleading to use heroin again. He states that he is in pain, sick, and needs his ‘medicine’.

Is quitting Heroin cold turkey a good idea - Jim having cravings

Is Jim lying here so he can go out, score heroin and use again?

It is highly likely as the physical heroin withdrawals bring some incredibly uncomfortable symptoms;

  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Shaking
  • Seizures

Without proper medical care, these symptoms can become dangerous, even life-threatening, but why is this?

Over time, regular use of heroin can lead to changes in the brain’s chemistry and the way neurons communicate with each other. When a person physically dependent on heroin suddenly stops using the drug, their brain and body go through a period of adjustment as they try to regain equilibrium without the presence of the drug. This is when the withdrawal symptoms start to kick in, including the potential for seizures.

Although seizures from heroin withdrawals are rare, they can still happen and can be life-threatening, especially if no one is around to help.

Although Reggie is a great friend, we highly doubt he has the skills or resources necessary to deal with Jim having a seizure.

Reason 3- Strong psychiatric symptoms

During heroin detox, it’s not only the physical symptoms that can cause harm to the individual and the people around them; it’s the psychological symptoms too.

Withdrawal from heroin can cause psychotic symptoms such as;

  • Paranoia
  • Delusions
  • Hallucinations
  • Disorganised thinking
  • Incoherence


In the movie, it’s clear that Jim is experiencing physical and psychological symptoms. Again, this is another dangerous situation, especially if Jim’s mind is projecting hallucinations so vividly that he perceives them as real. This leaves the door open for the threat of violence towards others around Jim and the potential of Jim hurting himself.

Reason 4- The risk of relapse is higher

After Jim goes through the detox stages, the withdrawal symptoms are over. He is able to make jokes with Reggie and, overall, seems healthier. It’s only when Reggie leaves Jim alone that all the hard work becomes undone.

Is quitting heroin cold turkey a good idea? - Money exchanged for drugs

Jim rifles through drawers, looking for cash so that he can buy heroin again. He is successful and leaves the apartment to seek another fix.

So, why did this happen? Detox seemed to be working out for Jim.

When it comes to quitting heroin cold turkey, there’s a big issue with not getting to the heart of why someone started using it in the first place. Many people turn to drugs as a solution for dealing with emotional pain, trauma, stress, or mental health issues. Stopping without better ways to handle challenges raises the chance of returning to old habits, unlike the lower risk of learning helpful ways to cope.

We also have to consider the social side of things. Opting for the cold turkey route on your own may mean missing out on the much-needed support you’d get from friends, family, or pros who know their stuff. The absence of that safety net can seriously increase the chance of falling back into old habits. As we saw in the movie, Jim’s self-control completely disappeared when Reggie left him unsupervised.

Although overcoming the initial withdrawal symptoms is a fantastic feat, it doesn’t mean you’re ‘cured’. In fact, it’s just the beginning of your journey towards recovery.

If going cold turkey isn’t advisable, then what is?

One of the safest ways to detox from drugs is Medication Assisted Treatment (MAT), commonly used by rehab centres. MAT combines medicine and therapy to ensure a secure detox process. This method supports sustained recovery and enhanced quality of life for those battling addiction. Engaging with a professional rehab centre, like Oasis Bradford, can provide the necessary support, monitoring, and resources for a successful journey towards sobriety.

What can UKAT provide for heroin detox?

At UKAT, we ensure your safety and comfort through a range of comprehensive measures. Although we can’t state that you won’t experience withdrawal symptoms from heroin detox, we can provide you with the resources that allow the most comfortable and safe experience. Our services include various forms of drug detoxification, including a programme specifically for heroin detox. Take a look at the offerings within our residential rehabilitation programme:

  • Expert monitoring
  • Medical support
  • Therapeutic counselling
  • Structured setting
  • An environment free from distractions
  • Continued post-treatment care

What comes next?

Engaging in drug rehabilitation equips you with the necessary tools and assistance to break free from the cycle of addiction. Don’t delay until circumstances worsen; reach out to Oasis Bradford today. Every day spent in the clutches of addiction is another day forfeited. Empower yourself to seize control of your life and initiate a constructive transformation for your future.