According to Peter Brown in his book The Love You Make, the song was written in a "creative outburst" following Lennon and Yoko Ono going "cold turkey" from their brief heroin addictions. However Lennon's personal assistant in the late 1970s Fred Seaman claimed otherwise, stating that Lennon confided in him that the song was actually about a severe case of food poisoning suffered by John and Yoko after eating Christmas leftovers "cold turkey". Lennon thought people would laugh at him if they knew the truth about the song's origin, so he said it was inspired by his recent heroin withdrawal. Brown states that Lennon presented the song to Paul McCartney as a potential single by The Beatles, as they were finishing recording for their Abbey Road album, but was refused and released it as a Plastic Ono Band single with sole writing credits to him.
"Cold Turkey" was the first song Lennon wrote for which he took sole credit; his previous compositions, including his first single release, "Give Peace a Chance", were attributed to the Lennon–McCartney partnership, although the credit for "Give Peace a Chance" was later changed to Lennon alone. It was recorded in Abbey Road Studio 2, and features Eric Clapton. There are other versions besides the single, several of which are acoustic, and a live version included on Live in New York City that features Ono adding vocalizations.
The single was released with a standard green Apple label, with the words "Play Loud" printed on the spindle plug of the UK pressing and above and beneath the spindle hole of the US pressing. This instruction would also appear on the labels of Lennon's next solo single, "Instant Karma!".
"Cold Turkey" rose to number 14 on the UK Singles Chart on 15 November 1969. On 22 November, "Cold Turkey" dropped to number 15, and on 25 November Lennon returned his MBE to Buckingham Palace saying "I am returning this MBE in protest against Britain's involvement in the Nigeria-Biafra thing, against our support of America in Vietnam, and against Cold Turkey slipping down the charts. With love, John Lennon of Bag."  In March 2005, Q magazine placed "Cold Turkey" at number 74 in its list of the 100 Greatest Guitar Tracks.