Cold turkey

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For other uses, see Cold turkey (disambiguation).

"Cold turkey" describes the abrupt cessation of a substance dependence and the resulting unpleasant experience, as opposed to gradually easing the process through reduction over time or by using replacement medication.

Sudden withdrawal from drugs such as alcohol, benzodiazepines, and barbiturates can be extremely dangerous, leading to potentially fatal seizures. For long-term alcoholics, going cold turkey can cause life-threatening delirium tremens, rendering this an inappropriate method for breaking an alcohol addiction.[1]

In the case of opiate withdrawal, going "cold turkey" is unpleasant but less dangerous.[2] Life-threatening issues are unlikely unless one has a pre-existing medical condition.

Smoking cessation methods advanced by J. Wayne McFarland and Elman J. Folkenburg (an M.D. and a pastor who wrote their Five Day Plan ca. 1959),[3][4] Joel Spitzer and John R. Polito (smoking cessation educators)[5] and Allen Carr (who founded Easyway during the early 1980s)[6] are cold turkey plans.

In popular culture[edit]

Instances of the phrase's use in popular culture include:




  • John Lennon's song "Cold Turkey" (1969), about kicking heroin
  • Green Day's song "Hitchin' A Ride" (1997), main singer says "cold turkey's getting stale", in a hidden reference to the state[7]
  • Cage's song "This Place" (2013), wherein he sings: "I can't believe I made it out with so little damage/ Back then I thought cold turkey was a fuckin' sandwich"


An early printed use of the term in the mainstream media to refer to drug withdrawal occurred in a February 26, 1951 Time magazine article "High & Light":

There is one dimly hopeful side to the teenage dope problem. Unlike older people, few teenagers appear to take to drugs because of psychological troubles; youngsters usually start using narcotics either out of ignorance or the same reckless impulses which lead them to race hot rods. Though they are easier to wean, however, there are almost no facilities for taking care of them. On New York City's Rikers Island, youngsters have to endure the horrors of a sudden "cold turkey" cure or get none at all. Once released, many go right back to drugs again.

It had been previously used in this sense by Mickey Spillane in his novel I, The Jury: "Included was a medical record from the hospital when he had made her go cold turkey, which is dope-addict talk for an all-out cure."

There are several explanations of the phrase's origin:

  • A narrowing of the meaning "suddenly or without preparation", from cold turkey being a dish that requires little preparation; originally used for heroin addicts.[8]
  • From the American phrase talk turkey meaning "to speak bluntly with little preparation".[9]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Hughes, John R. (2009). "Alcohol withdrawal seizures". Epilepsy & Behavior. 15 (2): 92–7. doi:10.1016/j.yebeh.2009.02.037. PMID 19249388. 
  2. ^ Opiate withdrawal. Medline Plus — NIH.
  3. ^ "New book details history of LLU bringing 'Health to the People'". Loma Linda University. March 31, 2008. Retrieved May 28, 2010. 
  4. ^ McFarland, J. Wayne; Folkenberg, Elman J. (1964). "The Five-Day Plan to Quit Smoking" (PDF). University Health Services, University of Wisconsin. Retrieved May 22, 2010. 
  5. ^ "WhyQuit". WhyQuit. Retrieved May 22, 2010. 
  6. ^ "Allen Carr Worldwide". Allen Carr. Retrieved May 22, 2010. 
  7. ^ Green Day Song Hitchin' A Ride & common sense
  8. ^ "Cold turkey" in the Online Etymology Dictionary.
  9. ^ "cold turkey" definition,