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"Cold turkey" refers to 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. The term comes from the piloerection or "goose bumps" that occurs with abrupt withdrawal from opioids, which resembles the skin of a plucked refrigerated turkey.[1][2]

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.[3]

In the case of opioid withdrawal, going "cold turkey" is extremely unpleasant but less dangerous.[4][2] Life-threatening issues are unlikely unless one has a pre-existing medical condition.[2]

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),[5][6] Joel Spitzer and John R. Polito (smoking cessation educators)[7] and Allen Carr (who founded Easyway during the early 1980s)[8] are cold turkey plans.


An early printed use of the term from 1920:

Some addicts voluntarily stop taking opiates and "suffer it out" as they express it without medical assistance, a process which in their slang is called taking "cold turkey"...


Another early printed use of the term in the media to refer to drug withdrawal occurred in the Daily Colonist in British Columbia in 1921:

Perhaps the most pitiful figures who have appeared before Dr. Carleton Simon ... are those who voluntarily surrender themselves. When they go before him, that are given what is called the 'cold turkey' treatment.


The phrase "taking cold turkey" has also been reported during the 1920s as slang for pleading guilty.[11]

The term is later seen in the 1947 novel I, The Jury' by Mickey Spillane:

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.

On February 26,1951 Time magazine article "High & Light" used the phrase, stating:

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.

In early drug slang, the term "going cold turkey" was referred to suddenly and totally stopping drugs. The term is now used in general slang with the broader meaning of stopping any habit or practice suddenly.[citation needed]

There are several explanations of the phrase's origin:

  • The "goose bumps" (piloerection) that occurs with sudden discontinuation in persons dependent on opioids, frequently persons addicted to heroin.[1][2] Similarly the term "kick the habit" alludes to the muscle spasms that also occur.[1]
  • A narrowing of the meaning "suddenly or without preparation", from cold turkey being a dish that requires little preparation; originally used for heroin addicts.[12]
  • From the American phrase talk turkey meaning "to speak bluntly with little preparation".[13]

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ a b c Hales, Robert E.; Yudofsky, Stuart C.; Roberts, Laura Weiss (2014). The American Psychiatric Publishing Textbook of Psychiatry, Sixth Edition. American Psychiatric Publishing. p. 779. ISBN 9781585624447.
  2. ^ a b c d Ghodse, Hamid (2010). Ghodse's Drugs and Addictive Behaviour: A Guide to Treatment. Cambridge University Press. p. 77. ISBN 9781139485678.
  3. ^ Hughes, John R. (2009). "Alcohol withdrawal seizures". Epilepsy & Behavior. 15 (2): 92–7. doi:10.1016/j.yebeh.2009.02.037. PMID 19249388.
  4. ^ Opiate withdrawal. Medline Plus — NIH.
  5. ^ "New book details history of LLU bringing 'Health to the People'". Loma Linda University. March 31, 2008. Retrieved May 28, 2010.
  6. ^ McFarland, J. Wayne; Folkenberg, Elman J. (1964). "The Five-Day Plan to Quit Smoking" (PDF). University Health Services, University of Wisconsin. Archived from the original (PDF) on June 10, 2010. Retrieved May 22, 2010.
  7. ^ "WhyQuit". WhyQuit. Retrieved May 22, 2010.
  8. ^ "Allen Carr Worldwide". Allen Carr. Retrieved May 22, 2010.
  9. ^ The Narcotic Drug Problem Arthur D. Greenfield. December 1920. Monthly Bulletin of the Department of Health in the City of New York, Volume 10
  10. ^ Movers and Shakers: A Chronology of Words that Shaped Our Age, by John Ayto
  11. ^ Statistical Report. New York (N.Y.). Police Dept. Page 192. 1924.
  12. ^ "Cold turkey" in the Online Etymology Dictionary.
  13. ^ "cold turkey" definition,