Quitting Smoking Cold Turkey: Pros, Cons and Other Options

Kristin Hall

Medically reviewed by Kristin Hall, FNP

Written by Our Editorial Team

Last updated 8/06/2020

From lowering your risk of developing cancer, heart disease and other medical conditions to helping you save money and improve your quality of life, there are numerous reasons to quit smoking. 

There are also numerous different ways to quit. One method of quitting that’s often particularly daunting is quitting cold turkey, meaning you’ll stop smoking cigarettes without using any other products to help you quit.

Quitting cold turkey isn’t for everyone. However, it’s a strategy that’s been used successfully by many people over the years. It’s also backed up by some scientific evidence showing that it’s a proven, if perhaps not highly effective, way to quit.

Below, we’ve explained how quitting cold turkey works, as well as the pros and cons of quitting cold turkey. We’ve also listed other options that you can use to quit, from nicotine replacement therapy (NRT) to medications that can make the process of giving up smoking easier. 

What Does Quitting “Cold Turkey” Mean?

There’s no precise definition for quitting cold turkey, but most people agree that it means quitting smoking all at once without tapering down your tobacco consumption or making use of products designed to make the process of quitting easier.

When you decide to quit cold turkey, you’ll stop smoking at a specific time. After this point, you’ll avoid smoking cigarettes or other tobacco products, all while also avoiding nicotine replacement therapy (NRT) products or smoking cessation medications.

This means that you won’t get any relief from nicotine cravings. Instead, you’ll need to use your own methods to make sure you aren’t tempted to smoke again. Doing this successfully isn’t an easy process — to quit cold turkey, you’ll need to be focused and mentally prepared. 

Does Quitting Cold Turkey Actually Work?

Most research shows that quitting cold turkey, without the use of nicotine replacement therapy (NRT) or smoking cessation medication, isn’t the most effective way to quit smoking. 

According to Truth Initiative, a nonprofit public health organization focused on ending tobacco use, only about three to five percent of people who try to quit cold turkey remain smoke-free for longer than six months.

Put another way, more than 95 percent of people who attempt to quit cold turkey don’t succeed, at least not in the long term. 

In comparison, clinical trials of smoking cessation medications such as Zyban® have found that between 16 percent and 19 percent of users remain smoke-free six months after quitting, depending on their dosage of the medication.

Other studies have shown that nicotine replacement therapy products, such as nicotine inhalers and gum, are also associated with a higher quitting success rate.

However, this doesn’t necessarily mean that quitting smoking cold turkey can’t work, or that you won’t be successful if you decide to quit without using medication. 

If you think that you’re able to resist nicotine withdrawal symptoms and avoid smoking, quitting using the cold turkey method might work for you, especially if you’ve already planned ahead of time and prepared a quit plan to help you through the process. 

Advantages of Quitting Cold Turkey

The biggest advantage of quitting cold turkey is that you’ll do it completely on your own, without help from nicotine replacement therapy (NRT) products or smoking cessation medications.

If you successfully quit, you’ll have accomplished something very difficult. This could boost your confidence and self-esteem. If you’re the type of person that likes to challenge yourself, the fact that quitting cold turkey is difficult could make it more appealing. 

Quitting cold turkey also means you won’t risk dealing with side effects from smoking cessation medications. Although medications like bupropion (sold as Zyban) and varenicline (Chantix®) are safe for most people, they can cause a range of side effects that you may want to avoid.

If you have a medical condition that makes using smoking cessation medication unsafe, quitting cold turkey may also be the best option for you.

There’s also a small amount of scientific evidence to show that quitting cold turkey may be more effective than other methods of quitting.

For example, a 2016 study carried out in England found that people who quit smoking abruptly were more likely to remain smoke-free six months after quitting than people who reduced their cigarette usage gradually over the course of two weeks.

However, this study doesn’t include any group that used medication while quitting, meaning it’s best not to view it as a point in the cold turkey method’s favor compared to quitting while using nicotine replacement therapy (NRT) products or prescription smoking cessation medications. 

Disadvantages of Quitting Cold Turkey

The biggest disadvantage of quitting cold turkey is that statistically, people who use this method to quit aren’t as successful as people who use nicotine replacement therapy (NRT) products or smoking cessation medications. 

When you quit smoking, you may experience withdrawal symptoms. These happen as a result of nicotine addiction. Withdrawal is a different experience for every smoker. However, there’s a good chance you’ll experience one or several of the following common symptoms:

  • Cravings for cigarettes

  • Difficulty sleeping

  • Difficulty concentrating and thinking clearly

  • Slower-than-normal heart rate

  • Feeling of irritable, grouchy or annoyed

  • Feeling sad or unhappy

  • Feeling hungry and gaining weight

  • Feeling restless and jumpy

Withdrawal symptoms can come and go, and the specific symptoms you experience may vary in intensity from one day to another. Nicotine withdrawal gets less severe over time. However, you may find it hard to deal with withdrawal symptoms when they’re at their most severe. 

In addition to nicotine withdrawal symptoms, you may feel tempted to smoke a cigarette if you’re exposed to one of your smoking triggers. This could be something like seeing another person smoke, or smelling cigarette smoke while you’re out with your friends.

Without help from nicotine replacement therapy (NRT) products or medication, dealing with the process of nicotine withdrawal or being exposed to a smoking trigger can be more challenging, increasing your risk of smoking again.

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How to Quit Smoking Cold Turkey

If you’ve decided to quit cold turkey, it’s important to prepare ahead of time to give yourself the highest chance of quitting successfully. 

Below, we’ve listed steps that you can take and techniques that you can implement to quit cold turkey. Preparing ahead of time won’t guarantee that you’ll quit successfully, but it can help you deal with cravings and other difficulties of quitting more easily. 

Set Your Quit Date

Your quit date is the day that you’ll quit smoking. While it’s not a good idea to put off your quit date for too long, picking a date that gives you some extra time to prepare could help to make the process of quitting easier. 

Smokefree.gov, a quit smoking initiative funded by the National Cancer Institute (NCI), offers a practice quitting service that you can use to quit for one, three or five days at a time to prepare yourself for your final quit date.

Create a Quit Plan

Your quit plan is a plan of action that explains how you’ll quit, lists your reasons for quitting and provides solutions for dealing with nicotine cravings or situations in which you’re exposed to one of your smoking triggers.

Preparing a quit plan may seem daunting, but it’s usually a much less complicated process than you’d think. If you need help, you can use the Smokefree.gov personalized quit plan tool or the tips we’ve outlined below.

List the Reasons You’re Quitting

As part of your quit plan, make a list of reasons why you’re quitting. This can include everything from the health benefits of quitting smoking to how much money you’ll save, how you think your life will get better and other benefits.

Need help making a list of reasons to quit? Our list of the benefits of quitting smoking goes into more detail on the numerous upsides of quitting, from better health to a longer life, more money and more. 

List Your Smoking Triggers

Smoking triggers are things that make you want to smoke. Most can be grouped into one of four categories: emotions, patterns and social or withdrawal triggers.

You might feel like smoking when you feel an intense emotion, such as stress, anxiety, boredom or loneliness. You might also feel like smoking when you spend time in an environment that’s linked to smoking in your mind, such as a bar or other venue.

Before you quit, it’s important to identify and make a list of your smoking triggers, with ideas on how you’ll deal with each. Smokefree.gov has a great list of common triggers, as well as tactics that you can use to respond to cravings and triggers without reaching for a cigarette. 

Work Out How You’ll Deal With Nicotine Cravings and Smoking Triggers

Dealing with nicotine withdrawal symptoms and cravings can be one of the most difficult aspects of quitting smoking. Eighty percent to 90 percent of smokers are addicted to nicotine, meaning there’s a very high chance that you’ll face physical cravings when you quit cold turkey.

If you’re quitting cold turkey, there’s no single best way to deal with nicotine cravings. You may find that a range of options work, such as:

  • Thinking about your reasons for quitting. Focusing on the reasons you’re quitting, from better health to an improved quality of life, can keep you motivated and may help you overcome cravings when they happen.

  • Chew gum, candy or drink water to keep your mouth busy. The physical sensation of having something in your mouth — other than a cigarette — might help you to ignore cravings and stay smoke-free.

    Try keeping a pack of gum or some candy in your bag to use when you feel a nicotine craving. Another option is to carry a water bottle with you that you can sip on when you feel the urge to smoke.

  • Go to a smoke-free area. The smell of cigarette smoke is a common trigger, meaning you might feel tempted to smoke if you’re around other smokers.

    If you find yourself in an environment with other smokers, try going to a smoke-free area where you won’t be exposed to secondhand smoke. Most public spaces, such as parks, shopping malls and theaters, won’t allow smoking.

  • Use free support groups and quitting resources. Free Support services such as your state’s quitline (1-800-QUIT-NOW) and Smokefree.gov’s text messaging programs can provide the support you need to deal with cravings and stay smoke-free.

Other Options to Make Quitting Easier

Quitting smoking cold turkey is hard — really hard. Because of this, the long-term success rate is lower for people who quit cold turkey than it is for people who quit by using nicotine replacement therapy (NRT) products and medications.

If you’re planning to quit, using treatments designed to reduce nicotine cravings may help you to avoid temptation and stay smoke-free. Options include:

  • Bupropion (Zyban). Originally an antidepressant, bupropion is a non-nicotine smoking cessation medication that can lower withdrawal symptoms and nicotine cravings, making it easier for you to avoid cigarettes after you decide to quit.

    In clinical trials, researchers found that smokers who used bupropion while quitting were significantly more likely to successfully remain smoke-free seven, 12 and 26 weeks after smoking their last cigarettes.

    Bupropion is a prescription medication that you’ll need to discuss with your healthcare provider. We offer a generic version of bupropion online, following an evaluation with an independent physician who will determine if a prescription is appropriate.

  • Varenicline (Chantix). Varenicline works by reducing cravings for nicotine, helping you to avoid relapsing after you decide to quit. Like bupropion, it’s a prescription medication that does not contain any nicotine.

  • Nicotine replacement therapy (NRT). Nicotine replacement therapy products, such as gum, patches, lozenges and inhalers, supply you with nicotine to help you avoid nicotine withdrawal symptoms and better deal with cravings to smoke.

    Studies have found that using nicotine replacement therapy increases your likelihood of quitting successfully. For example, a scientific review of 136 different studies found that people who used NRT products had a 50 to 60 percent higher quitting success rate.

  • Counseling. Talking to a trained, qualified therapist may help you to better deal with the process of quitting smoking. In fact, research has found that people who have individual counseling may be 40 percent to 80 percent more likely to quit smoking successfully.

In Conclusion

Quitting smoking cold turkey offers a few advantages, particularly if you want to avoid using any medication or have a medical condition that makes smoking cessation medication unsuitable for you. However, from a statistical perspective, it’s not the most effective way to quit smoking. 

Instead, you’re more likely to succeed if you use nicotine replacement therapy (NRT) products and/or smoking cessation medications such as bupropion (Zyban) or varenicline (Chantix). 

These medications are scientifically proven to increase quitting success rates, meaning you’ll have a higher chance of successfully overcoming nicotine cravings and remaining smoke-free after you decide to quit. 

Learn More About Quitting Smoking

Want to quit? Quitting smoking offers a long list of benefits, from improving your physical health and wellbeing to enhancing your quality of life, slowing down the aging process and helping you to save a significant amount of money.

Our guide to the benefits of quitting goes into more detail about the numerous positive effects of quitting smoking, from your health to lifestyle, bank account and more. 

This article is for informational purposes only and does not constitute medical advice. The information contained herein is not a substitute for and should never be relied upon for professional medical advice. Always talk to your doctor about the risks and benefits of any treatment.

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