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Why Quitting Smoking Cold Turkey Is Hard and 8 Tips for Success

I was a heavy smoker for more than 30 years. After many attempts, I finally managed to kick the habit.

The Bad News

Most people who try to quit smoking go "cold turkey" the first time out—and most of them fail. That is because most smokers totally underestimate the power of nicotine addiction and completely overestimate their own ability to withstand the simultaneous onslaught of physical withdrawal symptoms and psychological triggers.

The combination almost inevitably brings even the strongest willed to their knees. Estimates are that only between three to ten percent of smokers are able to successfully quit using the cold turkey method. Not only that, but most smokers require at least three tries to successfully quit, and for many this means an initial cold turkey attempt followed by subsequent attempts using a variety of smoking cessation aids, including group support, electronic cigarettes, hypnosis, acupuncture, pharmaceuticals, and nicotine replacement therapy.

The Good News

On the other hand, smokers who do manage to throw away their cigarettes in one fell swoop have a better chance of still being tobacco-free six months after quitting than those who use other methods. It seems that while the chances of quitting successfully are slim using the cold turkey method, the chances of staying quit, once you are through the first few weeks, are excellent.

Why Quitting Cold Turkey is So Hard

I cannot stress enough that nicotine is a powerfully addictive substance. Usually, by the time you are ready to quit smoking, you are already totally addicted. Most people do not recognize the strength of the addiction until they try to quit. Usually, the first attempt at quitting is cold turkey and impromptu. You throw away your cigarettes on the spur of the moment, and figure you will just go on with your life. Next you experience nicotine withdrawal for the first time, and begin to get an idea—through chills, nausea, irritability, mental fuzziness, and depression—just how strong a hold nicotine has on your body.

At the same time you have to fight the psychological triggers every time you do things that you used to do with a cigarette in your hand—things like have a cup of coffee or a beer, or go to a party, read a book, talk on the phone, or perform any of dozens of acts that trigger a desire for a smoke.

Eventually, usually within 24 hours of quitting, you cave and start smoking again. You decide you just can't do it and you begin to have an idea of how trapped you are by your addiction. The truly resolute may stay clean for a few days or just bum cigarettes here and there, but it is a rare person who is able to just quit cold turkey and stay quit the first time out. The combination of physical withdrawal and psychological dependence is just too powerful.

Unfortunately, at this juncture, most people give up and go back to smoking, feeling weak, defeated, ashamed and all that good stuff. They tell themselves they will cut down or that smoking isn't that bad or they change brands or try cigars instead of cigarettes, but the bottom line is that after a failed attempt at cold turkey, most smokers are left feeling trapped, depressed, and unwilling to risk the pain of another failure.

How to Quit Cold Turkey

So, if you really want to go the cold turkey route, the key to success is getting through the first few days of nicotine withdrawal without having even one cigarette. That takes planning and knowledge. Do not underestimate the enemy. Addiction is a powerful adversary but here is the thing: If you can make it through three weeks without having even one puff, your body will be nicotine-free, the cravings will appreciably abate to a totally manageable level, and you will be well on the way to being an ex-smoker for good.

Here are some suggestions to help you succeed.

  1. Pick a quit date and prepare for the big day by gathering up all ashtrays, lighters, half empty cigarette packs, etc. and putting it all in one place, ready to toss on the big day. . While you are still smoking, read everything you can get your hands on regarding quitting and talk to any friends and family who have successfully quit to get them on your side. You are going to need these folks. In some places there are actual weekly support groups that meet to help support quitters,such as nicotine anonymous, a 12 step program modeled on AA. You might want to try attending one of these groups even before you quit to see if it is right for you. The support can be very helpful.
  2. Actually circle your quit date on a real calendar and mark off each day leading up to quit day. Do at least one thing each day to prepare in the week leading up to quitting and don't be shy-- announce the date you are going to quit to family, friends and co workers. Make it a real commitment. You will be surprised at the support you get. NB-- the only people who won't support you are smokers. No matter how much you like these people, take note of the fact that they are threatened by your intention to quit and make sure to stay as far away from them as possible for the first few weeks you are off cigarettes. They won't mean to, but they will definitely try to sabotage your good efforts.
  3. On Quit Day, minimize stress by making the first three days without nicotine as quiet and serene as possible. Withdrawal is hard to get through even if you have the easiest of existences. Don't make it harder on yourself. If you can take a few days off from work, do it. Consider taking a sick day or at least one or two vacation days. If you are a mother with small children, try to get some household and babysitting help for a few days and make the arrangements in advance. Withdrawal symptoms for most people are at their worst for the first three days. If you can get through at least five days without a cigarette, you are halfway home. Make those first couple of days as easy on yourself as you can. You have enough to do just to get through each day without a cigarette.
  4. Think about booking a massage or doing some deep breathing or yoga to help you get through the first few days. Don't schedule a business trip or lots of social action for this time. If you are a student, don't make your quit date the week before exams. Also, do not have anyone who smokes anywhere near you if you can possibly manage it. Even the smell of cigarette smoke or the sight of people smoking in a movie can set you off. Be aware and plan ahead.
  5. Do not go near smoke or smokers until your cravings have subsided ( that means a few weeks). If you live with smokers, other family members or room mates, require them to smoke outside the house, at least for the next few weeks. Take it as easy as you can. Remember you are dealing with withdrawal. People addicted to alcohol and other drugs detox in hospitals under medical supervision. Nicotine is a serious drug and Detox is a serious business. If you are going to succeed at this cold turkey, you need to give yourself half a chance of getting through withdrawal and that means taking your physical and mental symptoms very very seriously and helping your body and mind adjust to life without nicotine.
  6. Drink plenty of water and fluids and get as much sleep as you can. Your blood sugar is going up and down so you may need to snack more. Do it and feel free to chew gum or suck on sticks for oral satisfaction. Anything other than a cigarette is fine.
  7. Minimize psychological triggers. If you always smoke when you have a cup of coffee, drink tea instead of coffee while you are detoxing. For me the hardest time was after meals so I brushed and flossed my teeth after every meal to try to fight off the cravings( Most cravings last less than 5 minutes) For me talking on my land line was a trigger, but talking on my cell wasn't-- figure out what works for you -- text instead of talking or use a different phone. The principle is the same whatever your trigger.....this is where you need to make a list of your triggers before you quit and set up some alternatives. Trying to do it while you are fighting withdrawal symptoms is a no go for sure.
  8. Walking is a magic bullet for many things, and it really will help you immeasurably during the first few days away from nicotine. You are going to feel tired, irritable and fuzzy headed and believe it or not, taking a 20 minute walk and doing a little deep breathing will be enormously helpful. Your blood sugar is bouncing all over the place -- walking will help stabilize it. Try to walk in a park or quiet place where you can commune with nature, but failing that a city street or a mall is better than nothing. Just don't pretend that walking through supermarket aisles is the same as walking down a country road.The point is to move your body and quiet your mind. Walking will not only help with your fatigue and irritability, it will help with insomnia and potential weight gain as well. Not sure what the science is, but I found that walking cut the cravings, as well.

One Last Thing

Cold turkey is tough—and if you can get through it, congratulations. The first two to three days are the toughest. Most cold-turkey quitters don't last more than 24 hours, but if you can make it through the first week without even one puff, your chances for success increase dramatically... and by the end of three weeks without nicotine, you should be home free.

But if you can't make it by going cold turkey, don't give up. Consider talking with your doctor and using any of a number of things out there designed to help you quit. Nicotine replacement therapy in the form of patches, gum, and lozenges can greatly increase the chance of success in quitting by cutting the impact of withdrawal symptoms. But since NRT involves the use of nicotine, it is, like methadone for heroin addicts, not without its dangers. However, the benefits may well outweigh those dangers.You may also want to consider Chantix or Zyban, two prescription drugs that have helped some people quit. These are options that need to be discussed with your physician.

Whatever you do, please do know that you can quit and you are not alone. Cold turkey is tough but millions of people have successfully quit that way. You can maximize your chances for success by planning ahead and not underestimating the power of your addiction. Most people who still smoke, at least in the Western world, do so because they are hooked, and getting unhooked is not easy.

Cold turkey is just one way to do it. If it works, great—and if not there are many other options. The thing to keep in mind is that you are definitely stronger than nicotine and one way or another you can and will become tobacco-free.

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This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and does not substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, and/or dietary advice from a licensed health professional. Drugs, supplements, and natural remedies may have dangerous side effects. If pregnant or nursing, consult with a qualified provider on an individual basis. Seek immediate help if you are experiencing a medical emergency.


Misty on March 29, 2013:

Hi everyone! Thanks for the tips and just reading and knowing that others are going thru the same it somehow makes it more bearable! Day 24 of cold turkey, worst is my leg pain, from knee down, I get restless. Oh and my partner smoking all day at home in front of me....but my stubbornness is this time coming handy, am still going strong! great work everyone!

Kate24 on January 30, 2013:

Im on day 4 of Cold far am managing the withdrawl with breathing excersise, where I sit quiet, place a hand on the area where I feel the most reaction from nicotine deprevation....was very interesting reading everyones experience, I dont go to a support group, as I have family and friends who are so supportive. I reacted strongly when I saw headlines " dont go cold turkey" , I was angry and thought ...huh another way to try and get money from us, buy this or that and it will help you, tut will do it this way was my thought, but lol im only on day three, so maybe a bit ahead of myself...will let you know when this gets tougher...thanks again for all posts , will keep reading they are so encouraging .

Roberta Kyle (author) from Central New Jersey on October 29, 2012:

first of all congratulate yourself on quitting and do not under any circumstances light up a cigarette. The shortness of breath may or may not be related to quitting smoking, ditto the gas.... I would suggest that you discuss both problems with your Doctor. Heartburn often accomanies quitting smoking, especially if you are chewing nicotine gum or lozenges. Discuss it all with your Dr. As for being alone-- you definitely are not the only one who has gone through all this and I promise that once your body has adjusted, you are going to feel much better without nicotine. I'm thinking you might want to try an online forum for people who have recently quit smoking-- there are lots of them-- or an in person stop smoking support group in order to touch base with others who are going through what you are right now. Thanks for sharing here and keep up the good work

dhong on October 29, 2012:

almost 24 days now since i quit smoking but still have this shortness of breath.dizziness and gas.what should i do to control this very uncomfortable feeling.and aside from that i feel im alone.what should i do?

Roberta Kyle (author) from Central New Jersey on October 19, 2012:

and congratulations to you, stepen, on quitting. You are right-- there is no easy way to do it-- but it is sooooo worth it. Thanks for commenting and for sharing your own experience here.

stepen on October 18, 2012:

its hard to stop smoking no matter what you take but i went cold turkey not nowing other solutions but i did its 35 days, i still got the after affects but i know ill be better than smoking, good luck to those who are going to try.

Roberta Kyle (author) from Central New Jersey on July 18, 2012:

Congratulations Kevin-- 20 years is amazing. I'm on my way over to read your hub now. We quitters need to stick together.Thanks for stopping by and commenting

KevinC9998 on July 16, 2012:

Hi Robie2, this is a great hub which I voted up and awesome! I recently wrote a simlar hub on quitting cold-turkey. It has been 20 years for me! Kevin

nik on May 08, 2012:

on day 5 cold and its bloody hard but feeling better as well , will not let the mind beat me cheers all

Roberta Kyle (author) from Central New Jersey on April 30, 2012:

Congratulations Collins and thanks for sharing your experience and leaving great tips for others here. Oh, and welcome home:-)

Collins on April 28, 2012:

I have been smoking for the last 15yrs. Am 34 now. I did quit cold turkey 3wks ago on the easter weekend. Sleep did wonders for me. I chose to be indoors for two days, spending my time on bed...sick as it may look. The decision to quit came in when i realised that i afterall i can make it 48hours without smoking. I feel lighter now, more so in the morning, have been chewing lots of sugar free gum at each craving, have avoided coffee though i still take alcohol. Constipation was my worst experience but i overcame. To those who plan to stop, take days off from work to cut off from traditional smoking triggers. Lastly, i have been away from my family in a foreign country and God willing this will be my surprise gift to my wife when am back home in 2weeks time.

Roberta Kyle (author) from Central New Jersey on April 07, 2012:

good luck lemons-- I'm pulling for you

mflemons from Boston on April 06, 2012:

I'm going to try to quit smoking today...ughhh!

Roberta Kyle (author) from Central New Jersey on March 26, 2012:

Yup there is no such thing as just one puff LOL

mio cid from Uruguay on March 25, 2012:

And that is smart because all it takes is one puff and you're addicted again.And I don't know how much healthier than smoking are the patch, the nicotine gum and this latest electronic cigarette , I know people who quit smoking and now they can't get off the elec cigarette.I consciously smoke now but if i decide to quit the only way i succeded before is to just not smoke the next cigarette.

Roberta Kyle (author) from Central New Jersey on March 25, 2012:

I salute you mio cid-- I was never able to do cold turkey, but it seems that if you can do it, it is the best way to go. I used NRT and then got hooked on gum and lozenges LOL :-) It took me seven more years to get off those and become entirely nicotine free. I know one thing-- I will never ever take even one puff again.

mio cid from Uruguay on March 24, 2012:

I quit smoking twice ,one for four years and another for three years both times i quit cold turkey, and every other way i attempted i failed.

Tams R from Missouri on February 06, 2012:

Great article. I hope several people will find the will to quit after reading it. I quit for over 5 years and started again after a near death experience. Now it seems twice as hard to quit. But, I'm on the road there. Fingers crossed.

Roberta Kyle (author) from Central New Jersey on September 19, 2011:

Thanks for stopping by natural solutions. cold turkey is English slang. Here's Wikipedia's definition ""Cold turkey" describes the actions of a person who abruptly gives up a habit or addiction rather than gradually easing the process through gradual reduction or by using replacement medication."

alekhouse, thanks for stopping and commenting. Lucky you not to have gotten hooked. You had more sense than I did as a teenage.

Nancy Hinchliff from Essex Junction, Vermont on September 19, 2011:

Good article, Robie. I did smoke for a couple of years...started at age 15 but quit by the time I was 18...and so glad I did. I know how hard it would have been if I've kept it up for a longer period of time.

naturalsolutions on September 18, 2011:

I don't really know the cold turkey, it is the very first time that i hear this one. But it really sounds great regarding to the problem of smoking. I think whoever conquer the cold turkey is strong enough.

Roberta Kyle (author) from Central New Jersey on September 17, 2011:

Thanks Steph-- yes walking or exercise in any form is so good for so many things.... pity more of us don't do more of it. Thanks for the kind words and for stopping by and commenting

Stephanie Marshall from Bend, Oregon on September 17, 2011:

Wow - what great advice! I've never been a smoker, but have witnessed breaking free from addiction in other forms. The advice about getting out for a walk is very good (among other things). It helps de-stress and release those feel good endorphins. I applaud anyone trying to quit, who has quit and is seriously thinking about quitting cigarettes. Well done, Robie

Roberta Kyle (author) from Central New Jersey on September 17, 2011:

Good for you, DDS and congratulations. I used the patch too-- twice:-) It took me four serious tries to finally make the grade, but I haven't had a cigarette since the year 2000. Thanks for dropping by and sharing your personal experience. A supportive partner can make all the difference.

David Sproull from Toronto on September 17, 2011:

Good article. Smoke free since December 2010. Did it with 'the patch' and the support of an amazing woman.

Roberta Kyle (author) from Central New Jersey on September 17, 2011:

I suck on acres of sugar free breath mints to this day and I haven't had a cigarette since the year 2000 so I know what you mean, Jama-- on the other hand I never found sucking on pencils or straws did a thing to quell nicotine cravings so I guess we are all different-- but whatever-- I am just grateful to be off the stuff

Joanna McKenna from Central Oklahoma on September 17, 2011:

I find that simply holding an object the same size and shape as a cigarette quiets the craving, so the addiction must not be totally about the inhaling and exhaling.

To replace the oral cravings of smoking, I'm now addicted to butterscotch candies. I buy 5 bags (roughly a week's worth) at a time, can only go (at most) 24 hours without them. Oddly, consuming so much candy hasn't affected my weight...

pam on September 17, 2011:

Wow, what an exhaustive and informative article! Thanks!

The trick is to not go back to it after you're totally off it seems. I know so many people who have successfully quit several times. It's a tough addiction, nicotine. Killer. :(

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