How to Quit Smoking Cold Turkey

By Irmanie Hemphill, MD, FAAFP
Medically reviewed checkmarkMedically reviewed
October 13, 2021

If you are a smoker and want to quit, you’re in good company.

Of the 34 million smokers in the United States, roughly 70% say they want to stop.

Many can and do quit for good. Today, 3 out of 5 people who have ever smoked have successfully quit the habit. 

There is no single best way to give up cigarettes.

And that’s a great opportunity, because, rather than relying on willpower or forcing yourself to try something that doesn’t feel right, you can create the plan that’s best for you.

Some people find that cessation counseling helps them develop the skills to cope with withdrawal symptoms and triggers.

Others use nicotine replacement therapy while smoking fewer cigarettes each day to gradually wean themselves off of their addiction.

And then there are individuals who find it better to quit smoking abruptly.

Going cold turkey isn’t for everyone, but with a little preparation and the right support, it works for many people.

If you are considering this route, read on to learn what to expect when you quit cold turkey, including the pros and cons of using this approach and tips to help you manage withdrawal symptoms and increase the chances of staying off nicotine products for the long-term.

I’ve also included a list of other methods to quit smoking so you can develop your personal best plan. You’ve already taken the first step, which is deciding to quit.

Keep moving forward, and you can reach your goal.

Trying to quit smoking? Chat with a doctor today for just $73 to discuss your options.

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What to Expect Quitting Cold Turkey

Quitting smoking abruptly, or using the cold turkey method, can be difficult.

At the same time, some research suggests it is one of the most effective ways to ditch cigarettes for good.

For example, one study that followed nearly 700 smokers on their quit journeys found that those who made a clean break with cigarettes had a higher success rate than those who weaned themselves off more gradually.

Of course, quitting abruptly is not a good idea for everyone.

Some people require more support managing their nicotine withdrawal symptoms than others.

If you wonder how you should approach quitting and want some advice, talk to your doctor or a smoking cessation expert to understand your options and find the best strategy for you.

Pros and cons

Quitting cold turkey has benefits and drawbacks.

Considering these pros and cons can help you prepare for any discomfort and increase your chances of success.

One of the most commonly cited pros of going cold turkey is the cost: It’s totally free.

Others like the fact that you avoid potential side effects of smoking cessation medications and nicotine replacement therapy products.

These side effects can range from dry mouth and dizziness to trouble sleeping and suicidal thoughts.

Lastly, when you stop smoking cold turkey, you are more likely to reap the health benefits of quitting immediately:

  • Your heart rate and blood pressure return to normal within 20 minutes of your last cigarette. 
  • The carbon monoxide in your bloodstream decreases after 12 hours. 
  • Within a few weeks, your body’s circulatory and pulmonary systems improve. 

On the other hand, cold turkey can be a very challenging way to quit smoking.

You have to face your nicotine addiction head-on, enduring withdrawal without the benefit of prescription medications or nicotine replacement products like nicotine patches, gum, or nasal spray to ease your symptoms. 

Although symptoms can be uncomfortable, they aren’t dangerous, and they do not last forever.

The longer you go without smoking, the fewer symptoms you will experience.

Nicotine Withdrawal Symptoms

Nicotine is the chemical substance inside tobacco that makes cigarettes and other products addicting.

When you smoke, nicotine activates the pleasure centers in your brain, increasing the chemical signals that make you feel good.

When you have been smoking for a long time, your brain compensates for the extra activity by increasing your tolerance for nicotine and making it harder to feel good without smoking.

It also begins to associate the use of tobacco products with pleasure, making it more challenging to quit. 

When you stop smoking cigarettes, your brain has to go through an adjustment period before it can find a chemical balance again.

During that time, you may experience any of the following symptoms of nicotine withdrawal

These withdrawal symptoms can be intense, and enduring them may be one of the hardest parts of quitting smoking.

However, with time, they will eventually ease as your brain and body adjust to your new routine.

How to Quit Cold Turkey

The best way to quit cold turkey is to understand and prepare for any withdrawal symptoms or other challenges you may face in the weeks ahead.

Make a plan

The first step to quitting cold turkey is identifying and committing to a final quit date, a day when you will stop smoking.

Choose a date that won’t be stressful; for example, don’t make it the day before a big work project is due.

Planning gives you the time to mentally and physically prepare for any symptoms or challenges you may face as you quit.

In addition, if you tell your friends and family about your quit date, they’ll know when and why you may be having a hard time or need extra support.

While you consider your quit date, also make a list of reasons why you want to stop smoking in the first place.

For example, are you quitting to improve your health or to save money?

Do you want to set an example for your family members or close friends or reduce exposing your loved ones to secondhand smoke? 

Any reason that you have for quitting smoking is a good one.

Keeping a list of your motivations close by to refer to on tough days can help you endure the short-term discomfort of withdrawal so that you can meet your long-term goals.

Expect withdrawal symptoms

If you have been smoking long enough that quitting may be a challenge, you will probably experience at least a few withdrawal symptoms.

Knowing that you may feel emotional or physical discomfort and that those feelings will pass may help you manage your withdrawal more easily.

Tips to reduce your withdrawal symptoms and stay away from cigarettes include: 

  • Reminding yourself that your feelings are temporary and will pass
  • Going for a walk or getting mild exercise 
  • Reducing your caffeine intake 
  • Meditating or sitting quietly
  • Taking a warm bath
  • Getting a massage
  • Practicing deep breathing exercises 
  • Getting together with close friends or seeking out fun, novel activities 
  • Eating a healthy diet 

Know your triggers 

Noting the things that compel you to light up and avoiding them may help increase the chances of you successfully quitting.

Everyone has different triggers that make them want to light up. To help identify yours, below are the four kinds of triggers and a few examples of each:

  • Emotional triggers: Feeling stressed, excited, bored, happy, lonely, or other intense emotions
  • Activity triggers: Doing activities like driving, taking a work break, having sex, watching TV, drinking, eating, or talking on the phone
  • Social triggers: Being around people in environments like a bar, party, or celebration, or being around other smokers
  • Withdrawal triggers: Handling objects like lighters or cigarette packs, smelling cigarettes, talking about cigarettes, or experiencing uncomfortable withdrawal symptoms

Trying to quit smoking? Chat with a doctor today for just $73 to discuss your options.

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Alternative Methods to Quit Smoking

Quitting cold turkey is only one approach to stop smoking.

If you have tried and failed to quit cold turkey or believe that your withdrawal symptoms may be too intense for you to handle on your own, other options may offer you more help kicking the habit:

  • Nicotine replacement therapy (NRT): Products like nicotine gum, patches, nasal spray, inhalers, and lozenges may help you gradually wean yourself off of nicotine without experiencing the intense withdrawal effects of quitting cold turkey.
  • Bupropion (Wellbutrin): Originally developed as antidepressant medication, this prescription helps patients reduce their cravings for tobacco products.
  • Varenicline (Chantix): This prescription medication blocks nicotine’s effect on your brain and reduces your dependence on it. 

Whenever you are ready to stop smoking, talk to your doctor.

They’ll listen to your concerns, evaluate your health, recommend the best options, and be there throughout your quit journey to help you be as comfortable and successful as possible. 

How K Health Can Help

If you are struggling to find a doctor or are concerned about healthcare costs, you can still get the medical support you need to quit smoking for good.

Did you know you can get affordable primary care with the K Health app?

Download K Health to check your symptoms, explore conditions and treatments, and, if needed, text with a clinician in minutes. K Health’s AI-powered app is based on 20 years of clinical data.

Frequently Asked Questions

How long does nicotine withdrawal last cold turkey?
Everyone's quit journey is different. For some patients, nicotine withdrawal symptoms last up to two weeks, but for most, the discomfort usually peaks within 1-3 days of quitting.
Is it better to quit smoking gradually or cold turkey?
There is no “right” way to quit smoking. The “best” method is the one that works best for you. Quitting abruptly helps some people leave cigarettes behind for good. Others succeed with a gradual approach that includes using products such as nicotine replacement therapy and prescription smoking cessation medication.
Is quitting smoking cold turkey dangerous?
Quitting cold turkey can be challenging and uncomfortable, but it isn't dangerous. Smoking, on the other hand, is hazardous. It's currently the leading cause of preventable death and disease in the United States.
K Health articles are all written and reviewed by MDs, PhDs, NPs, or PharmDs and are for informational purposes only. This information does not constitute and should not be relied on for professional medical advice. Always talk to your doctor about the risks and benefits of any treatment.

K Health has strict sourcing guidelines and relies on peer-reviewed studies, academic research institutions, and medical associations. We avoid using tertiary references.

Irmanie Hemphill, MD, FAAFP

Dr. Hemphill is an award winning primary care physician with an MD from Florida State University College of Medicine. She completed her residency at Halifax Medical Center.