What does "Cold Turkey" Mean?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

The term “cold turkey” is an American idiom which means “to quit instantly,” or “to talk plainly.” Most people use the term in the sense of quitting drugs, with the cold turkey approach being one method to use in an attempt to beat a drug addiction. Quitting cold turkey is definitely not for everyone, as the symptoms of withdrawal can be very severe, since no tapering of the dosage is involved. In fact, in some cases an abrupt cessation of drug use can lead to death due to systemic shock.

Quitting "cold turkey" often refers to quitting smoking immediately.
Quitting "cold turkey" often refers to quitting smoking immediately.

This term appears to have emerged around 1920s. There are a number of theories about its origins. Some people say that the idiom is a reference to literal cold turkey, a dish which is served just as it is, without any preparation or discussion. Others have suggested that the term relates to the appearance of people who are struggling with withdrawal, since people tend to get pale and covered in goosebumps, exactly like a cold piece of turkey.

Nicotine withdrawal symptoms can begin within several hours of a smoker's last cigarette.
Nicotine withdrawal symptoms can begin within several hours of a smoker's last cigarette.

However, the origins of this idiom are actually much less imaginative. It's derived from “talk turkey,” an older slang term used to describe getting down to business without any prevarications or messing around. No one is really certain about why turkeys have come to be associated with getting to the point quickly, although it may have something to do with the fact that the turkey is an icon of the Puritan lifestyle, which was allegedly simple and plain.

Trying to quit an addiction "cold turkey" can often lead to more severe relapses.
Trying to quit an addiction "cold turkey" can often lead to more severe relapses.

When someone goes cold turkey, he or she immediately abandons a habit, with no preparation or tapering off. Some people think that this method is very effective for treatment of drug abuse, while others feel that it may result in recidivism, as people are not gradually eased into quitting. One advantage of quitting cold turkey is that it requires no preparation, meaning that someone can wake up one morning and decide to quit then and there, as opposed to someone who embarks on a lengthy treatment plan, which can lead to a loss of motivation over time.

Some people also use “cold turkey” in the same sense as “talk turkey,” meaning a conversation which is simple, clear, and to the point. In both senses, the idiom is associated with bluntness, and a desire to get something over with quickly. In some regions of the United States, clarity and simplicity in communications are highly valued, with people being actively encouraged to talk turkey rather than dancing around a point.

Quitting prescription medications "cold turkey" can have serious physical side effects.
Quitting prescription medications "cold turkey" can have serious physical side effects.
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments


I was a smoker from 1999 until September 2010. It has been four months since i had my last cigarette and i feel excellent overall, except that occasionally, I'll have a weird anxiety attack that only lasts for a few minutes. What triggered me to quit was the incident that i can never forget and it happened before i decided to quit instantly.

I was having a major anxiety attack and it lasted for two hours. I thought i was going to pass out and I decided to go to the hospital just to make sure i wasn't having a scary heart attack. The doctor confirmed that my anxiety attack was probably due to excessive caffeine consumption and later i was discharged from the emergency room without being given any medication.

I officially quit three weeks later and i also stopped drinking coffee and any caffeinated products. Every now and then, I'll have anxiety, but it only lasted for a few minutes. I guess i was too scared and that somehow encouraged me to be a cold turkey quitter. The doctors were just amazed with what i did and they weren't concerned much about the episodes of me having palpitations (rapid heartbeat) and they told me not to overdo any activities and get plenty of rest.

I'm just guessing that it's my body's reaction to toxic withdrawal, and also how it handles stress (i would smoke a few cigs and drank a cup of coffee before this). My other withdrawal symptoms include having a hard time focusing on something, nervousness, dizziness, eating sweets and sugary products, slightly lower blood pressure (from 137/87 to 100/70, normal is 120/80), tiredness, confusion at times, sleepiness, hoarse voice and weight loss.

Despite all the "pain" of getting rid of the habit and it's toxins, i feel safer as i know the steps that I'm taking now will benefit my health tremendously and I'm willing to give a 100 percent effort to make myself healthy again. I've seen people suffering from smoking and all of it are absolutely unpleasant. If it weren't for that day's frightening incident, i wouldn't consider quitting instantly.

I suggest that it's much safer to quit slowly, as doing it cold turkey can produce unwanted effects on different people. Drug cessation can lead to life threatening shock. Please consider your options before making it a permanent decision.


Can anybody give me some tips on quitting nicotine cold turkey?

I can switch back and forth between cigarettes and chewing tobacco, and I can get it down to where I only take a little a day, but I just can't kick that last little bit. Can anybody give me some advice on how to do it? I was able to quit alcohol cold turkey, but nicotine seems to elude me.

Real smokers, please, not just well-meaning people who have never been through something like this.



I quit smoking cold turkey about 7 years ago, and I can tell you, it was both the hardest and ultimately the most rewarding thing I ever did.

It takes a truly insane amount of willpower, and don't even bother if you don't have a good support system in place -- you just won't get anywhere.

I was really lucky that my wife and daughters were supportive of my quitting, and they really gave me all the inspiration that I could want. I made it my motto, "Not one puff ever," and would just repeat that to myself, or have my wife repeat it to me. If I was really having a bad craving, I would get my daughter to say it.

Nothing like your kids to help you stop smoking! You really just can't look your six year old daughter in the eye when she asks you not to smoke and then light up. Or at least I couldn't.

So for all of you out there thinking about quitting smoking cold turkey, be strong. You CAN do it!


I have never been a huge fan of quitting something cold turkey -- it just never works for me.

I read an article that said that some people were actually psychologically better suited to going cold turkey, while others were better at doing things gradually. They called it the difference between "abstainers and moderators."

Apparently the abstainers are really good at just not doing something for long periods of time -- like quitting something cold turkey.

Moderators, on the other hand, are better at doing things in increments, for instance moderating how much of a thing they do on certain days, and then working their way down into smaller and smaller pieces.

I think that I am definitely a moderator, because whenever I try to quit something cold turkey I only last a few days. I don't think it's an issue of willpower, since I'm pretty good about stopping doing things, or not doing things on a certain day, but when it comes to having the burden of just stopping something forever, I just can't seem to do it.

What about you guys?

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