Heroin (diamorphine) is a semi-synthetic opioid that is used as a recreational drug. All opioid drugs work in mostly the same way. Heroin and other opioids interact with opioid receptors in the central nervous system, which reduces the perception of pain.

Certain factors, like the length of time used and amount of body fat the user has, can affect how long heroin stays in the system. Different types of drug tests are able to detect heroin use for varying amounts of time, depending on the test type:

Article at a Glance:

There are a few key points to remember about heroin and drug tests:

  • Heroin can be detected in saliva, blood, urine, and hair
    • Saliva test, injected: 60 minutes
    • Saliva test, smoked: five hours
    • Urine test: 60 hours
    • Hair test: three to six months
  • Saliva and blood are not used to test for heroin because it metabolizes too quickly
  • Urine drug screens are used most commonly
  • Hair drug screens have the longest detection period, which is a range of about three to six months
  • Heroin and metabolites pass through breast milk and cause withdrawal symptoms in the baby
  • Do not breastfeed while using heroin
  • Heroin stores well in fat tissue and can release slowly over time

Heroin Showing Up on Drug Tests

When heroin enters the body, it is rapidly metabolized. This happens so quickly that most of the drug is out of the system within 30 minutes.

The half-life of heroin is about three minutes.  For example, if someone injects 20 mg of heroin, then 10 mg is left after three minutes, 5 mg after six minutes, etc. Heroin will be completely clear from the body in about 15 minutes for many people, but some people metabolize heroin more slowly. In this case, heroin can stay in the system for 30 minutes or longer.

Two key characteristics factor into how long heroin stays in the system for a drug test.

The first is that heroin is lipophilic, which means it is absorbed well by fat tissue but not by water-based tissue. Muscle is an example of water-based tissue. Therefore, the length of time heroin is detectable in the body varies based on how much fat a person carries.

The second important characteristic is that tests also measure 6-acetylmorphine (6-MAM) in addition to heroin. 6-MAM is a metabolite that is unique to heroin. When heroin is broken down in the body, it breaks down into 6-MAM and other opiate metabolites that activate opioid receptors.

Drug tests will test for 6-MAM to confirm heroin use specifically, as opposed to the use of other opioids. 6-MAM has a half-life of 5 minutes, so it stays in the system for 60 minutes — longer than heroin. Like heroin, 6-MAM is lipophilic and will stick around in fat tissue as well.

Heroin Detection in Urine

Heroin can be detected in the urine for up to three days after it was last used. A drug urine test is the most common method of screening for drugs, including heroin. Urine testing is relatively easy, cheap and safe, and many entities will choose this method.

Heroin may metabolize faster than three days for someone who uses small amounts and does not use it often. However, more advanced tests might detect heroin for longer than three days.

Heroin Detection in Hair

Commercial hair drug testing kits take about one-and-one-half inches of hair from the scalp. How long heroin can be detected will depend on how fast the hair grows. For most people, the range can be up to three to six months.

Heroin Detection in Blood

Because heroin does not stay in the blood for more than five hours, blood tests are not very useful. This is because heroin has such a short half-life.

Heroin Detection in Saliva

Heroin shows up in the saliva within two minutes of administration. When smoking heroin, saliva concentration is higher than blood concentration for about 30 minutes. Afterward, it decreases to the same as blood concentration.

Like blood tests for heroin, a saliva test is not very useful because of how fast the drug metabolizes.

Heroin Detection in Breast Milk

If someone is using heroin, they should not breastfeed their child. The baby may become exposed to more potent opiates than heroin. Heroin metabolizes to 6-MAM, morphine and other active opiates. These will pass through the breast milk and give the baby opiate withdrawal symptoms.

Factors That Affect How Long Heroin Stays in the System

Heroin sticks around in the system longer if someone has been using it for a while. Some factors that affect heroin metabolism are:

  • Body fat percent: Overweight people have heroin and 6-MAM in their system longer than people with less body fat.
  • Drug interactions with prescription and non-prescription drugs: Certain drugs share the same metabolic enzymes with heroin. Heroin may compete with other drugs, and this will make heroin and 6-MAM stick around longer for drug test detection.
  • Length of addiction: Using heroin one time will probably clear it from the system in a day or two. Long-term addiction that takes place over months or years will ensure that increased amounts of heroin and 6-MAM are stored in fat tissue. Fat tissue will slowly release the opioids, and drug tests can return a positive result for a time frame that ranges from days to weeks.
  • Liver and kidney function: Heroin is primarily metabolized in the liver. Any liver impairment will cause heroin to stay in the body longer. The kidneys metabolize a much smaller portion of heroin, but people with impaired kidney function may clear heroin more slowly.
  • The purity of heroin: Street heroin will not have reliable concentrations. This will increase or decrease the amount of time that heroin is detectable.

How Does Weight Affect Heroin Detection

Heroin and 6-MAM are lipophilic, so the more a person weighs, the longer it will stay in their system. Drug tests will detect heroin and 6-MAM longer in people who weigh more because the drugs will release slowly into the bloodstream. High body fat may extend the window of heroin detection by several days.

Getting Help for Heroin Addiction

If heroin or opioid use is a problem for you or a loved one, consider an inpatient rehab facility.

During heroin detox, the body eliminates and metabolizes heroin. Detox and withdrawal can be uncomfortable and difficult, and some people may need professional help. Going “cold turkey” or attempting to quit without medical assistance can be dangerous.

If you would like to learn more about treatment for heroin addiction, contact The Recovery Village today. Our team can talk to you about programs that fit your needs or the needs of a loved one. The decision to enter inpatient rehab is not an easy one, and we are happy to help guide you.

Medical Disclaimer: The Recovery Village aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with substance use or mental health disorder with fact-based content about the nature of behavioral health conditions, treatment options and their related outcomes. We publish material that is researched, cited, edited and reviewed by licensed medical professionals. The information we provide is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be used in place of the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare providers.

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