To recover from heroin addiction, one must first go through the process of ridding the body of heroin and its toxic metabolites. The process is known as detoxification or, more commonly, “detox.” As the body clears the heroin out, the unpleasant experience of drug withdrawal occurs.
For many people with addictions, the fear of withdrawal is a major barrier to escaping their addiction. For some people, that fear keeps them from even trying addiction treatment. However, millions of people have successfully found health and happiness in long-term recovery.
Fortunately, withdrawal and detox don’t have to be a terrible experience. By participating in an inpatient detox and withdrawal program, people can get through the experience safely and comfortably.
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Recovery from heroin use is associated with great improvements in health and quality of life. However, the initial cessation of heroin use is associated with a short period of terrible, flu-like withdrawal symptoms as the body rebounds from heroin use. Detoxification involves using medications, counseling and supportive measures to help the individual withdraw safely with minimal symptoms.
Heroin Withdrawal Symptoms
Withdrawal symptoms begin between 4 and 24 hours after the last dose of heroin. The severity and duration of withdrawal may depend on how long the individual used heroin, as well as the amount and method of heroin use.
- Common Withdrawal Symptoms:
Heroin withdrawal symptoms are described as a severe case of the flu, and typically include:
- Mood changes, like agitation and anxiety
- Increased body secretions (runny nose, teary eyes, and sweaty skin)
- Stomach problems (nausea, vomiting, cramping, diarrhea, and loss of appetite)
- Muscle problems (aches, twitching, shivering)
How Long Does Heroin Withdrawal Last?
Different opioid drugs have different timelines for withdrawal, and it depends on how much and for how long the individual used heroin.
For heroin, the withdrawal symptoms start within the first 24 hours (sometimes as soon as four hours) from the last use, peak within 36 to 72 hours, and last seven to 10 days for most people. People who use heroin chronically may experience some withdrawal for up to three or four weeks.
Heroin Withdrawal Medications
Opioid replacement therapy involves a long-acting opioid medication that is used to keep drug cravings and withdrawal symptoms to a minimum without causing a high. Over time, the dose of these drugs can be tapered in a slow and controlled manner until the patient is opioid-free.
Only two opioids are FDA-approved for the treatment of heroin withdrawal: methadone and buprenorphine. Buprenorphine generally has a more favorable side-effect profile than methadone. One type of buprenorphine product used during opioid detox is Suboxone, which also contains naloxone, which blocks opioid receptor sites to prevent any attempts at abuse.
Other medications may also be used during heroin detox to help with specific symptoms. These include sedatives (such as benzodiazepines) and the medication clonidine, which helps reduce some withdrawal symptoms.
About half of people with addictions also suffer from mental health disorders, such as depression or anxiety. Recognizing and treating underlying mental health disorders provides the best success rates for recovery and is an important part of returning the person to good health and functioning.
Heroin Withdrawal Deaths
Withdrawing from heroin is typically safer than withdrawing from alcohol, but it is occasionally fatal. When people die from heroin withdrawal, it’s usually due to excessive vomiting and diarrhea. Untreated, these symptoms can rapidly dehydrate the body and cause dangerously high levels of sodium to accumulate in the blood (hypernatremia) and the heart can fail. Such cases occur when people withdraw from heroin on their own, usually in jail. Such deaths can be prevented by medical supervision in a professional detox facility.
Is Quitting Heroin Cold Turkey a Good Idea?
Quitting cold-turkey is not recommended as it is the most difficult and dangerous way to attempt to address addiction. Medically-supervised detox with withdrawal medications, counseling support, and symptom management make the experience much easier, safer and more likely to result in a successful recovery.
Stopping heroin “cold-turkey” brings about a rapid onset of withdrawal symptoms, which are very difficult to endure. The risk of experiencing a setback during withdrawal is high as the craving to use and stop the symptoms can be overwhelming. When people try to self-taper their heroin use on their own they are seldom successful. A relapse during withdrawal sometimes leads to overdose.
Heroin Withdrawal Tips
The primary tip for heroin withdrawal is not to do it alone. Withdrawal is a difficult experience and willpower alone is seldom adequate to prevent relapse. There is plenty of help out there to make detox and withdrawal safe and less uncomfortable. Utilizing the supports in place is the best way to get on track for long-term recovery. A specialized treatment facility with medically-assisted detox is the safest method for quitting heroin and avoiding relapse.
Professional heroin detox is medically-supervised withdrawal from heroin. Detox must be done as part of an overall plan for recovery, which involves much more than simply stopping using the drug. The underlying causes of the addiction and the mental devastation from the addiction itself must be addressed for the best chance of successful recovery and a return to good health and happiness. Detox for a serious addiction like heroin is almost always an inpatient process.