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The Comprehensive Guide to Heroin Withdrawals

Heroin is a highly addictive and illegal drug. Once you become dependent, it is extremely hard to stop using. But, that doesn’t mean you can’t quit. With a guided detox plan, you can become heroin-free within weeks. Before going into the heroin detox process, let’s learn about this widely abused drug so it will be easier to understand the detox process.

What is heroin?

Heroin is an opiate drug that comes from the pods of the opium poppy. There is a resin in the pods that, when scoured with a razor, seeps out of the pod and dries over a period of days. This dried resin is the most potent compound of opium. This resin is refined to make morphine and other forms of heroin. Heroin can be injected, snorted or smoked.

Why is heroin so addictive?

Heroin is an incredibly addictive drug. That’s because its use produces intense feelings of pleasure. When taken, heroin binds with the opioid receptors in the brain and nervous system. This causes the receptors to trigger a potent release of a neurotransmitter called dopamine, triggering the pleasure centers of the brain. Once the brain becomes accustomed to this euphoric rush of dopamine, the user becomes addicted.

What makes heroin so dangerous?

Heroin depresses the nervous system, causing the user to feel drowsy. At high doses, heroin drastically slows the heart rate and breathing, causing the user to pass out or even stop breathing entirely. Besides the dangers of an overdose, users can experience other serious health problems, such as the following:

  • Chronic heart and lung problems
  • Deterioration in cognitive skills (such as memory and decision-making)
  • Frequent illness and infection
  • Permanent chemical imbalances in the brain
  • Infections and abscesses at the site of injections
  • Exposure to blood-borne diseases, such as HIV/AIDS and hepatitis B and C

Heroin usage is an increasingly dire problem for the United States, with the Center for Disease Control and Prevention estimating that abuse rates for people aged 18-25 has doubled in the last ten years.

How long does heroin stay in your system?

Heroin has a relatively short half-life of 30 minutes. A half-life is the length of time for the concentration of a substance in the body to decrease by 50 percent. This means that a half-hour after taking the drug, its concentration in the body should decrease by half. However, it’s not quite as simple as that. There are other factors that come into play, such as metabolism, quantity of heroin taken, body mass, and hydration level. Typically, heroin’s effects last up to five hours after the last dose.

Can you detect heroin in the body?

Detox centers can test a patient’s urine, blood, saliva, and hair follicles to detect the presence of heroin in their body. Urine tests are most common, and can detect heroin in the body for up to two days. Advanced urine testing methods can detect it for up to seven days. Hair follicle tests can detect it for up to three months.

How to stop using heroin

The recovery process is different for everyone, and factors like age and length of usage can dramatically impact the user’s symptoms. The typical timeline for immediate heroin withdrawal is up to a week, with many symptoms persisting for at least three to six months. In some cases, a patient may deal with heroin withdrawal for years.

What are the symptoms of heroin withdrawal?

Due to heroin’s highly addictive nature, the withdrawal process can not always be completed at home. Often, professional help from licensed, medical detox specialists is needed to assist the user as they stop their heroin use once and for all. This process is an intense one, and can lead to violent withdrawal symptoms, including the following: 

  • Anxiety
  • Sweating
  • Runny nose
  • Apathy
  • Low blood pressure
  • Irritability
  • Depression
  • Restless leg syndrome
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Insomnia
  • Elevated heart rate

These symptoms start between four to twelve hours after the last dose of heroin. Symptoms reach their peak in two to three days, and, depending on the severity of the addiction, last five to ten days. While heroin withdrawal symptoms are generally not life-threatening themselves, they can cause psychological problems, such as depression and suicidal feelings. 

How to safely begin the heroin detox process

Due to the fact that heroin is highly addictive, it’s often not safe to complete the withdrawal process at home or one one’s own. Direct medical help is often required from licensed detox specialists to assist the user in getting through their withdrawals and ceasing their addiction altogether.

One of the most important aspects of getting a patient through this period is to distract them from the pain and discomfort they experience. The patient should be kept near family and friends for support, as well as other positive distractions like music, books, or television. In addition, being in an environment equipped to deal with these situations, such as our heroin rehabilitation center, helps to create a sense of calm and peace for the patient.

Can you die from heroin withdrawal? Unfortunately, yes. This is why it is so important to make sure that the withdrawal period is handled with care, to reduce the chances of heroin withdrawal death.

Detoxing from opiates such as heroin will begin before the drug completely leaves your system, which is about five to seven days after the last dose. During the process, medications, such as Suboxone and the generic methadone, can be used to wean the patient off of the drug. 

Therapy should also be employed to help the patient’s brain to recover from the drug’s damaging effects, as well as the body. The patient’s heart rate, blood pressure, temperature, and breathing are monitored continuously during this process to keep them as safe and comfortable as possible. 

The Heroin Detox Timeline

  • Initial Detox: The first forty-eight hours of any drug treatment program are some of the worst in the whole process, but this is especially true with heroin. The human body possesses amazing adaptive abilities to just about any circumstance; even so, removing something the body has come to be dependent on, such as a potent drug like heroin, can send a shock through the system. In this case, it is important to monitor the patient closely to avoid relapse or any accidental (or intentional) self-harm.
  • Peak Detox: Heroin detox peaks in intensity around the two-day mark, usually bringing about the most severe of all symptoms as the body desperately tries to acclimatize to doing without the influence of the drug. For heroin users who have not used for a long time, these symptoms can be relatively mild; for those who have been using heroin for years or decades, the symptoms will be significantly more intense. Usually after the third or fourth day, the symptoms begin to subside, and the user is on the path to full recovery, barring any unforeseen circumstances or further relapses. Shivers, prolonged cramping, and vomiting may also intensify during this stage. It is important to keep in mind, however, that every detox experience is different. What may be normal for one person may be completely different for someone else.
  • Downhill Detox: By the end of the first, heroin-free week, most symptoms should have mostly abated or subsided substantially. The user may begin to once again feel somewhat normal, though insomnia or generalized anxiety are still common. The physical symptoms, including nausea, diarrhea, and cramping, should have passed by this point. At this time, a doctor might even allow the patient to return home. 

Replenishing lost nutrients is vital to a successful detoxification

An essential part of the detox process is to replenish the nutrients that the patient’s body was deprived of while he or she was a drug addict. The patient is given foods rich in vitamins and minerals. Since a heroin addict often suffers from constipation and digestive system problems, they are given a high-fiber diet that includes whole grains and leafy vegetables.

Medications used in the heroin detox process

The most common medications used to detox patients from heroin include Suboxone and methadone. The purpose of these medications is to reduce the withdrawal symptoms, lessen the pain and discomfort, and to safely wean the patient off of the drug. Both Suboxone and methadone are tapered medicines, which means they are administered in gradually decreasing quantities until the patient makes a full recovery.

  • Methadone is an opioid drug that treats severe pain but can also treat opioid addictions. Patients take methadone as a tablet, liquid or injection in gradually decreasing doses to wean the patient off heroin.
  • Suboxone is a drug that contains a partial opioid agonist called buprenorphine and an opioid antagonist called naloxone. Buprenorphine behaves like heroin and other opioids and its job is to provide just enough of the drug to stimulate the brain’s opioid receptors to prevent a drug craving, but not enough to continue the addiction. Naloxone blocks the effects of the drug and prevents an accidental or intentional overdose. Suboxone is the more popular drug for the treatment of opiate addiction because it is safer and more effective.

Why should you go to a rehab center to detox from heroin?

Going to a rehab center that has a medically monitored detoxification program is the safest way to treat a heroin addiction. It’s best to find a heroin detox program at a reputable drug rehab facility with a professional medical staff that you can rely on. We do not recommend detoxing at home or by yourself. You won’t receive the necessary care or emergency help. At SOBA New Jersey, our team of medical professionals monitor the entire detox process, ensuring you get the care you deserve.

What happens after heroin detox?

Do not assume a successful detox will prevent your body from craving heroin. Heroin detox is not a cure for heroin addiction. Addiction can rewire brain functions to make an addict seek the drug above everything else. View detox as only the first step in the recovery process. You will need to undergo additional rehabilitation to discover and address the underlying causes of your addiction, prevent relapse, and live a successful life in recovery.


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