heroin withdrawal and detox

Modified: 18th Jul 2019

Rates of heroin use have skyrocketed over the last several years, as have the rates of heroin-related overdose deaths.

Many people in the United States are struggling with heroin addiction. But, they are unable to stop using it because the withdrawal symptoms and detoxification process are so severe. 

Some important information regarding heroin withdrawal and detoxification is explained below.

If you or someone you love is struggling with heroin addiction, this information can help you understand what to expect as you go through the process toward recovery.

What Causes Heroin Withdrawal?

Heroin is an opioid drug. It is similar to painkillers like morphine and oxycodone.

Heroin (and other opioid drugs) relieves pain and brings about a feeling of euphoria. It does this by binding to the opioid receptors in the brain and spinal cord. 

When it binds to the opioid receptors, heroin triggers the release of a neurotransmitter known as dopamine. Dopamine brings about feelings of pleasure and mediates the brain’s reward system.

When the effects of heroin wear off, an individual who is addicted to it will seek more. They do this to bring back the same feeling of pleasure they experienced before.

Eventually, the individual will develop a tolerance to that level of heroin and will require more to experience the same effect.

If they don’t get more heroin, or if they don’t get it in the same quantities they’re used to, they will begin to experience symptoms of withdrawal.

Because these withdrawal symptoms are so unpleasant, the individual will seek out more of the drug in order to find relief.

Heroin Withdrawal Symptoms

If an individual is addicted to heroin, they will likely experience a wide range of withdrawal symptoms. Some of the most common symptoms of heroin withdrawal include:

  • Agitation and anxiety
  • Muscle aches and weakness
  • Tearing eyes
  • Nasal congestion or a runny nose
  • Insomnia and night terrors
  • Fatigue and frequent yawning
  • Increased sweating and clammy skin
  • Digestive issues like abdominal cramping, diarrhea, nausea, and vomiting
  • Pupil dilation
  • Goosebumps, chills, and chattering teeth
  • Changes in appetite (excess hunger or a loss of appetite)
  • Numbness or tingling in the hands or feet
  • Tremors
  • Seizures

Heroin is a fast-acting drug, but it also leaves the bloodstream very quickly.

These heroin withdrawal symptoms often arise 6-12 hours after the individual’s last heroin usage. In heavy users, symptoms can set in in as little as four hours after their last use.

The severity of the withdrawal symptoms varies depending on the frequency with which the individual uses heroin.

Duration of Heroin Withdrawal

The heroin withdrawal timeline is slightly different for each person who goes through withdrawal and detox. But, the typical heroin withdrawal timeline typically looks something like this:

  • 6-12 hours after the last heroin dose, symptoms set in
  • 2-3 days after the last heroin dose, the peak of withdrawal occurs
  • Approximately one week after the last heroin dose, symptoms begin to subside

Withdrawal symptoms typically get more manageable after approximately one week. But, post-acute withdrawal symptoms can linger for weeks, months, or even years after the last dose. Common post-acute withdrawal symptoms include:

  • Insomnia
  • Sensitivity to stress
  • Anxiety
  • Cognitive difficulties

The initial detoxification process may be over, but that doesn’t mean the individual is cured of their addiction.

Detoxing from Heroin on Your Own

It’s very dangerous for a heroin addict to go through the detoxification process alone. Very few, if any, physicians recommend it. This is because of the severity of the withdrawal symptoms an individual experiences when they give up heroin.

In addition to being very dangerous, detoxing from heroin alone also increases one’s risk of relapsing.

A heroin addict requires long-term support and counseling to overcome their addiction. They cannot access these resources if they’re trying to handle detoxification and recovery on their own.

For individuals who are addicted to heroin, it is much better to work with a team of medical and mental health professionals. These people are trained to help addicts detox from the drug, manage withdrawal symptoms, and overcome their addiction.

When they work with a medical team, the individual also has access to a variety of medications that help minimize withdrawal symptoms.

Medical Detox for Heroin

Medical detox involves the use of certain medications to reduce the severity of the withdrawal symptoms.

How Medical Detox Works and What to Expect

During a medical detox, a medical professional will provide the patient with the medication they need to manage their withdrawal symptoms.

There are many other benefits that come with choosing a medical detox for heroin, including the following:

  • Individuals may be more open to other behavioral treatment methods
  • Drug-seeking behavior is reduced since the brain’s opiate receptors are still being filled
  • Retention in therapy is increased, as is the likelihood that the individual will obtain lasting sobriety 

Medical detox often takes place in a hospital or other clinical setting. That way, the individual who is struggling with addiction has round-the-clock care and support.

Medications Available for Heroin Detox

Some of the medications most frequently used during a medical detox include:

  • Clonidine: This is a generic blood pressure drug that has been shown to treat opiate withdrawal symptoms by acting as a sedative.
  • Methadone: This is an opioid medication that lessens withdrawal symptoms and decreases an individual’s cravings for heroin.
  • Buprenorphine: This is a partial opioid agonist that blocks the opioid receptors and may reduce cravings and withdrawal symptoms.

These medications are specifically meant to aid in heroin addiction treatment. Physicians may also prescribe other medications like antidepressants and anti-anxiety drugs.

It’s important to note that these medications do not fully eliminate all withdrawal symptoms. But, they do lessen their severity and make them more manageable. That way, the individual can go through counseling and work on changing their behaviors.

Get Help Detoxing from Heroin

As you can see, the best approach to take when it comes to detoxing from heroin and minimizing withdrawal symptoms is to work with a trained medical professional. 

Contact us at Addiction Treatment Services today to learn more about our addiction treatment and detox programs. 

You can also set up a confidential assessment to determine which treatment method will be the most effective for you.

Article Reviewed by Dr. Keerthy Sunder, MD, DFAPA

Dr. Keerthy Sunder, MD, DFAPADr. Keerthy Sunder, MD is an accomplished and internationally recognized expert in the field of addiction. He has earned diplomates from the American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology, the American Board of Addiction Medicine, and the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists.