Quitting heroin is hard for many users to do on their own without professional help despite their best intentions. The potent opioid drug is a derivative from naturally occurring morphine. It is taken from the seed pod of opium poppy plants and before it is cut or laced with various substances before it is sold on the streets.
One of these substances is deadly fentanyl, which largely has been viewed as responsible for a large increase in opioid-related deaths that made opioid addiction a national health crisis.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), nearly 15,000 people died from heroin overdoses in the U.S., a rate of nearly five deaths for every 100,000 Americans, it reports.
Many people turn to heroin after misusing prescription opioid pain medications. Heroin is easier to access and cheaper, as well. Once the pull of heroin is strong on a person, it is hard to quit. Regular use leads to dependence or addiction, and some people will want to get off that path and start anew.
Heroin Detox Can Help Recovering Users Combat Drug Cravings
Once a person is addicted to heroin, the cravings for it can be intense and relentless. Verywell Mind explains that the cravings are partly driven by the desire to get high. They are also driven by a person’s desire to stop feeling sick from withdrawal. The people who want to leave heroin addiction behind must have a realistic understanding of what to expect when they embark on this journey.
Heroin detox is highly recommended. You will be professionally guided through the withdrawal period, which can be uncomfortable. Below is a general timeline and stages of heroin detox.
General Heroin Withdrawal Timeline
Each person who goes through withdrawal from heroin will have a unique experience based on several factors, including their age, sex, genes, weight, overall health, and history of substance abuse. All of these will determine how long heroin withdrawal and detox last.
People who use heroin frequently or heavily can expect the substance to remain in their bodies for longer periods than someone who uses it occasionally. How strong or pure the heroin is another factor to consider. Heroin that is close to its original form is more potent than heroin that has additives in it. Additives also affect how long the drug stays in the body. People with faster metabolism rates will process heroin more quickly.
Below is an overview of what happens when heroin use stops. This period can last anywhere from five to 10 days.
First 6-12 Hours: Heroin’s short half-life (about 30 minutes) means the drug quickly leaves the user’s bloodstream in about six to 12 hours, leading to withdrawal symptoms. Symptoms can start off mild and gradually worsen as the withdrawal detox period unfolds. Users may have watery eyes, runny nose, sweating, and excessive yawning.
If you or someone you know is going through heroin withdrawal, it could help to have someone stay near the person going through heroin detox. This can be a challenging time for the recovering heroin addict, and they could struggle with severe depression and have thoughts to bring harm to themselves.
Days 1-3: Withdrawal symptoms will begin to peak during this period. On the second day, 48 hours into withdrawal, many heroin users experience the severest of symptoms. These include:
- Appetite loss
- Intense heroin cravings
- Body aches
- Dilated pupils
- Overall physical pain
These conditions happen as the body attempts to adjust to low levels of heroin in the body. On day three, or 72 hours in, symptoms typically worsen. A person may feel nausea, vomiting, muscle cramps, insomnia, tremors, and chills. Changes in body temperature and blood pressure make some users sweat profusely.
Days 4-10: Physical withdrawal symptoms may begin to fade, but pain, insomnia, and nausea are all still possible at this stage. Mental withdrawal symptoms may heighten during this time as powerful cravings for the drug may resurface. Medically monitored detox from heroin can last up to 10 days for people with severe heroin addictions.
Few Months: Recovering heroin users may experience Post Acute Withdrawal Symptoms (PAWS) in the months after physically detoxing from the drug. These symptoms, which are more psychological in nature, include mood swings, depression, anxiety, trouble sleeping, and continued heroin cravings. Aftercare treatment can help people in heroin addiction recovery navigate this rough period.
Other Factors That Shape The Heroin Detox Timeline
A Person’s Detox From Heroin Can Also Be Affected By The Following Factors:
- How long, how frequently they use heroin (a shorter time of use means a shorter withdrawal period)
- Size of the usual heroin dose
- The manner in which heroin is consumed (e.g., smoked, inhaled, injected)
- If heroin is used with other drugs, alcohol (polydrug use)
- Whether they have a pre-existing physical health condition
- Whether they have pre-existing mental health disorders (e.g., anxiety, depression, PTSD)
It also matters if heroin has been used or cut with other drugs and substances. Any substance mixed with heroin can affect a person’s recovery time. This can also be the case when more than one drug is used with heroin.
Do I Need To Detox From Heroin?
Heroin withdrawal symptoms aren’t usually life-threatening, but that does not mean they can’t be uncomfortable to those who endure them. Some people have described heroin withdrawal as a really bad flu, perhaps the worst they’ve ever had. Fever, body aches, nausea, vomiting, and sweating are common symptoms during the withdrawal period.
Heroin withdrawal symptoms can be hard on the mind, too. Some users rather pick up and use the drug again than go through the discomforting physical and psychological symptoms again. Of course, this relapse only sets back their recovery time and further puts their life at risk. Overdose can happen, and in some cases, it can lead to death.
Long-term heroin users are discouraged from quitting chronic use abruptly. The addictive nature of heroin can make it difficult for some people to stop. The psychological discomfort they feel could lead them to start using the drug again, and that can lead to relapse, which can permanently harm the body or end in death.
Addiction Care Professionals Can Help With Heroin Detox
Professional drug treatment at a rehabilitation center or detox center can help recovering heroin users stay safe while addressing their dependence or addiction.
A 24-hour detox administered by medical professionals ensures a person in heroin addiction recovery is monitored closely as uncomfortable heroin withdrawal symptoms run their course.
During heroin withdrawal, clients may be given medications to help ease high blood pressure, nausea, chills, cravings, depression, and other symptoms. There are also medications used that are specifically for heroin withdrawal. One of them is buprenorphine, an opioid drug similar to heroin that allows users to safely taper off it and helps them manage heroin cravings.
Another is methadone, a long-acting opioid medication that blocks pain relievers from interacting with the brain, which helps reduce the cravings. Methadone is habit-forming, even when taken at a therapeutic dose, so it should be used with care.
Recovery-Focused Treatment Is The Next Step
Recovering users who have completed heroin detox are encouraged to enter an inpatient, residential, or outpatient treatment program where they can focus on their addiction.
Some people may want to skip entering a treatment program because they think once the physical discomfort of heroin withdrawal is gone, so is the problem. This is incorrect. Addiction changes the rewiring of the brain, so it is very possible that users will always have to fight against addiction and relapse for the rest of their lives.
Detox alone is rarely effective for this reason. It is also not enough as it does not give recovering heroin users the opportunity to dig deep and get to the root of why they abused heroin in the first place.
Treatment programs allow people to pull back the curtain to learn about themselves, including the triggers, environments, scenarios, and other factors that contribute to their history of substance abuse. They also learn tools and strategies that help them avoid scenarios that could lead them back into the life they are working to leave behind.
There are various treatment options available, and they can be tailored to meet the person’s unique needs.
Medication-assisted treatment (MAT) is a widely used option to help heroin users recover from their addiction. MAT combines FDA-approved prescription medications (such as buprenorphine) with therapies and counseling to treat the “whole person” to help improve their chances of recovering from opioid addiction or alcoholism.
MAT teaches recovering substance users how to avoid relapse and overdose as well as how drug use affects their physical, mental, and emotional health.
Outpatient treatment is the most flexible, while inpatient and residential likely require a 30-day or longer stay at the treatment facility. The longer one stays in treatment and is motivated to change and improve, the greater their chances are of overcoming addiction.
According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, at least 90 days (three months) or more are needed to treat drug addiction. If a client stays longer, they will have a chance to develop life skills and strategies needed to live without using drugs.
Cognitive behavioral therapy, dialectical behavioral therapy, yoga, and other therapies and approaches that support recovery are also offered in residential rehab programs.
Once a person exits a treatment program, they can still receive treatment for aftercare services that can help them find suitable housing, employment, and support groups that can help them stay focused on living a full life with heroin addiction far behind them.