How Dangerous is Heroin Withdrawal?

Published: 11/10/17

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Last updated on December 12th, 2017 at 09:36 am

Heroin is a type of opioid drug, which means it is in the same family as painkillers like OxyContin. However, because heroin is unregulated, its effects are less predictable and it often contains other drugs such as fentanyl, which can be fatal even in small doses.

As a fast-acting drug, heroin is typically injected directly into the bloodstream, although it can also be snorted or smoked. Like other opioids, heroin affects the brain directly, lessening pain and increasing feelings of pleasure for a short but intense period of time.

Because heroin is so fast-acting, the withdrawal period can begin quickly, as well, sometimes just hours after the most recent dose.

What is typical heroin withdrawal like?

Heroin withdrawal occurs when the brain and body become accustomed to the drug’s presence and experience discomfort when the drug is no longer available. Generally, drug users who use higher levels of heroin will experience more severe withdrawal symptoms than those who use less, but withdrawal can occur regardless of the amount taken, as long as the body has become accustomed to the drug.

People experiencing withdrawal from heroin may experience a range of symptoms from mild to severe, some of which may include:

  • A sense of unease, anxiety, or inability to sit still
  • Difficulty sleeping or insomnia
  • Muscle aches, pains and spasms
  • Cravings and desire for the drug
  • Stomach problems, including diarrhea
  • Difficulty regulating body temperature, often too cold

In general, heroin withdrawal will be uncomfortable but manageable, although the intensity of withdrawal can also be affected by the way the drugs were consumed.

Is heroin withdrawal dangerous?

Unlike alcohol withdrawal, which can result in potentially fatal seizures, heroin withdrawal is generally not dangerous when managed in a controlled environment by detox professionals.

As discussed above, typical withdrawal symptoms vary in severity but are generally tolerable. Some detox programs may manage intense cravings for heroin through methadone or buprenorphine, which helps people undergoing heroin withdrawal to manage their symptoms and lower the desire for the drug.

One of the biggest concerns during and after heroin withdrawal is the long-term mental impact of the person’s drug use. Because opioids directly affect the brain’s ability to process pain and pleasure, many researchers feel that the long-term risks to the brain are substantial.

Researchers at the University of Utah have found that chronic drug use can actually “re-wire” the brain and affect functions like decision-making, memory, and judgment. While stopping taking the drug will decrease future damage to the brain, many researchers believe that the majority of the brain cells killed by drug use will not return. This means that the changes to the brain due to drug use can last a long time, well past recovery.

Luckily, a well-managed withdrawal program can help manage both physical and mental withdrawal symptoms and prepare the person undergoing withdrawal for ongoing addiction treatment.

How is heroin withdrawal managed?

A professional detox program will manage heroin withdrawal through a combination of medical interventions and support for physical pain and discomfort.

As mentioned above, many detox programs will use pharmaceutical methods to help clients through the heroin withdrawal process. In general, these medicines, which include methadone, buprenorphine, and naltrexone, help to combat cravings, aid with withdrawal challenges, and block the effects of opioids on the brain.

In addition to medicines used for heroin’s lasting effects, detox providers will help clients manage any discomfort or unease from the physical symptoms of withdrawal, including treatments for nausea and muscle aches.

Lastly, most qualified detox providers help clients through the withdrawal process through staff guidance, personalized attention, and a constantly supervised location that provides a comfortable and safe space to manage withdrawal.

The length of heroin withdrawal can vary from person to person, but severe withdrawal symptoms typically begin to taper off after roughly one week, although some form of symptoms can persist for one month or more. Generally, however, symptoms are at their most severe up to 72 hours after taking the last dose of heroin.

If you’re considering a detox program for heroin, it’s important to ask questions before enrolling. Some key questions to consider:

  • Does the detox program use medical intervention to help with withdrawal?
  • If so, which medications do they use?
  • Is the detox program supervised 24 hours per day, 7 days per week?
  • Does the detox program assist clients in their next step towards recovery?

This last question is crucial for long-term success. A qualified detox program will always assist a client with finding the appropriate next step in their recovery. While detox is critical for long-term recovery and a lowered risk of relapse, it is not, by itself, an effective form of addiction treatment.

Instead, professional detox experts will refer their client to an addiction treatment program that will help the person in recovery to learn new coping mechanisms, understand their addiction triggers, and develop a support network to keep them from relapsing.

If you’re considering a detox program for heroin, the addiction treatment experts at Recovering Champions can help you understand your options and find the right program for your needs and goals. We’re here to help at 1-844-888-5391.