Detox | 4 min read

Heroin Withdrawal Symptoms, Timeline & Detox Process

Medically Reviewed

Medically Reviewed By

Dr. Po-Chang Hsu

Dr. Po-Chang Hsu

On September 4, 2022

Written By

Amanda Stevens

Amanda Stevens, B.S.

On February 14, 2019

heroin withdrawal symptoms & detox process
Reading Time: 4 minutes

Heroin addiction is becoming more widespread than ever before. Due, in large part, to the over-prescribing and misuse of prescription opiates, the use of heroin – which is an illegal form of opiate – is on the rise. Prescription opioid addicts may find that their legal supply of the drug has run dry, prompting them to seek out more dangerous ways of ensuring that the effects that their body depends on can continue. It is at this point that heroin is introduced.

Heroin epidemics are not new. Heroin addictions have been a concern since the late 19th century, when the drug was first developed to solve morphine addiction. There have been three heroin epidemics since that time. The first two were in the mid-20th century. The third epidemic is now.

Studies show that heroin usage and addiction tripled during the early 21st century. Opiates, such as heroin, are now the leading substance contributing to overdose death in America. Nearly 100 people die daily from toxicity. And while hospital visits for prescription opioid overdoses have declined over the past few years, admissions for heroin-related overdoses have increased.

Heroin Withdrawal Symptoms

Despite being derived from a natural substance, the effects of heroin on the brain and body are severe. After introducing the substance to the body –  through inhalation, ingestion, or injection – the effects are nearly immediate. Pleasurable sensations, such as euphoria, pain relief, and a sense of peace, are accompanied by detrimental effects. These undesirable effects include confusion, decreased breathing and heart rate, and nausea. When the dosage is high, the negative consequences can also include irregular heartbeat, a lowered body temperature, unconsciousness, and death.

The symptoms of withdrawal from heroin can be similarly distressing. Once the effects of the heroin wear off, the addicted person begins to crave another dose within hours. Without another dose, the user begins to feel restless, the body begins to ache, and intestinal discomfort ensues. The heart rate can become too rapid, and the individual can feel extremely anxious. An addicted person may begin to sweat profusely and will have trouble falling asleep. Depression and fatigue can set in, resulting in a lack of mental clarity and a tendency toward social isolation.

Withdrawal Timeline

When attempting to push through withdrawal symptoms on one’s own, the heroin user can expect to spend at least 10 days in a state of discomfort:

  • Within the first few hours of the last dosage, the initial symptoms of withdrawal will begin. The user will begin to experience flu-like symptoms, including muscle pain and diarrhea. These symptoms progress over the next 48 hours and intensify with the addition of uncontrollable shivering and insomnia. Psychologically, the user will experience an increase in anxiety and may experience a sense of panic.
  • The worst of the experience occurs midway through the period of withdrawal. The previous physical symptoms intensify and are joined by nausea, stomach cramps, and profuse sweating. This acute period of discomfort tends to last for another two or three days and is often accompanied by feelings of depression.
  • The final days of the withdrawal process involve a gradual reduction of these symptoms. The former heroin user will begin to feel more normal but will likely be exhausted from weathering the ordeal. The mental and physical cravings for opiates will likely remain for much longer.

With appropriate detox treatment, the severity of the discomfort can be reduced, and the time needed for recovery can be shortened. In addition, most treatment facilities are designed to address both the physical and the psychological symptoms of withdrawal and can provide a safe and comfortable environment for recovery.

Heroin Detoxification Process

Heroin detoxification treatment programs vary in the services that they offer. Some providers practice a procedure known as rapid detox, during which the patient is anesthetized and receives intravenous medications to flush the system of dependence on the drug. This rapid approach claims to reduce withdrawal symptoms to only a matter of hours, much of which time the patient is asleep. However, there are varying reports of the success and dangers of this type of treatment, so due diligence is called for when researching the possibility of engaging in this procedure.

More common detoxing programs span 3-7 days. During the first few days, the patient receives medications that mitigate the effects of opiate withdrawal on the body. Many approved medications for treating heroin withdrawal work by introducing a less potent opiate – such as methadone or buprenorphine –  into the body and then implementing a system of gradual tapering from dependence. Recent advances in pharmaceuticals for detox have resulted in treatment medications that do not contain opiates and have less tendency toward secondary dependence. These newer medications can be taken orally and work by calming the hypertension effects of withdrawal on the body.

As the medications delivered during detox do their job, qualified treatment facilities are available to help the recovering addict to manage the intense emotions that tend to arise. Not only does the effect of heroin withdrawal contribute to increased anxiety, but the user has to simultaneously learn to cope with emotional experiences that the presence of the chemical has previously blunted. For this reason, treatment facilities that focus on the entire experience – physical, mental, and emotional –  tend to be preferred. In addition, programs that offer continuous patient care through a diverse team of professionals provide the best environment for a successful, full recovery.

After initially detoxing from heroin, studies have shown that continued success in abstaining from the drug is difficult. Many users will, unfortunately, relapse into addiction. Those most successful in making the detox permanent are those who develop self-determination and find relief from psychological concerns by developing healthier coping mechanisms. The alarming relapse rate highlights the importance of ongoing psychological treatment and support following the short-term detoxing experience.

If you or a loved one are struggling with heroin addiction and seeking a treatment facility, reach out to Ascendant today. Our drug and alcohol addiction treatment in New York is evidence-based and medically supervised. Your new life is waiting for you.

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