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Article Summary

Heroin Withdrawal

Although it may seem difficult for you to stop using and abusing heroin, you can still quit. While detoxification from heroin addiction is never universally similar for everyone, most of the detox programs you will come across may reflect a standard withdrawal timeline.

That said, heroin tends to act fast on the body and brain. As such, it will dissipate relatively quickly into the bloodstream irrespective of how you ingested it. In general, your body may take between 5 and 7 days to completely filter out all remains of this addictive substance. On the other hand, if you have been abusing heroin heavily, then the detoxification process may last for up to ten days.

As you can well imagine, going through withdrawal from heroin abuse will certainly be tough. In the same way that the highs from this drug tend to be extreme, you can expect that the symptoms you will suffer after you stop using will also be difficult to deal with. This is why it is highly recommended that you detox from heroin through the medical assistance provided by rehabilitation centers.

In this guide, you will learn all there is to know about heroin withdrawal - including the symptoms, the severity of the situation, and why you may want medical supervision for it. Read on to find out more:

Heroin Use

The Foundation for a Drug Free World reports that close to 9.2 million of the world's population uses heroin. In the United States, the drug has also been growing in popularity, with the 2012 NSDUH (the National Survey on Drug Use and Health) estimating that close to 670,000 Americans have admitted to using the drug in the previous year.

Since the use of the drug is becoming so prevalent, it is logical to assume that the number of people who are suffering from heroin addiction has also been rising in the past few years.

Heroin Addiction

But exactly how do you get addicted to heroin? When you inject, snort, or smoke the drug, it will enter your brain and covert into morphine. The substance will then bind to the brain's opioid receptors.

As you continue using the drug, your brain's neurons will start adapting to the heroin exposure. This means that they will only function normally after you get a dose of the substance. As a direct result, when you don't use it, your body will manifest both physical and psychological symptoms.

A variety of factors determine how quickly you can become addicted to heroin. These factors include environment, personality, and genetics. But generally speaking, the regular use of heroin for only a few days is easily enough to cause physical dependence and withdrawal symptoms.

Heroin Withdrawal Symptoms

As stated previously, repeated exposure to this drug will quickly lead to both mental and physical addiction. After that, any time you don't use it you will experience physical withdrawal symptoms - which may only last for about a week or so. These symptoms tend to be quite severe and you will feel like you have a severe case of flu. The severity of the symptoms typically compel users to resume heroin use if only to stop the pain of withdrawal.

Consider the following symptoms of heroin withdrawal:

a) Physical Symptoms

When you decide to stop using heroin - or if you are unable to use for one reason or the other - your body will display the following symptoms:

  • Abdominal cramping
  • Bone aches
  • Cold sweats
  • Diarrhea
  • Goosebumps
  • Increased tearing
  • Nausea
  • Runny nose
  • Vomiting
  • Yawning

b) Psychological Symptoms

Lack of heroin may also affect your brain in the following ways:

  • Agitation
  • Anxiety
  • Cravings
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Difficulty finding pleasure
  • Depression
  • Fatigue
  • Insomnia
  • Restlessness
  • Tremors

As mentioned above, a number of factors will determine the severity of the withdrawal process. These include the mode of use (injection, snorting, or smoking), the duration of use, and the amount you used.

MedlinePlus reports that most of these withdrawal symptoms may start showing at least 12 hours after your last exposure to the drug. They will also peak on the 2nd and 3rd days of your withdrawal. The physical symptoms, on the other hand, may last for close to 10 days while the psychological symptoms tend to last much longer - even going so far as 6 or more months.

Quitting Cold Turkey

In most cases, you will have a hard time handling the physical effects of heroin withdrawal. This is why it is highly recommended that you undergo medical detoxification to deal with these symptoms.

If you decide to go it alone, it is highly likely that you will resume your heroin abuse - if only to make the withdrawal symptoms disappear. This is true even in those situations when you have a strong desire to stop using, or if your original intention was to quit.

Additionally, as soon as you stop using the drug, your tolerance for heroin will start going down. This means that your body will need less of the substance to achieve the desired effects (to get high).

As a direct result, if you were previously addicted to heroin and you relapse after a period of non-use, it is highly possible that you may overdose. This is because you may not realize that your tolerance for it has gone down.

To this end, when you quit heroin cold turkey, you will undergo withdrawal. This may lead to a variety of conditions, including dehydration from diarrhea and vomiting. Withdrawal may also cause a variety of emotions - ranging from anxiety to depression.

This emotional instability on its own is enough to compel users to resort to such self-destructive habits as suicide and self-harm. Statistics reported by Psychology Today actually show that 45% of people with untreated drug/substance use disorders tend to commit suicide - or at least attempt it.

With such shocking figures, it is unfortunate that the percentage of individuals who do not receive formal addiction treatment is still high. Actually, only about 2.5 million out of the 23.1 million who are addicted to drugs like heroin receive the treatment they need according to the 2012 NSDUH.

Medical Detoxification

If you are addicted to heroin, therefore, and you decide to quit, it is highly recommended that you undergo medical detoxification. NIDA (the National Institute on Drug Abuse) reports that 40 to 60% of the people who are addicted to illicit drugs and addictive substances will relapse at one point or the other. What is shocking is that such relapses are not always as a result of the intensely unbearable physical withdrawal symptoms most of these addicts suffer when they quit.

Rather, the psychological withdrawal symptoms are more to blame for relapses. This is because they cause a wide range of emotions - including anxiety and depression. Needless to say, it is difficult for most people to deal with and handle these issues, which is why most will prefer to resume their drug use if only to make these emotions disappear temporarily.

As you can imagine, this is especially true for people who do not receive the emotional support needed to help them undergo withdrawal and finally recover from drug and substance abuse.

If you are addicted to heroin and you decide to stop using, therefore, it is highly recommended that you check into a treatment facility. The program you participate in will have professional staff who can help you deal with any difficult emotions that might otherwise have compelled you to relapse.

By seeking out formal treatment for your heroin use, the staff may prescribe medications to eliminate or reduce the withdrawal symptoms. This way, your detox process will be more comfortable.

a) Buprenorphine

For example, buprenorphine is commonly prescribed as a treatment for withdrawal symptoms from opioids. Buprenorphine can be used short-term, during the detox and withdrawal process, or in other instances, it might also be used for long term maintenance.

Buprenorphine is also an opioid, like heroin, but it is a very slow acting partial opioid agonist which means that the euphoria is less intense than other full agonist opioids, and the long acting effect means that the user only takes it once every 24 hours. Taking buprenorphine prevents heroin withdrawal symptoms because it activates the same brain receptors as heroin.

You might get buprenorphine with naloxone, sold as Suboxone. Naloxone works to prevent abuse of the drug because if injected, the naloxone component will immediately trigger withdrawal symptoms. Drugs that contain both buprenorphine and naloxone include Bunavail, Zubsolv, and Suboxone.

b) Methadone

The medical detox team might also use methadone to prevent or relieve heroin withdrawal. This is also a slow acting opioid agonist however it is a full agonist unlike Buprenorphine, a partial-agonist. Because methadone is a full agonist, it has a higher potential for abuse.

c) Long Term Drug Maintenance

After you undergo medical detoxification for heroin addiction, you may additionally be put on long term maintenance. This is designed to further assist with your addiction by continuing a long-term regimen of methadone or buprenorphine. This reduces heroin cravings, reduces drug seeking and addictive behaviors, and allows patients to become more stable in life. Eventually the maintenance doses are slowly reduced over time until you are completely free of all substances.

Beyond Detoxification

As you strive to recover from your heroin addiction, you should remember that there is more to recovery than medical detox. In fact, your journey to sobriety won't stop after detox.

Since addiction - to heroin or to any other substance - is a chronic disorder, you might need lifelong treatment to ensure that you do not relapse and go back to your previous habits.

This is particularly so because addiction causes more than just physical symptoms. In effect, it might also change your mental status. As a direct result, the cravings for heroin you get after detox may make you more susceptible to relapse - which is most likely during the first 90 days after you stop using.

Here's what you might have to use to solidify the gains you made during heroin detox:

a) Therapy

Therapy may be used to reduce your risk of relapse. It will be designed in such a way that you learn how to cope with a life free of heroin. Additionally, therapy will help you identify your usual triggers and learn how to avoid/prevent them.

Most comprehensive treatment programs for heroin addiction are designed to include therapy, which provides encouragement and support as you continue on the road to full recovery.

b) Peer Support Groups

Otherwise known as 12 step programs, peer support groups bring people together - particularly those who are dealing with similar or the same issues with addiction to substances like heroin.

During the group meetings, you will get the opportunity to offer support (and receive it in turn), discuss common challenges, and celebrate the success of other members in their recovery.

As a new member, you may be sponsored by a more seasoned former addict. You can get in touch with your sponsor whenever you get the urge to use heroin or you fear that you are about to relapse.

The ongoing support from these groups may prove crucial to your recovery. It will, for instance, help you maintain your sobriety especially during the early stages of your recovery when you are most vulnerable to a relapse.

c) Treatment

Last but not least, you should keep in mind that heroin is a serious drug that is difficult to shake once you are addicted to it. Since this is the case, you may want to undergo inpatient or outpatient treatment - or a combination of both.

Inpatient programs will take you away from negative individuals, environments, and situations - triggers, if you will - that may negatively impact your recovery. Outpatient settings, on the other hand, work better when done after already completeing an inpatient program. Here, you are still receiving ongoing therapy to build a more solid foundation for long term recovery. The only difference is that you will still be able to live and work as you normally do.

Concluding Thoughts

Overall, you should not try to quit this drug without help. This is primarily because of heroin withdrawal, which may cause you to relapse. However, even trying to detox yourself may come with complications that you are going to need help with. This is why it is always advisable that you check into a drug treatment, detoxification, and rehabilitation center to ensure that you receive the right kind of assistance as you continue battling your heroin addiction.

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