Heroin is an extremely addictive opiate drug. Although it has been illegal in the US since 1924, this drug is widely available and less expensive here than it is in other countries. The rise of opioid painkiller addiction has fueled a rise, over the past decade, in heroin addiction and abuse as well. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention noted that, between 2010 and 2012, there was a dramatic rise in heroin overdose, as more people are moving from prescription painkiller abuse to heroin abuse.
This illegal and addictive substance floods the opioid receptors in the brain, causing the individual to feel euphoric and carefree.
Individuals who become addicted to heroin report feeling warm, relaxed, and in a dream-like state.
When an individual suffers from heroin addiction, that person is more likely to suffer serious side effects, including:
- Collapsed veins at injection site
- Bacterial or fungal infections that spread to the heart or lungs
- Viral infections, such as HIV or hepatitis
- Respiratory depression leading to oxygen deprivation
- Cognitive impairment
- Overdose and death
The Effects of Heroin Withdrawal
Many people struggling with heroin addiction may be scared of the withdrawal process, and this may serve as a deterrent to quitting the drug. However, withdrawal symptoms are often part of the process of detoxing from any drug, and these symptoms can be managed in a medical setting. Those who suffer from ongoing heroin addiction are much more likely to overdose, suffer chronic health issues, and even die than those who move through detox and go on to recover from their addiction.
Potential symptoms of heroin withdrawal include:
- Aggression, irritability, and mood swings
- Cold- or flu-like symptoms like runny nose, sweating, and chills
- Muscle and joint pain
- Exhaustion or fatigue
- Abdominal cramps
- Nausea or vomiting
- Pupil dilation
- Respiratory changes, including rapid breathing
Heroin withdrawal symptoms generally begin within a day after the last dose of heroin, and the most acute symptoms last up to three days (72 hours) after symptoms begin. Although psychological symptoms, like cravings or depression, can continue for weeks or months after opiate withdrawal, the physical symptoms usually pass in 1-2 weeks after the individual stops taking the drug.
Is At-Home Detox Safe?
Medical detox is recommended for heroin addiction. As heroin is such a strong drug, the withdrawal process can be challenging, and medical supervision ensures clients’ safety and comfort throughout the entire process. Medical professionals are able to intervene if any complications occur, and they are able to prescribe medications and other treatments to mitigate the severity of withdrawal symptoms. This level of support and supervision greatly increases the likelihood of individuals completing the withdrawal process and moving on to the bulk of addiction treatment.
Most individuals who suffer from heroin addiction have a very difficult time quitting the drug on their own.
With at-home detox, individuals are likely to simply return to heroin use in an effort to make uncomfortable withdrawal symptoms disappear.
A return to heroin use, especially in a panicked attempt to get rid of withdrawal symptoms, could potentially result in overdose, which can be life-threatening. In a medical detox setting, professionals supervise clients around the clock to ensure that this return to drug use doesn’t occur.
With the potential for complications and a high risk of relapse and overdose, at-home heroin detox is not considered a safe option for those suffering from heroin addiction.
Medications Used in Heroin Detox
In some instances, “cold turkey” detox is not the best option for those suffering from heroin addiction. In these cases, replacement medications may be used during the detox process to ease the transition off heroin. These medications include:
- Methadone: This partial opioid agonist has been used for decades to help those struggling with addiction to wean off heroin. Methadone fills the opioid receptors in the brain, thereby preventing withdrawal symptoms, but doesn’t bring on the euphoria associated with heroin use.
- Buprenorphine: Also known by the brand name Subutex, buprenorphine works in a similar manner to methadone, but it may have less potential for abuse. Buprenorphine can be prescribed by a physician, whereas those who take methadone have to visit clinics on a daily basis to get their doses.
- Vivitrol: A long-acting version of naltrexone, Vivitrol has been very recently approved by the FDA to help individuals struggling with opioid addiction. With Vivitrol, doctors give individuals an injection once per month, which stops opioids from binding to the receptors in the brain. Other forms of naltrexone have been used to help treat heroin addiction as well. This medication should not be confused with naloxone, which is used only to stop opioid overdoses.
In addition to replacement medications, psychiatric medications may be used during medical detox to address co-occurring disorders. These medications may be used to address emotional withdrawal symptoms like depression and anxiety.
Get Help with Heroin Withdrawal
Individuals suffering from heroin addiction cannot safety on their own at home. Withdrawal symptoms can be acute, and psychological stress can cause the person to relapse. In addition, if a person has suffered from addiction to heroin for a long time, that person may have physical damage to the lungs or heart, which could be exacerbated by withdrawal symptoms.
Medical detox, followed by inpatient rehabilitation, is the safest and most effective method to withdraw from heroin.