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How to Help a Heroin Addict Detox

helping loved ones

Heroin is an addictive drug that is derived from morphine. An opioid, it works in a very similar manner as prescription pain medications, such as Vicodin and Oxycontin. The drug reaches the brain quickly when injected, inhaled, or smoked.

It is extremely difficult to overcome heroin addiction because changes in the brain lead to dependency and an unquenchable desire for more of the drug. In addition to medication and counseling, effective detox requires support and encouragement. Help from a solid support system reaches beyond medical detox; it’s important for long-term recovery and relapse prevention.

According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), over 8,200 individuals lost their lives due to heroin overdoses in 2013. This is quadruple the number from 2002. The physical dependence that results from opioid abuse not only drives a person to want more, but also to take higher doses to achieve the same feeling. Once dependence has formed, a person must continue taking heroin to prevent the uncomfortable symptoms of withdrawal. As users continue with heroin abuse, overdoses often happen by accident, and these overdoses can be deadly.

As a result, it’s important that friends and family members do all they can to help their loved one through the detox process. As with all opioids, heroin withdrawal necessitates medical detox. In some instances, replacement medications will be used to slowly wean the person off opioids, and medical support and supervision are provided throughout the withdrawal process.

Heroin’s Addictive Potential

Heroin, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, is made from morphine, which is obtained naturally from Asian opium poppy plant seeds. It is available in different forms: as a white or brown powder and as a sticky substance, called black tar heroin. When consumed, heroin is metabolized back to morphine in the body. This substance binds to opioid receptors in the brain, brain stem, spinal cord, and digestive system. It takes hold of locations where pain perception and reward mechanisms are managed.

Part of why heroin is so addictive is because there are many opioid receptors in the brain stem. Here, body functions, such as respiration and blood pressure, are controlled. A heroin overdose therefore often suppresses breathing. When oxygen flow to the brain is restricted, there can be serious damage that can manifest as neurological and psychological problems.

When one uses heroin, there is a feeling of euphoria that takes over, especially if the drug is taken intravenously, or injected. Next, the person will get flushed skin, suppressed mental functions, and a dry mouth. Their extremities will feel heavy as well. After a while, the person goes into a state of alternating wakefulness and sleepiness.

Researchers have found that with long-term use, opioids can cause white matter in the brain to deteriorate, which can affect behavior, stress response, and decision-making abilities. Aside from fatal overdose, heroin users have also experienced spontaneous abortion, heart infections, collapsed veins, and liver and kidney disease. If a person is in poor health due to heroin use, they could develop pneumonia since lung function is diminished.

Those who inject heroin are also at an increased risk of infections, such as HIV and hepatitis. According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), heroin use became associated with the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s due to the practice of sharing needles.

Heroin Detox

The U.S. National Library of Medicine’s MedlinePlus website states that after a user’s last heroin dose, withdrawal symptoms generally begin within 12 hours. Early signs of heroin withdrawal include:

  • Muscle aches
  • Teary eyes
  • Sweating
  • Runny nose
  • Insomnia
  • Anxiety
  • Agitation

Symptoms can quickly escalate to include nausea and vomiting, diarrhea, abdominal pain, goosebumps, and dilated pupils.

In 2015, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s (SAMHSA) issue of The CBHSQ Report showed that about 517,000 people were considered dependent on heroin in 2013, including 10,000 adolescents and 182,000 young adults. The report was a collaboration between SAMHSA and the National Survey on Drug Use and Health. Over time, the report has found an increase in mortality due to heroin use and a decrease in the perceived danger of the drug.

The need for detox help from medical professionals, and help from family members and friends, is high.

How Loved Ones Can Help

recovered couple

Denial is a hallmark of addiction. It’s often necessary for family members and friends to approach a loved one about their heroin use and encourage them to seek help. A professional interventionist can help loved ones plan for and stage the event, and that professional can ensure the discussion stays on track. In addition, interventionists often escort addicts to treatment following the intervention if they agree to get help.

Loved ones can also help to set realistic expectations for detox. While it won’t be easy, medical detox involves the management of withdrawal symptoms so the process doesn’t have to be painful or terribly uncomfortable. In a medical detox program, clients are often prescribed medications to mitigate the worst symptoms of withdrawal, and continual supervision ensures that they successfully complete withdrawal without relapsing.

Before the intervention, loved ones can research heroin detox programs, identifying two or three options for the individual to choose from. Look for programs that are credentialed and staffed with medical professionals who have extensive experience in heroin detox. Most often, medical detox for heroin addiction involves 24-hour supervision and replacement medications, so facilities should have medical staff members available around the clock as well as a doctor on staff to prescribe medications.

Once the individual has agreed to enter detox, loved ones can assure them that they have their total support throughout the process. Often, during the first few days of detox, facilities may discourage visitors so the client can fully focus on the process at hand. After that point, loved ones can visit the individual at the detox center, offering support and encouragement throughout the withdrawal process.

Following detox, help from family and friends is critical. While detox is an important first step in the recovery process, it does not constitute addiction treatment on its own.

Without comprehensive therapy to address the underlying aspects of addiction, relapse is essentially inevitable. As a result, loved ones can help the addict in their life transfer into a complete treatment program following detox.

Through treatment and ongoing recovery, loved ones can continue to offer their unwavering support of the individual’s progress. This may take the form of driving them to therapy appointments, attending a 12-Step meeting with them, or checking in with them on a daily basis to ensure they are feeling good and moving forward in recovery.

About The Contributor
Editorial Staff
Editorial Staff, American Addiction Centers
The editorial staff of River Oaks Treatment is comprised of addiction content experts from American Addiction Centers. Our editors and medical reviewers have over a decade of cumulative experience in medical content editing and have reviewed... Read More