Medically Reviewed by Dr. Francine Mends, MD on August 12, 2020
Heroin withdrawal is one of the most common signs of addiction, and it’s the reason that heroin relapse happens so often.
Everyone who’s lived with heroin addiction has been in withdrawal. When you’re in the thick of heroin withdrawal, all you want to do is get access to more heroin. As a result, your risk of relapsing skyrockets.
You can control heroin withdrawal by going to a medical detox program. Doing this can lessen your risk of relapse by keeping your withdrawal symptoms under control.
What is Heroin Withdrawal?
Heroin withdrawal happens when you stop using heroin after developing dependence or addiction. Most people who experience heroin withdrawal feel like they have the flu, but worse.
When you use heroin, the drug attaches to receptors in your brain called opioid receptors. These receptors help your brain release dopamine, a chemical that creates feelings of euphoria and pleasure.
If you stop using heroin after you’ve used it a few times, your brain can’t cope with the sudden drop in dopamine. The result is a withdrawal that causes feelings of anxiety and depression, along with severe physical symptoms.
Withdrawal always comes with cravings for heroin. These cravings are often so strong that relapse feels inevitable.
Is Heroin Withdrawal Dangerous?
Heroin withdrawal isn’t dangerous for all people, but it’s extremely uncomfortable.
The biggest risk of heroin withdrawal is dehydration from severe, persistent vomiting and diarrhea. Most people can avoid medical problems during withdrawal by hydrating enough and replacing electrolytes.
Some people are at risk of severe health problems if they become dehydrated.
Seek medical help during withdrawal if you have:
- Anorexia or malnutrition
- Adrenal disease like Addison’s disease
- Blood pressure problems
- Heart disease
- Electrolyte problems
- Seizure disorders
What Are the Signs of Heroin Withdrawal?
The signs of heroin withdrawal are divided into early symptoms and peak symptoms. You’ll feel the first symptoms within 12 hours of your last heroin dose.
The early symptoms of heroin withdrawal include:
- Increased bodily fluids, such as tears, sweat, and nasal secretions
- Mood changes, such as anxiety and agitation
- Muscle pain and cramps
Later in withdrawal, you’ll experience:
- Dilated pupils
- Nausea and vomiting
- Stomach cramps
How Long Does Heroin Withdrawal Last?
Heroin withdrawal can last anywhere from a week to several months. The timeline for heroin withdrawal looks like this:
- Early withdrawal lasts up to 24 hours and is moderately severe
- Peak withdrawal lasts for 5 to 6 days and is the most severe
- Late withdrawal lasts for a week to several weeks after your last heroin use and is typically mild to moderate
The length of heroin withdrawal varies from person to person. It depends on:
- Your age and physical health
- Your mental health
- Your heroin use habits, including dose and length of time you used
- Any other drugs you used at the same time as heroin
People who are older or who have multiple health conditions may take longer to detox from heroin. The same is true if you use multiple drugs at once or have a history of heavy heroin use.
Some people who stop using heroin develop post-acute withdrawal syndrome (PAWS). When you develop PAWS, your withdrawal symptoms continue for much longer than the expected timeline.
Long-term medication-assisted treatment (MAT) can control your cravings if you develop PAWS. Your risk of developing PAWS is higher if you have a history of heavy or long-term heroin use.
What is Heroin Detox?
Heroin detox programs provide medical support when you’re withdrawing from heroin. Many treatment programs require that you attend a detox program before starting treatment.
It can be challenging to get through heroin withdrawal on your own. Your risk of relapse is the highest while you’re withdrawing. Going to detox gives you control over withdrawal and helps reduce your risk of relapse.
What Happens in Heroin Detox?
In heroin detox, you’ll receive 24/7 monitoring and care while you go through withdrawal.
The controlled environment removes distractions and triggers so you can focus on getting through the hardest part of recovery. At the same time, medical staff will monitor your symptoms and help keep you comfortable.
Your care may include:
- Constant monitoring to keep you comfortable and supported
- Medication to control mood changes, insomnia, and other withdrawal symptoms
- IV fluids to reverse dehydration
How Long Does Heroin Detox Last?
The average heroin detox inpatient stay lasts 7 to 10 days. If you’re at risk for a longer withdrawal period, your care team will work with you to find the right detox length.
What Are the Signs You Need Heroin Detox?
Most people who are going into treatment for heroin addiction should go to a detox program.
Heroin is highly addictive and very difficult to stop using without support. The medical support and compassionate care that you get during a medical detox program can help you get through withdrawal safely and start recovery on the right foot.
You should go to heroin detox if you:
- Can’t stop thinking about heroin
- Keep using heroin even though it hurts your quality of life
- Have tried to stop using heroin but relapsed
- Have a history of multiple relapses or long-term heroin use
Find Safe Detox for Heroin Addiction
Detox is a critical part of heroin addiction treatment. Search our directory to find treatment centers that offer detox for heroin. These medical detox programs can decrease your risk of relapse and keep you comfortable during the hardest part of beginning recovery.
- Opiate and opioid withdrawal
- Heroin Withdrawal: Symptoms, Timeline, & Treatment
- Opioid and Opiate Withdrawal: Symptoms and Treatments
- The Neurobiology of Opioid Dependence: Implications for Treatment
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