Heroin is an illegal opioid drug derived from morphine that is often mixed with other substances. More than 500,000 Americans are addicted to heroin, many of whom have turned to the street drug after becoming addicted to prescription opioid medications, such as Percocet and oxycodone. People who abruptly stop taking heroin after prolonged use can experience painful physical and mental symptoms known as heroin withdrawal. Without medical treatment, heroin withdrawal can result in side-effects, such as vomiting, insomnia, and severe cravings for the drug.
The Risks of Stopping Heroin Cold Turkey
Withdrawal without medical assistance is painful and difficult, but generally not life-threatening. However, withdrawal can exacerbate other underlying health conditions, which can lead to complications including death. Stopping heroin cold turkey is physically painful, but extremely mentally taxing as well. Some heroin users have committed suicide while trying to quit without medical help. For these reasons, it’s highly recommended that users who want to stop using heroin seek treatment at a detox facility.
Other Health Complications Due to Heroin Use
Abscesses, painful swelling of the skin, are common among heroin users who use with intravenous (IV) needles. The boils can occur when the user injects heroin into the subcutaneous skin or the muscles, instead of intravenously. Abscesses are most common among users who mix heroin with cocaine or meth, called “speedballing.” These abscesses can become infected and cause serious health problems. A drug treatment or detox facility can treat heroin users with abscesses and prevent serious infection.
HIV, a virus that attacks the immune system, can be transmitted through the use of IV needles or using contaminated drug paraphernalia. About 10 percent of HIV infections in the US are the result of IV drug use. There is no cure or vaccine for HIV, but there are treatments available to help to keep the virus in check, enabling infected people to live relatively healthy lives. However, if left untreated, HIV can be fatal. A drug treatment or detox facility can provide testing for HIV and, in the event of a positive result, can begin to lay the groundwork for a client’s long-term treatment.
Hepatitis B and C
Hepatitis B and C, viruses that inflame the liver, can be transmitted through the use of IV needles. Left untreated, hepatitis B and C can lead to cirrhosis of the liver and eventually death. There is no cure for either form of the virus, but treatments are available. Hepatitis C is highly contagious, and cases are increasing among IV drug users. A drug rehab or detox facility can provide testing for these chronic conditions and start those infected on the road to long-term treatment.
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Common Heroin Withdrawal Signs and Symptoms
Symptoms of withdrawal vary depending on how long a person has been using the drug and how much they use. Heroin use affects the central nervous system, suppressing heart rate, blood pressure, respiration, and body temperature. Heroin also activates pleasure receptors in the brain, which results in a high. When an addicted person stops using heroin, these effects are reversed.
- Abdominal cramps
- Muscle and bone aches
- Runny nose
- Goose bumps
- Poor concentration
- Difficulty feeling pleasure
- Drug cravings
- Impaired respiration
- Muscle spasms
- Rapid heart rate
Heroin Withdrawal Timeline
Heroin Treatment and Detox
How to Safely Withdrawal from Heroin
Health professionals recommend that people suffering from heroin addiction to seek drug treatment to safely go through withdrawal. At a drug rehab center, clients can wean themselves off heroin in a controlled setting with medical help.
At a detox facility, clients can be given longer-acting opioids, such as suboxone to ease withdrawal symptoms. The medications also can prevent cravings, but longer-acting nature of the drug does not result in a high.
Medications to Expect During Detox Treatment for Heroin Addiction
- Methadone Maintenance: Methadone is a long-acting synthetic opioid antagonist that is used to reduce cravings and withdrawal symptoms in opioid addicts. Methadone is often used as a long-term alternative for those who have a history of heroin or opioid relapse.
- Buprenorphine Maintenance: Buprenorphine is an opioid analgesic, meaning it affects the same receptors as heroin and opioids, but it doesn’t create the same high. This drug is most commonly used to treat opioid dependence and comes in the form of a single tablet or dissolvable film.
- Suboxone: Suboxone is a drug that consists of a combination of buprenorphine and naloxone, an opioid analgesic and antagonist. Similar to methadone, suboxone is a depressant used to limit cravings and withdrawal symptoms in people addicted to heroin.
- Naltrexone: Naltrexone is a once-a-day pill that blocks the euphoric and sedative effects of opioid drugs. The drug is also available in a once-monthly injectable form called vivitrol.
Also, specific symptoms like nausea and depression can also be treated with medications.
Continue Treatment after Detox
After detox, clients are encouraged to enroll in an inpatient or outpatient drug treatment program to prevent a return to use. Although most physical withdrawal symptoms subside after about a week, psychological symptoms, such as depression and cravings, can persist. Inpatient or outpatient drug treatment programs can help clients throughout these Post Acute Withdrawals (PAWS).
Heroin Withdrawal FAQs
of people in drug and alcohol treatment in the US abused heroin, according to a 2008 study – National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA)
of people who use heroin become addicted to the drug – National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA)
45 percent of people who used heroin were also addicted to prescription opioid painkillers – Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)