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Heroin Detox

Although heroin detox and withdrawal symptoms may only last a week or so, the symptoms can be severe and can include:

  • Abdominal pain
  • Muscle spasms
  • Nausea
  • Sweating
  • Agitation
  • Shakes
  • Depression
  • Nervousness
  • Cravings
  • Relapse

During a heroin detox, medications and therapy are used to calm symptoms, increasing chances that a patient will get through withdrawal safely with more chance of success.

Heroin can be a less expensive alternative to drugs like OxyContin and Vicodin, which are highly addictive.  As prescription painkillers are becoming more difficult to obtain and alter, many people with addictions to opiates have found heroin to be their replacement.  It is reported that an opioid drug addiction came first in half of the people using heroin.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that in the last decade, among Americans between the ages of 18-25, heroin abuse has doubled.  Approximately 8,200 people died from a heroin overdose in 2013 alone.  Nearly quadruple the number of heroin related deaths in 2002.

Because of its powerful withdrawal symptoms and highly addictive nature, people who are addicted to heroin should go through medical detox.

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Withdrawal Symptoms

Heroin detox and withdrawal differs for each individual.  Many factors affect how dependent a person’s brain and body are on the drug, for instance, how long it has been used and the amount of each dose taken.  These factors will affect the duration and severity of withdrawal symptoms for each person.  Having a history of addiction or mental illness makes addiction to and dependence on heroin happen faster.

Like many other drugs, heroin suppresses some functions of the central nervous system.  Things like blood pressure, respiration, heart rate and temperature are slowed.  The chemicals in the brain that cause feelings of pleasure are increased as heroin binds to opioid receptors in the brain.   During heroin use, there is a rush of pleasure, then when it is not taken anymore, opposite feelings occur.

Symptoms of heroin detox and withdrawal range with the brain’s dependence on heroin and how much the chemical balance in the brain has been altered.  Short term abusers may not experience such severe withdrawal as someone who has used heroin in massive doses for months or years.

Mild symptoms during withdrawal are: muscle and bone aches, nausea, stomach cramps, chills, sweats, runny nose, tearing of the eyes, excessive yawning.

Moderate symptoms during withdrawal are:  diarrhea, vomiting, restlessness, agitation, fatigue, difficulty concentrating, tremors, and goose bumps.

Severe symptoms during withdrawal are:  depression, insomnia, hypertension, anxiety, difficulty breathing, elevated heart rate, difficulty feeling pleasure, muscle spasms, drug cravings.

Although heroin detox and withdrawal is not usually considered life-threatening, there can be some medical and psychological symptoms that could cause complications.  When the brain no longer experiences the effects of the drug, depression may set in and suicidal thoughts may occur.  Medical and/or mental health professionals are trained in multiple methods for managing withdrawal side effects and providing a safe environment for detox.  This should not be attempted by going “cold turkey”.

Detox Timeline

Heroin is an opioid that is short acting, it effects the user quickly, but also leaves the bloodstream rapidly.  It is estimated that heroin withdrawal symptoms begin 6 – 12 hours after the last dose, will peak in 2 – 3 days and that symptoms last 5 – 10 days in all.

Detox is the method used to remove heroin from the body, since symptoms can peak a few days after the last dose, medical detox offers a more comfortable way to get the drug out of the body’s system, and also helps to avoid a relapse.

Medications and therapy may be used during a medical heroin detox to help the brain and body recover from the side effects of heroin.  Vital signs are all monitored to keep a person safe throughout the withdrawal process.  Medical detox may take up to 10 days for an individual that is heavily dependent on the drug.

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Suboxone and Withdrawal

A medically assisted heroin detox and intensive therapy treatment is typical for someone going through rehab treatment.  Opioids, such as heroin, are unique because there are prescription medications available that will help with both abstinence and withdrawal maintenance.  With heroin detox, a person may be given buprenorphine (Suboxone or Subutex), naltrexone or methadone.  All these medications require a prescription for at home use or an in-clinic visit.  Each medication may have different introduction times during withdrawal.  This discussion is based on Suboxone.

During the withdrawal process, these medications are used for their ability to suppress symptoms, as well as cravings.  PsychCentral states that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved buprenorphine for the use of maintenance therapy during opioid withdrawal.  Suboxone serves as relapse prevention measure in this way.  When used for abstinence maintenance therapy, Suboxone has a lower rate for potential abuse when compared to methadone.  There are studies that show one year sobriety rates with those on Suboxone to be 40 – 60 percent.  However, Suboxone can also be abused.  Some heroin addicts buy Suboxone on the street as a way to “maintain” their addiction.  Painful withdrawal symptoms in between usage of heroin can be avoided by using Suboxone.  These medications end up on the streets typically from individuals who have a prescription but choose to sell the medication.

Treatment for Heroin Addiction

Heroin addiction has long been treated with the use of Methadone.  Methadone is an opioid that stays in the bloodstream longer and that is substituted for heroin which is shorter acting.  Methadone typically stays in the body for a whole day, therefor less of the drug is needed at one time.  Methadone also activates the opioid receptors in the brain, but with much less intensity that heroin produces.  In this way it is thought that Methadone will minimize withdrawal.

Methadone is typically given in pill form, once a day, and is federally regulated.  Doses of methadone can then be gradually tapered over a period of time, until the brain is able to re-balance its own natural chemistry.  If abused or taken in higher doses, Methadone also has the potential to create dependency.  Other medications may be a better option for some people.

Naloxone may be given in addition to buprenorphine products to block opioid receptors.  It is used for the long-term maintenance of heroin abstinence.  Once a certain amount of buprenorphine is taken, it reaches a plateau, reducing the risk of abuse.  When Naloxone is added in, it helps to keep users from wanting more heroin to alleviate withdrawal symptoms.

People in a heroin detox should be very clear with their use history and dose amounts in order to avoid precipitated withdrawal.  If someone takes certain medications while heroin is still in the bloodstream, it may cause withdrawal symptoms to start suddenly, which is dangerous.  This is called precipitated withdrawal.

A drug assessment done during a detox admission can keep this from happening.  A medical detox facility also provides an environment that can help prevent the abuse of other drugs.  A dependency treatment program will also include other services and support during withdrawal.

During heroin detox, Milestone Detox can provide the most supportive and comprehensive medical environment needed during all stages of detox to ensure successful recovery.  If you or a loved one need help, call one of our professional admissions team members for a free and confidential assessment.

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