A Guide to Heroin Withdrawal and Detox

In 2014, about 435,000 people in the United States used the opiate drug heroin, and there were 10,574 deaths due to heroin overdose. 1 In 2017, these figures jumped to 494,000 with over 15,000 people dying from drug overdoses involving heroin. If you or a loved one are caught up in the heroin abuse epidemic, the first step to sobriety is detox, but doing this on your own can trigger dangerous and painful withdrawal symptoms.

A medically supervised detox can help reduce or eliminate withdrawal symptoms in this first step on the road to recovery. With the upward trend of heroin-related overdose deaths increasing five times from 2010 to 2017, the importance of detoxification and recovery are critical issues for people who need help in the United States. 2

What Is Heroin Withdrawal?

Symptoms typically appear after about 12 hours from the last heroin usage. As time passes, more symptoms appear and all symptoms worsen. 3

Early Symptoms of Heroin Withdrawal

  • Agitation
  • Anxiety
  • Bone pain
  • Muscle aches
  • Cravings
  • Lethargy
  • Cold flashes
  • Runny eyes
  • Runny nose
  • Insomnia
  • Excessive yawning
  • Excessive perspiring

Later Symptoms of Heroin Withdrawal

  • Vomiting
  • Nausea
  • Goosebumps
  • Cramping
  • Kicking motions
  • Diarrhea
  • Pinpoint pupils
  • Dehydration

What Is a Heroin Medical Detox?

A medically supervised detox is a procedure that slowly removes opiates in a safe, comfortable, and controlled manner. Since an abrupt stop can cause health complications, sometimes fatal ones, replacement medications are used to keep the person detoxing comfortable and safe. 4 The replacement medications that are used mimic the effects of opiates to relieve painful and distressing withdrawal symptoms. A medical detox eliminates the fear of quitting opiates because the pain and health risks are avoided.

Replacement Medication Therapies

The most effective and common way to detoxify a person dependent on heroin is to administer and then reduce over time the dose of an opioid substitute medication. Two popular replacement medications for this process are methadone and buprenorphine. These drugs reduce or eliminate all the symptoms of heroin withdrawal. Depending on what medication is used and the initial dosage, the detoxification process can take days to months. 4

Rapid Heroin Detox

Opioid antagonists medications, such as naltrexone and naloxone, can be used for a rapid detox. Antagonists medications work by filling the brain with an opioid antagonist that eliminates all heroin and then sits on the opioid receptors. When there is heroin in the person’s system, and an antagonist is given, it may create a sharp, uncomfortable withdrawal. A medically supervised detox will be prepared to counter any pain with sedation medications and other drugs to keep discomfort to a minimum. Then, the person is placed on a maintenance medication, usually naltrexone, to prevent a relapse.

Home Detox Is Not Recommended

During heroin withdrawal, unpredictable situations can quickly develop. Withdrawal symptoms can rapidly spiral out of control, creating a dangerous and possibly lethal medical emergency. Detoxing at home is risky because there won’t be any trained medical people to handle emergencies. Also, prescribed medications to control heroin withdrawal symptoms wouldn’t be available during a home detox. Detoxing is best left to medical professionals within a detoxification center.

A Detox Is Not Stand-Alone Treatment

Once someone has undergone a heroin detox, it’s important to continue the recovery journey by entering an addiction rehab program. Without further treatment, a detox alone most likely results in relapse. 5 A detox simply eliminates heroin from the body in a controlled way to ensure safety and comfort. Treatment is needed afterwards to stay sober. It’s important to attend behavioral therapy, counseling, group therapy meetings, and aftercare services to ensure a successful, long-lasting recovery.

Be Sure to Find Medical Help to Detox from Heroin

For your health and well-being, as well as to experience a painless heroin detox, enter a specialized detox facility. Once you’ve detoxed, transition into a high quality, comprehensive rehab program. The fear of withdrawal no longer has to be a barrier to getting well. The first step on the road to recovery and a rewarding life – without heroin – is a medically supervised detox.