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Heroin Withdrawal: Symptoms and Treatment

Addiction to heroin can be fatal and life-threatening. According to a research in 2014, roughly half a million Americans had a heroin-related substance abuse disorder and nearly 23% of those you have used heroin developed an addiction. In addition, 40% of all overdoses in 2014 were due to heroin.

Taking this into account, seeking treatment should be regarded as highly important. While heroin withdrawal varies from person to person, there are multiple ways to prepare and cope with the excruciating symptoms. Learn more about this drug, its timeline, symptoms, and possible treatments.

Important Information about Heroin

Heroin is an opioid drug designed from morphine, a natural substance extracted from the opium poppy. It is a drug that has been present in our society for hundreds of years and was originally used to treat diarrhea and pain. It can be a white or brown powder, or a black substance called black tar heroin.

Heroin may be smoked, injected, but also snorted. Smoking and sniffing do not produce a rush as fast as intravenous injection. When taken orally, heroin does not lead to a state of rush, however in its suppository from it can have strong euphoric effects.

In addition, heroin is generally mixed with other drugs or substances, including powdered milk, sugar, starch, quinine, as well as with poisons like strychnine. Since most heroin addicts do not know the true contents of the drug, they are in risk of overdose or death.

Main Effects and Risks of Heroin

This addictive drug has an ability to create intensely pleasurable feelings. It binds to opioid receptors on cells located in the brain, especially in those involved in feelings of pain and pleasure. The affected cells release a neurotransmitter called dopamine which produces mediating feelings of pleasure. This euphoria causes more intense sensations than those produced by the body’s own endogenous opioids.

Furthermore, when the body is exposed to heroin, it gets flooded with opioids, causing levels of dopamine to be up to 10 times the amount of dopamine naturally produced by the body. After a period of constant exposure to the drug, an individual begins to adjust and develop tolerance. Short-term effects include:

  • Dry mouth
  • Drowsiness
  • Itching
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Slow heart rate
  • Slow breathing rate
  • Clouded mental functioning
  • Flushing on the skin

Furthermore, individuals who use heroin over the long term risk developing:

  • Liver or kidney disease
  • Collapsed veins
  • Constipation
  • Stomach cramping
  • Lung complications
  • Infections like HIV or Hepatitis B or C
  • Irregular menstrual cycles
  • Deterioration of parts of the brain that regulates behavior, response to stress, and decision-making
  • Sexual dysfunction
  • Tuberculous

In addition, since heroin also affects the physical structures of the brain, the long-term abuser can experience:

  • Social isolation
  • Depression
  • Memory problems
  • Anxiety
  • Dependency

Heroin Withdrawal Symptoms

Heroin’s ugly side introduced itself during withdrawal. Many addicts compare the sensation as “being underwater and deprived of oxygen“, and others as “a state of constant depression“. Individuals start experiencing withdrawal symptoms within twelve hours of their last dose. Generally, it feels like a terrible case of flu, while the discomforts last a week.

Moreover, withdrawal symptoms also depend on how long the drug was abused, how much was taken each time, and how much of the brain’s chemical structure has been altered. Studies show that individuals with a history of mental illness are more likely to become more dependent. Mild withdrawal symptoms include:

  • Chills
  • Yawning
  • Muscle and bone aches
  • Nausea
  • Abdominal cramps

Moderate symptoms involve:

  • Tremors
  • Fatigue
  • Agitation
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Trouble concentrating

Critical withdrawal symptoms include:

  • Muscle spasms
  • Impaired respiration
  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Insomnia
  • Drug cravings
  • Hypertension
  • Rapid heart rate

Withdrawal Timeline

According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, heroin withdrawal symptoms begin 6-12 hours of the last dose, reach a peak in 2-3 days, and carry on for 5-10 days in total.

The individual generally experiences muscle aches that develop the first day and intensify over time. Other symptoms that appear over the first 48 hours include insomnia, diarrhea, shaking, as well as anxiety, and panic attacks.

Furthermore, withdrawal becomes highly intense by the third or fourth day. The individual might experience nausea, shivers, sweating, and abdominal cramping.

After a week of withdrawal, the individual starts to feel normal but still tired and drained. It’s the end of the one-week acute withdrawal period when common nausea and muscle pains fade.

In addition, depending on the length of use, the individual might suffer post-acute withdrawal symptoms which can last for months after other withdrawal symptoms wear out. These symptoms include fatigue, insomnia, as well as anxiety, and depression.


Heroin Detox Methods

Medical detox offered by many substance abuse treatment centers may be the best way of cleansing the body from toxins. It begins when heroin is still present in the system and it generally lasts between 5 and 7 days. In order individuals to stay safe and secure during this process, their heart rate, breathing, and blood pressure are constantly monitored.

In addition, there are multiple options for the patient to choose from, including:

  1. Inpatient detox program
  2. Outpatient detox program
  3. Rapid detox
  4. Ultra-rapid detox


Inpatient Detox Program

Inpatient detox programs put an emphasis on time commitment. According to research, a minimum of 90 days in treatment is vital for long-term recovery. An inpatient treatment program looks like the ideal solution due to the severity of heroin addiction.

Inpatient treatment is highly suitable to individuals who have a history of relapsing, have had long-term heroin addiction, and have coexisting medical or mental health conditions.

Furthermore, it’s relevant to note there’re inpatient programs that take place in hospitals, and other that occur in a residential facility. Facilities with high-end amenities and luxurious accommodations tend to cost more than those facilities that offer fewer of the amenities and less comfortable housing.


Outpatient Detox Program

Outpatient facilities let you receive treatment while living at home. Many outpatient treatment centers offer treatment through medications. When enrolled into an outpatient program, the individual needs to regularly check in with their healthcare providers who monitors their progress.

In addition, outpatient detox programs might be more helpful to individuals who haven’t used for very long, have only used in smaller quantities, don’t have a history of relapsing, and don’t suffer from any coexisting g medical or mental health issues.


Rapid Detox

Rapid detox is a type of detox that speeds up the withdrawal process. It’s achieved by using opioid antagonist medications that block heroin’s effects in the body. Moreover, individuals who go through rapid detox can complete the withdrawal process in one to five days.

While it might seem like the perfect step, rapid detox comes with multiple risks, including:

  • Irregular heartbeat
  • Accumulation of fluid in the lungs
  • Rapid onset of unpleasant withdrawal

Ultra-Rapid Detox

Ultra-rapid detox, or anesthesia-assisted rapid detox, happens while the patient is under general anesthesia. This type of detox is instant and eliminates the drug from the body in as little as 4 to 8 hours. However, it is also extremely life-threatening. Moreover, studies show that roughly 9% of individuals who went through ultra-rapid detox either developed cardiac arrest or died.


Pharmacological Treatment

Several different medications have been used to help individuals in the process of withdrawal. A particular medication is used based on a patient’s specific medical needs and other factors. Effective medications include:

·         Opioid agonists: these types of medications mimic the effects of heroin in the body. Medications like methadone have been used since the 1960s to treat heroin addiction. Moreover, this medication is only available through approved outpatient treatment programs.

·         Opioid antagonists: these medications block the effects of heroin and prevent overdose. They effectively block the opioid receptors, preventing the body from responding to opioids and endorphins. Furthermore, medications such as naloxone and naltrexone reverse the effects of opioid medication, including extreme drowsiness, slowed breathing, or loss of consciousness.

·         Mixed opioid agonist-antagonist: a drug that under some conditions acts as an agonist, while under other conditions behaves as an antagonist. Medication like Suboxone mimic the effects of heroin while also lowering potential risks of overdose.

·         Alpha-2 agonist: medications such as Clonidine lower blood pressure by decreasing the levels of certain chemicals in the blood that are present in higher amounts. In addition, this allows blood vessels to relax and heart to beat more slowly and easily.

For more information please call our Addiction Treatment Helpline at (844) 439-4765. This is a Free and completely confidential call. We are available 24/7. In many cases, your health insurance company will cover 100% of the treatment cost. So please call now.

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