Heroin withdrawal is the first obstacle users face when they decide to get sober. Withdrawal can be incredibly painful and difficult to overcome without support from a medical detox center. Detox programs can prescribe medications and facilitate therapeutic interventions that ease the withdrawal process. In this article, you will learn what heroin withdrawal is, how long it lasts, and how a detox center can help.

What Causes Heroin Withdrawal?

Heroin is an opioid drug that works by binding to and activating opioid receptors in the brain. When it acts on these receptors, the central nervous system slows down, resulting in lower heart rate, blood pressure, and respiration. The body reacts naturally by increasing CNS activity in an attempt to reach equilibrium and sustain consciousness.

The more often a person uses opioids, the less sensitive their body becomes to the effects of them, and the higher the dose is required to achieve the desired effects. This is known as tolerance and it perpetuates addiction by causing people to use more heroin more often.

Over time, the body adjusts to the presence of opioids in the body and continues responding by increasing CNS activity. Then, when the individual suddenly stops taking opioids, an over-excited CNS system produces withdrawal symptoms that range from mildly unpleasant to severe. Withdrawal symptoms subside as the body re-adjusts to functioning without opioids in the system.

Heroin Withdrawal Symptoms

Heroin withdrawal is a natural process and it is generally not life-threatening, however, symptoms can become so uncomfortable that people feel tempted to continue using heroin so they can get relief rather than continue detoxing. As a result, heroin withdrawal is best managed under medical supervision.

The heroin withdrawal timeline can be divided into two phases: acute withdrawal and post-acute withdrawal. The acute phase is characterized by various physical and mental symptoms, often flu-like, that appear in the days and weeks after quitting heroin.

Acute withdrawal symptoms include:

  • Yawning
  • Watery eyes
  • Runny nose
  • Body aches
  • Chills/goosebumps
  • Sweating
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Abdominal pain
  • Body and muscle aches
  • Insomnia
  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Irritability
  • Restlessness
  • Restless legs syndrome
  • Drug cravings
  • Elevated blood pressure

Post-acute withdrawal, also known as PAWS, is characterized primarily by psychological symptoms that persist for several weeks or months into recovery.

Post-acute withdrawal symptoms include:

  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Drug cravings
  • Irritability
  • Mood swings
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Sleep disturbances

How Long Does Heroin Withdrawal Last?

For most people, symptoms of heroin withdrawal begin within 6-12 hours after the last dose, peak in intensity between days 2 and 3, and begin to subside after 5-7 days. However, there are several factors that can contribute to the severity and length of withdrawal.

People may have more severe, longer-lasting withdrawal symptoms if they have been using heroin for a long time, have a very high tolerance, or suffer from co-occurring disorders. Additionally, some research shows that people who have had previous withdrawal experiences are prone to worse symptoms in future withdrawal attempts.

Other factors that may affect the length of withdrawal from heroin are:

  • Age
  • Weight
  • Body composition
  • Metabolism
  • Overall health
  • Concurrent use of other substances

Breaking Down the Heroin Withdrawal Timeline

While the exact timeline of withdrawal can vary from one person to the next, the following provides an estimated withdrawal timeline for the average heroin user.

6-24 Hours

Symptoms appear shortly after the last dose. Early symptoms may include watery eyes, runny nose, yawning, anxiety, and general discomfort. These symptoms may continue for the next few days.

24-36 Hours

Symptoms peak between 24-36 hours, which is when they are the most intense. Peak symptoms include gastrointestinal upset, muscle and body aches, insomnia, restlessness, and powerful cravings.

Days 3-5

After 3 to 5 days symptoms should slowly begin decreasing in severity.

Days 5-7

After 5 to 7 days, most acute symptoms will subside, but some may come and go.

Post Acute Withdrawal Syndrome (PAWS)

Heavy or long term heroin users may experience PAWS, or symptoms that persist beyond the acute withdrawal stage. These symptoms can include irritability, mood swings, depression, sleep disturbances, and cravings. Cravings for heroin can persist for several months, but they become less intense over time.

PAWS is best managed with lifestyle changes and the support of a heroin addiction treatment program.

How to Cope With Heroin Withdrawal

Heroin withdrawal is best treated by medical professionals. There are steps you can take to cope with your symptoms. These include:

  • Stay hydrated – Drinking plenty of water will ensure that your body works as it should to flush toxins out of your system. Proper hydration can also boost energy levels and make you feel better.
  • Eat a balanced diet – While it is common to experience appetite, suppression during withdrawal. It is important to nourish your body with the vitamins and minerals it needs to thrive. Eating a balanced nutritious diet will help your body function, optimally and support the detox process.
  • Relaxation techniques – Staying relaxed can help ease your withdrawal symptoms. Relaxation techniques can decrease stress, reduce cravings, and improve the immune system. Examples of relaxation techniques are yoga, meditation, breathing exercises, or light physical fitness.
  • Ask for support – Support from medical professionals, addiction treatment specialists, and even your friends and family can be extremely beneficial during withdrawal. Support groups can help you endure the detoxification process and move onto the next steps in your recovery.

Medical Detox Treatment

Medical detox centers like 1st Step Behavioral Health offer safe and effective heroin detox treatment. Detox begins with a comprehensive assessment, where the clinical team may evaluate your situation to create a treatment plan that will work for you.

Throughout detox, you will be carefully monitored by a team of healthcare professionals who ensure your comfort and safety. Medications are often prescribed to treat heroin withdrawal as they can reduce physical symptoms and ease cravings.

Medical detox programs also offer group and individual therapies to further support clients and their journey. Heroin detox programs typically last 3 to 5 days or longer, depending on the individual’s needs.

After detox, it’s essential to attend a complete treatment program. Treatment involves counseling, behavioral therapy, medication-assisted treatment (MAT), and aftercare which will help you sustain long-term recovery.

Medications Used to Treat Heroin Withdrawal

Heroin withdrawal symptoms are often treated using medication. These include:

  • Buprenorphine – The active ingredient in Suboxone and Subutex, which is a partial opioid agonist that can reduce withdrawal symptoms and drug cravings.
  • Methadone – An opioid agonist medication used to treat withdrawal symptoms in opioid addicted individuals.
  • Clonidine – An anti-hypertensive, which is used to treat high blood pressure, is often given during heroin withdrawal to alleviate many uncomfortable symptoms, including anxiety and high blood pressure.

Additional symptoms specific medication may be administered as needed such as antidiarrheals, over-the-counter pain medications, sleep, medications, and more.

Start Your Recovery With Safe & Effective Heroin Detox

If you were a loved one or struggling with a substance use disorder, please know that you were not alone. Our newly renovated detox facility in Pompano Beach offers detox and treatment programs that are overseen by world-class, industry leading addiction medicine specialists. We provide each of our clients with an individually tailored treatment plan best designed to meet their needs.

To learn more about treatment for heroin withdrawal or to begin with a comprehensive risk-free assessment, please contact us today.

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