Understanding the Most Common Heroin Withdrawal Symptoms

If you or a loved one are battling heroin addiction you understand that it is a powerful and highly-addictive drug.  In recent years, heroin has become more commonplace in cities and neighborhoods we may have never expected. Producing an intense rush of pleasure, heroin use can quickly spiral into a full-blown addiction.

What may have began as legitimate prescription drug use to treat ongoing pain can quickly spiral into heroin addiction. A cheaper alternative, heroin’s intense high can make it hard to see past the health risks associated with abusing the drug. You may be wondering how you got in this position and how you will ever break the cycle. Don’t give up on yourself.

If you or a loved one is battling heroin addiction it’s important to remember that there is help available. Simply cutting heroin out of your life can be extremely difficult. Unfortunately, when you stop using heroin your body goes through an intense period of withdrawal symptoms which can be hard to face alone. While the symptoms of heroin withdrawal can be uncomfortable, recovery is possible when you have the right medical and emotional support in place.

Heroin Addiction – Drug Tolerance and Physical Dependence

As you may have learned first hand, the nature of heroin makes it very addictive. With continued use, the drug changes the structure of your brain and causes long-term imbalances of your hormones. Even scarier, heroin can also lead to the deterioration of white matter in the brain. These kind of life-threatening risks associated with heroin use are all the more reason to seriously consider getting sober and regaining control over your life.

The physical dependence you develop when using heroin can be extremely overwhelming. The more you use heroin the more you build up a tolerance. Meaning that you need to take more of the drug over time to get the same high you once had. Physical dependence simply means that you need to continue to taking heroin to prevent yourself from feeling symptoms of withdrawal. These withdrawal symptoms can start as early as within a few hours of your last use. If the idea of getting sober sound overwhelming, try to take things day by day and know that recovery is possible with the right treatment plan.

The Symptoms of Heroin Withdrawal – Early Stages and Later Stages

When you stop or reduce your heroin use after consistently using for a few weeks or more you will most likely experience withdrawal symptoms. The withdrawal symptoms of heroin are typically not life threatening. However, they are uncomfortable and painful, which can often motivate you to continue using just to avoid the symptoms.

Everyone will have different experiences during heroin withdrawal. The severity and length of symptoms depend on a number of factors:

  • Severity of heroin addiction
  • Type of heroin used
  • Frequency of heroin use
  • Age and overall health of the individual

There are two primary stages of withdrawal symptoms: early stages and later stages. Each stage comes with a different series of symptoms.

The early stages of withdrawal usually start about six to 30 hours after your last dose of heroin. These symptoms may include:

  • Agitation
  • Anxiety
  • Muscle aches
  • Insomnia
  • Runny nose
  • Sweating
  • Yawning

The later stages of withdrawal appear approximately 72 hours after you stop taking the drug, and are usually when symptoms are at their worst. You may see your early symptoms become more severe during the later stages, and you also may see the emergence of new symptoms. The later symptoms of withdrawal can include:

  • Abdominal cramping
  • Diarrhea
  • Dilated pupils
  • Goose bumps
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting

Timeframe for Symptoms of Heroin Withdrawal – What to Expect

For most people, the first week of symptoms is the worst. However, symptoms typically last for up to one month, while others report feeling the lingering effects of withdrawal symptoms for a few months. The withdrawal symptoms from heroin that commonly last longer than a week include anxiety, depression, fatigue, and insomnia. These are known as protracted (or post-acute) withdrawal symptoms (PAWS).

The timeframe for the onset of heroin withdrawal symptoms varies from person to person, but it generally begins six to 30 hours after your last dose of heroin. The symptoms persist for one to three days, usually becoming more intense 72 hours after your last dose. Gradually, your symptoms will become less intense between days five and seven.

Days 1 – 2

You will often find that you’ll notice the first symptoms of heroin withdrawal within a few hours of your last dose. For some, symptoms are as mild as slight discomfort, while others report severe muscle aches as well as anxiety and insomnia.

Days 3 – 5

You will likely find that your withdrawal symptoms will peak around Day 3. At this point, many of your symptoms will often manifest in an upset stomach. Abdominal pain, diarrhea, nausea, and vomiting are all common during this time period. At this point, it is important for you to stay hydrated to avoid dehydration and electrolyte imbalances. After Day 3, your symptoms slowly begin to diminish.

Day 6 and Beyond

When you reach Day 6 of withdrawal, you often experience a noticeable decrease in symptoms. You may still experience problems with appetite and sleeping, while others may be affected by anxiety and nausea. However, if you can make it to Day 6 then you are on the road to recovery.

Heroin Withdrawal Treatment Timeframe – It Takes Time

While everyone is different, medical research shows that three to six months of medical treatment is often ideal to help you fully recovery from heroin addiction. It might seem like a long time. However, as we discussed above, heroin changes the brain and it can result in protracted (or post-acute) withdrawal symptoms (PAWS), including anxiety, depression, fatigue, insomnia, and irritability.

Unfortunately, these issues cannot be addressed and treated overnight. You need time for your mind and body to recover. Recovery from any type of drug addiction is a long-term process that often involves a combination of counseling, medication, and support. It is recommended that you discuss treatment goals and your care plan with your physician. With the right treatment and support, recovery is possible.

Potential Complications of Heroin Withdrawal – Things to Watch

While the symptoms of heroin withdrawal are not usually life-threatening, there are still some complications you should be aware of. Since heroin withdrawal can cause nausea and vomiting, there is a risk of aspiration. This occurs when a person accidentally inhales their vomit, and it can cause lung infections. Additionally, vomiting and diarrhea can result in dehydration.

The most serious complication of heroin withdrawal is resuming heroin use. Unfortunately, many heroin overdose deaths happen to people who have just completed detox. After heroin withdrawal, you have a reduced tolerance to heroin, meaning you can overdose on a much smaller dose than you took before going through withdrawal.

A heroin overdose slows your breathing and heart rate to dangerous levels. Other symptoms of an overdose include blue lips and fingernails, clammy skin, convulsions, coma, and sometimes death.

Due to the severity of these complications and the risk of relapse when going through withdrawal alone, it is important to receive the right treatment from experienced medical professionals.

Treatment Settings for Heroin Withdrawal – Home, Centers, and Hospitals

There are three options for where you can work through withdrawal from heroin, including at home, at a drug and alcohol treatment center, and at a hospital. You may like the idea of staying at home; however, it is not the best option for everyone.

You should speak to your doctor about your symptoms, health history, and home environment to determine the right treatment setting.

  • Home – In some cases, withdrawal can occur at home. Patients who stay at home need the right medications and support system, because this method can be very difficult.
  • Drug and Alcohol Treatment Centers – Patients can also undergo heroin withdrawal at a facility like The River Source. We follow an approach that incorporates behavioral, holistic, and pharmacological therapies to promote treatment success.
  • Hospitals – If a patient is experiencing severe withdrawal symptoms, it is recommended that they go to a hospital. The medical professionals can assist with the physical symptoms of heroin withdrawal and they connect the patient with other resources.

Counseling, Medication, and Support – The Best Way to Ensure Success

A mix of counseling, medication, and support are necessary to successfully manage your symptoms of heroin withdrawal and restore normal brain function. Generally, the treatment program for heroin addiction will include several components.

  • Detox
  • Medication
  • Behavioral Counseling
  • Treatment of Co-Occurring Disorders
  • Long-Term Support and Follow-Up

During the detox process, you stop taking heroin. At this period, the drug leaves your system and you experience the withdrawal symptoms discussed earlier. Doctors often prescribe several medications to treat the symptoms of heroin withdrawal during the detox period. You may continue to take some of these medications for long-term maintenance.

In addition to medications that are designed to treat diarrhea, vomiting, and sleep issues, there are other prescriptions used to treat the symptoms of heroin withdrawal.

  • Methadone reduces the intensity of withdrawal symptoms, and it can be used for long-term maintenance. Over time, the dose may be slowly decreased, but some patients may continue to take methadone for years to aid in their recovery from heroin addiction.
  • Buprenorphine (Subutex) is designed to treat withdrawal symptoms and it can shorten the length of detox. Like methadone, it can also be used for long-term maintenance. It may be combined with Naloxone to prevent drug dependence and misuse.
  • Clonidine alleviates specific withdrawal symptoms, including anxiety, agitation, cramping, muscle aches, and sweating. However, it does not reduce heroin cravings.
  • Naltrexone can help prevent relapse. Patients can take it as a pill or an injection.

If you experience multiple rounds of withdrawal symptoms, you should speak to your doctor about long-term treatment with methadone or buprenorphine.

Treatment for heroin addiction will involve more than just medication. Long-term treatment should also include counseling, treatment of co-occurring disorders, and support from medical professionals, loved ones, and support groups.

  • Inpatient or outpatient counseling, like that provided by The River Source, is a highly recommended component of treatment for heroin addiction. Counseling can be performed individually, in a group, or with a patient’s family. The focus of counseling is to identify and change problematic relationships and behaviors. Counseling may also utilize neurofeedback, a type of brain training that promotes healthy thinking and behaviors.
  • Treatment of co-existing mental disorders is an important part of recovery. Many individuals who suffer from substance abuse disorders also have anxiety, depression, or another mental illness. Identifying and treating these disorders with medication and counseling reduces a patient’s likelihood of relapse.
  • Support groups are an excellent way for patients to find a helpful and understanding group of individuals to aid in their recovery. Narcotics Anonymous is an excellent option. Support from caring medical professionals as well as from friends and family is also recommended.

The symptoms of heroin withdrawal can make recovering from a heroin addiction seem like an overwhelming task. While the recovery process isn’t quick or easy, it is possible and it is very much worth the effort.

The River Source utilizes a holistic approach to heroin addiction treatment, providing behavioral and pharmacological therapies in a supportive and professional environment. Our goal is to help patients detox from heroin and then involve them in effective inpatient treatment program, where they can explore the underlying reasons for their heroin addiction. After inpatient treatment, every patient of The River Source leaves with a long-term care plan to help them stay clean and sober.

If you or a loved one is suffering from heroin addiction. The River Source can help. Please contact us today to learn more about our approach to treating heroin addiction and helping patients overcome the symptoms of heroin withdrawal.

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