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Heroin Withdrawal and Treatment

Read on to learn more about heroin withdrawal, including common heroin withdrawal symptoms and ways to treat the effects of heroin withdrawal.

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Heroin is an illicit opioid narcotic with a high potential for misuse and addiction.1 According to a 2020 survey of Americans aged 12 and older, more than 900,000 people reported using heroin in the last year.2 There were nearly 700,000 people who had a heroin use disorder in 2020.2 Many who use heroin but seek recovery may face a significant hurdle in heroin withdrawal. The symptoms of heroin withdrawal can be incredibly uncomfortable which, left unmanaged, could lead people to heroin relapse. Luckily, comprehensive medical detox programs exist and can be effective in helping individuals make it through heroin withdrawal and continue forward with their treatment and recovery efforts.

What is Heroin?

Heroin is derived from morphine, an opiate alkaloid substance which is extracted from the opium poppy plant.1 Heroin was first synthesized in 1874 and by the end of the century was being promoted as a safe alternative to aspirin, as well as a cough suppressant and non-addictive replacement for morphine.3 However, once the addictive properties of heroin were realized, its sale and distribution started to become more regulated. By 1924, the manufacturing, importation, and sale of heroin became strictly prohibited in the United States.3 Today we know that heroin, and opioids in general, are highly addictive drugs.1, 4

Heroin is a fast-acting drug that activates opioid receptors throughout the brain and body to modify pain sensations. However, this same opioid receptor activity is also associated with a rewarding, pleasurable sensation and certain physiological changes that can impact breathing and heart rate.1 Consistent opioid use can lead to tolerance, where you need to use increasingly large amounts of heroin to feel its effects.1 Regular heroin use can also lead to dependence and an intensely unpleasant withdrawal syndrome if you stop using it.4

Over time, the use of heroin or other opioids can make the development of an opioid use disorder (OUD) more likely. OUD is the clinical diagnosis for opioid addiction—a condition characterized by an inability to control the use of a drug like heroin despite significant opioid-related problems to result from such use, including the phenomena of dependence and withdrawal.5, 6

Heroin Withdrawal Symptoms

Heroin withdrawal symptoms can vary between individuals. Factors which influence the character and severity of withdrawal symptoms include how long one has used heroin, the average amount of heroin used, and the frequency of heroin use.4 Possible symptoms of heroin withdrawal include:1,4,6

  • Dysphoric mood.
  • Difficulty sleeping.
  • Restlessness.
  • Involuntary leg motions.
  • Muscle spasms.
  • Bone and muscle pain.
  • Gastrointestinal issues including nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea.
  • Dilated pupils.
  • Fever.
  • Sweating.
  • Chills and goosebumps.
  • Tearing eyes.
  • Runny nose.
  • Increased pulse, blood pressure, and breathing rate.
  • Strong cravings for heroin.

Heroin Detox

Heroin detox programs can help people manage withdrawal safely and comfortably, as opposed to undergoing heroin detox at home. As part of a medical detox protocol for heroin withdrawal management, medications may be administered to help mitigate unpleasant symptoms and cravings.5, 7 In an inpatient detox setting, staff may monitor withdrawal progress throughout the day and be able to identify and promptly address any potential complications that may arise, such as dehydration.4

It can be extremely difficult to stop using heroin on your own. Receiving the appropriate care and support with supervised detox and medical withdrawal management can make it easier to begin the journey toward sobriety. Though important, detox is only the first step toward recovery and does not constitute addiction treatment in its entirety. Once you are fully detoxed, it is important to continue treatment at either an inpatient or outpatient rehab, where you will receive counseling and learn the necessary skills to maintain sobriety.5, 7 Professional detox programs can help pave the way for more comprehensive rehabilitation efforts once the acute heroin withdrawal period has been successfully managed.4,7

Treatment for Heroin Addiction and Withdrawal

For many, medical detox is an important first step towards recovery from heroin addiction and one that sets the stage for additional, more comprehensive rehabilitation efforts.5

After successful detox and withdrawal management, heroin addiction treatment can include inpatient or outpatient care, where you will receive group and individual behavioral therapy as well as support and monitoring, as well as maintenance medication, or psychiatric care if needed.1, 5 Some people stay on maintenance medications such as buprenorphine or methadone for relatively short periods at the start of recovery, while others stay on them for several months to years, as needed.8, 9 The type of treatment you receive should be tailored to meet your recovery needs.1, 7

It can be overwhelming to search for programs that offer detox and treatment for heroin addiction, but there are resources available that can make this process easier. Addiction helplines are just a phone call away. American Addiction Centers (AAC) has a helpline that you can access 24/7 at and speak to an admissions navigator who can answer any questions you may have. They can share information about heroin detox treatment, assist you in finding treatment centers near you, and help you verify insurance coverage. Call now to get started on your journey to recovery today.