Heroin Detox & Withdrawal

in Drug Insights
Olivia Pennelle
Published Oct 21, 2020
Heroin Detox & Withdrawal

Heroin is a highly addictive opiate drug and is used medicinally and illicitly, for its pain relieving and euphoric effects. However, it does present a serious risk of overdose and potentially death. 

Heroin facts

What is heroin made of?

Heroin is derived from the seed pod of the opium poppy plants grown in warm climates such as southwest and southeast Asia, Columbia, and Mexico. It looks like a brown or white powder, and in some instances a black sticky substance (known as black tar heroin. It is also produced by pharmaceutical companies for the treatment of severe pain, known as diamorphine. 

How is heroin used?

Heroin is inhaled, injected, or smoked. 

Heroin street names

Heroin is also known as big H, beast, black pearl, black tar, China white, dust, H, hero, horse, hell, junk, skag, and smack.

Effects of heroin

According to the National Institute of Drug Abuse (NIDA), heroin enters the brain rapidly, binding to opioid receptors in the brain that are associated with pleasure, pain, and the control of heart rate, sleep, and breathing. 

Prescription opioids, like OxyContin and Vicodin have similar effects. Because of these similarities, these pharmaceuticals can be a door opener to heroin use. According to NIDA, an estimated four to six percent of those who misuse prescription opioids switch to heroin, and 80 percent of people who used heroin first misused prescription opioids.

Symptoms of heroin use

The common symptoms (or side effects) of heroin use include a depressed mood, dry mouth, heavy feelings in the arms and legs, nodding off, clouded functioning, nausea and vomiting, itching, warm flushing of the skin, behavioral changes, signs of use (such as bags of powder and finding syringes), small pupils, and slurred speech. 

Prolonged heroin use has more severe side effects, including:

  • Insomnia
  • Collapsed veins in those who inject heroin
  • Infection within the heart
  • Abscesses
  • Constipation and digestive problems
  • Irregular menstrual cycles for women
  • Liver and kidney disease
  • Lung complications
  • Mental disorders, including depression
  • Sexual dysfunction
  • The risk of contracting infectious diseases when needle sharing, such as HIV and hepatitis

Additionally, heroin carries the risk of overdose.

Heroin overdose

Heroin overdose is caused when a person uses a quantity of heroin that can stop their breathing and oxygen flow to the brain. The symptoms of a heroin overdose include:

  • Shallow or no breathing
  • Weak pulse
  • Pinpoint pupils
  • Disorientation
  • Blue lips and nails
  • Coma
  • Discolored tongue

If you think someone is experiencing a heroin overdose call 911 immediately. Better still, try to administer a dose of naloxone. 

Can you reverse a heroin overdose?

Yes. You can reverse a heroin overdose by using the opioid reversal drug, naloxone (brand name Narcan). It is available as an injection or nasal spray. Naloxone works by binding to opioid receptors in the brain, blocking the effects of heroin or other opioid drugs. Sometimes more than one dose is required and it should be administered by someone who has been trained to use it. 

According to NIDA, given the rising number of opioid overdose deaths, there has been an increase in public health efforts to make naloxone more available to people who use opioids and their friends and family, as well as first responders and other people within the community. Many states allow pharmacists to dispense naloxone without a prescription. You can find out more on NIDA’s naloxone webpage. 

Heroin addiction

Heroin use and overdoses have risen dramatically over the last ten years. According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, 494,000 Americans reported using heroin in 2017 compared to 373,000 in 2007. Those addicted to heroin rose from 179,000 in 2005 to 591,000 in 2015. The rate of heroin deaths doubled between 2010 and 2012. NIDA reported that by 2018, 128 people were overdosing on opioids every single day. 

Regular heroin use can lead to dependence and addiction (substance use disorder) in a short period of time. Tolerance to heroin occurs quickly, as the brain’s reward system adjusts to the drug, whereby the person will have to use increasing amounts, more frequently, for the same desired effects. Dependence can be both physical and psychological, when the person using experiences withdrawal effects if they stop using the drug.

Heroin withdrawals

Withdrawal can occur in as little as 6 to 12 hours since the last dose of heroin. The symptoms of withdrawal can last for around a week and include:

  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Dilated pupils
  • Agitation
  • Sweating
  • Insomnia
  • Diarrhea
  • Abdominal cramping
  • Muscle aches and pains
Heroin detox

Due to the number of health risks associated with home detox, it is not advised by medical professionals. It can be particularly dangerous to suddenly stop drinking or taking drugs cold turkey, rather than tapering off. Home detox is rarely successful because the side effects of stopping are so unpleasant that the risk of relapse is high.

It is strongly advised by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) to seek professional intervention, especially if the person has been using substances persistently, to ensure they overcome risks of home detox.

“For alcohol, sedative-hypnotic, and opioid withdrawal syndromes, hospitalization or some form of 24-hour medical care is generally the preferred setting for detoxification, based upon the principles of safety and humanitarian concerns.” SAMHSA Detoxification and Substance Abuse Treatment Improvement Protocol, TIP 45

Medically-monitored detox centers are a crucial aspect of the recovery process. It ensures that the person is treated safely and reduces the risk of complications that might arise from the detox process. According to SAMHSA, almost 80 percent of professional detoxification uses medication to ease withdrawal symptoms.

Heroin addiction treatment 

There are various types of opiate — in this case heroin — detox. Depending on the severity of use, a detox is usually recommended. According to medical experts, treatment for any opiate dependence should not discontinue the drug too early and a successful withdrawal strategy should be implemented. 

A medically supervised detox occurs in an inpatient medical detox center or hospital. The benefits of admission are that medically trained professionals are able to closely monitor a person’s progress, administer any medications when necessary, and provide a safe and comfortable environment for the often painful and difficult process of withdrawal.

For more information about choosing the right program, you might find our blogs How to Choose An Opiate Detox Center and What to Expect from a Medical Detox helpful.

The Gallus Method of Opiate detox

Gallus Medical Detox provides the comfort of a residential facility, but with clinical expertise that is far superior to most detox facilities. We offer safe, effective, and personalized treatment. In fact, we are so proud of our proprietary method that we named it The Gallus Method.

The key features of Gallus Medical Detox include:
  • Individual treatment plans, with a focus on personalized sobriety
  • Psychological, physical, and social assessments
  • IV Therapy Program
  • 24/7 medical supervision
  • Cardiac telemetry and video technology
  • Ongoing adjustments to treatment plans in order to suit our patients’ needs
  • An individual aftercare plan identifying resources and next steps toward a long-term recovery

We have addiction treatment centers in Arizona and Colorado, with more opening in coming months.

Next steps

While detox is usually the first step in recovery, it’s not a cure for addiction. Immediately following detox, behavioral therapy and other addiction treatments should occur while the person is ready to engage in recovery. You might find our blog Vital Steps to Take After Detox helpful. 

For more information on opioid treatment, click here