Heroin withdrawal is usually not life-threatening, despite the extreme discomfort an individual may endure. That said, in rare instances, persistent vomiting and diarrhea may occur. If not treated, these effects can lead to severe dehydration, hypernatremia (elevated blood sodium), and heart failure. Moreover, although uncommon, yes, death related to heroin withdrawal can and has occurred.
Also, in cases where antagonistic drugs (e.g., naloxone) are used to reverse the life-threatening effects of a heroin overdose, the person’s system may be unable to handle the abrupt chemical changes that result. While naloxone tends to be quite safe, neurochemicals such as dopamine can be released from multiple or rapid doses. This can lead to cardiac arrhythmia (irregular heartbeat) and pulmonary edema (swelling).
What Is Withdrawal?
Drug withdrawal is characterized by the onset of mental and physical symptoms if a person significantly reduces their dose or discontinues drug use altogether. Withdrawal occurs when an individual has repeatedly used a substance, the body has adapted accordingly, and physical dependence has developed. In most cases of dependence, the drug has been used frequently and in excessive amounts. When the body is no longer receives regular doses, it will stop functioning normally, and several uncomfortable or painful symptoms will manifest as a result.
Most Common Heroin Withdrawal Symptoms
Heroin withdrawal generally involves three stages of symptoms that develop over the course of hours to days following the last incidence of drug use. Symptoms typically appear after the last dose during the following timeframes:
First-stage: 6-12 hours
Second-stage: 8-24 hours
Third-stage: 24-72 hours
Symptoms tend to peak between 24-48 hours after initial onset and may persist for several days. Each person may encounter a unique set of symptoms while undergoing heroin withdrawal. That said, several psychological and physical withdrawal symptoms can predictably occur during each stage.
Stage 1 – During the first stage, the user will begin to experience strong drug cravings. Heroin-dependent individuals have adapted to the steady presence of the drug in their bodies. As such, those in the throes of acute withdrawal may feel intense, overwhelming cravings for heroin. Individuals in this first stage may also experience extreme mood swings, anxiety, irritability, depression, and even suicidal thoughts or behaviors.
Stage 2 – During the next stage, users often experience abdominal cramps and flu-like symptoms, including runny nose, sweating, and excessive tearing. Restlessness, anxiety, insomnia, and body aches and pains are also typical.
Stage 3 – During the last stage, individuals may experience diarrhea, nausea, and vomiting. Flu-like symptoms such as fever, sweating, and chills may also persist. Muscle spasms, joint pain, and tremors are common. Blood pressure and heartrate may also increase.
Psychological symptoms associated with heroin withdrawal are often longer-lasting than physical symptoms. As such, they may or may not manifest within the three-stage timeline. These symptoms can persist for a prolonged period after detox, some of which may be related to pre-existing or co-occurring mental health issues, such as depression or anxiety, exacerbated by the withdrawal process.
Anxiety – Anxiety during heroin withdrawal is often associated with feelings of stress. Moreover, people may experience fear, anxiety, and apprehension about what life will be like considering the prospect of long-term abstinence from heroin.
Irritability – Occasional irritability is a relatively normal and common occurrence for most people. However, due to the stress of enduring heroin withdrawal, individuals may be more easily and frequently triggered and be rude, cold, and/or mean to those close to them.
Depression and Suicidal Ideations – Depression occurs during withdrawal because a person’s body is, at least temporarily, unable to produce its own feel-good chemicals without the assistance of heroin. Symptoms may include negative or low mood, dysphoria, loss of motivation, social isolation and withdrawal, and feelings of helplessness and hopelessness. In extreme cases, the person may be suffering so much from depressive thoughts that they begin to experience suicidal ideations or temptations to self-harm, upon which they may act if left unaddressed.
Treatment for Heroin Withdrawal and Addiction
While withdrawal from heroin doesn’t usually prove lethal, research suggests that specific symptoms such as severe diarrhea and vomiting may lead to life-threatening dehydration. Also, severe depression may lead to profound depression, and a person may be compelled to commit self-harm or end their life.
Those addicted to heroin are urged to seek treatment and undergo a medical detox where they can be monitored by medical and mental health staff 24/7 for as long as needed to complete the withdrawal process safely.
After detox, individuals are encouraged to participate in a long-term inpatient or partial hospitalization program. Just Believe Recovery offers services in both formats consisting of comprehensive, evidence-based services, such as behavioral therapy, substance abuse education, group support, individual and family counseling, experiential group activities, aftercare planning, and much more.
We can help you reclaim your life and achieve the long-lasting sobriety and well-being you deserve! Contact us today and find out how we can help!