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Heroin Detox Guide

In 2012, about 669,000 people in the United States reported that they had used heroin during that year.

That number was significantly higher than it was in 2007, and during that same year, about 156,000 people started using heroin for the first time. That number was almost double the amount of first time heroin users in the year 2006.

These statistics are certainly startling. However, heroin use has been on the rise in the United States for a number of years, and experts believe it will continue to increase. For those who are addicted to heroin, they often feel as though they have no way out. Many of them turned to heroin as a way to cope with an addiction that was started because of prescription drugs. Once they could no longer obtain their medications, heroin seemed like the only alternative.

Fortunately, for those who are addicted to heroin, there is a way out, and heroin detox is the first step toward a successful recovery from this type of addiction.

Heroin Detox Overview

For many people, their heroin use begins with the thought that they will just try it one time, or perhaps two times. They don't intend to continue using it long-term. The truth is that a single use of heroin is all that is necessary to begin a lifetime of addiction to this dangerous, illegal drug. Of course, for others, they choose to use heroin because they became addicted to prescription pain medications. Opioid drugs like Vicodin, Percocet and Oxycodone actually have properties that are very similar to heroin, which many people don't realize. Recently, doctors have become much more aware of the heroin epidemic and how prescription drugs have led to an increase in heroin addictions. While they have made great strides in prescribing different medications for their patients, and even though dangerous prescription medications and the laws surrounding the way they are able to be dispensed have been modified in an effort to help, heroin addiction rages on for many people in the United States.

There are a number of different street names for heroin, and these include:

  • Chiva
  • Smack
  • Murder 1
  • Junk
  • China White
  • Number 8 (for the eighth letter in the alphabet - H)
  • Brownstone
  • Dr. Feelgood
  • Gear

Other slang names for heroin exist as well, and they refer to the various ways that heroin is used. For example:

  • Atom Bomb - refers to heroin and marijuana that is smoked together in a cigarette.
  • Pineapple - refers to the use of heroin when it is combined with amphetamines.
  • Speedball - refers to a heroin and cocaine concoction.
  • Chasing the Dragon - refers to inhaling the vapor of heated heroin.
  • Z - refers to one ounce of heroin.

People choose to begin using heroin for a number of different reasons, but regardless of what those reasons are, this is a dangerous drug that takes lives every single day. Heroin detox offers hope for recovery from this addiction and it is the best way to begin the healing process.

Heroin Detox

Signs of Heroin Addiction

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, heroin is a feel-good drug that people use because it makes them feel happy. They will often experience a sensation as if the world around them has slowed down, and this translates into the way they think and the way they move.

The signs of heroin addiction are different from person to person, but they vary largely depending on how long the individual has been using, and how much heroin is being used at one time. During the beginning stages of heroin addiction, or even before addiction has taken place, users may experience many negative side effects or symptoms; and these tend to occur immediately. They might include:

  • Feelings of nausea
  • Upset stomach with vomiting
  • Itching all over the body
  • A chronic dry mouth
  • Feeling tired

As heroin use continues, other symptoms are likely to come to the surface in those who are addicted to the drug. These known as delayed symptoms, and they may include:

  • Experiencing brain fog, or having trouble thinking
  • A slower breathing rate
  • A slower heart rate
  • A sensation of drowsiness that lasts several hours
  • A period of nodding, which is alternating between being asleep and awake

All of the above addiction symptoms may be present in those who are using heroin for the long-term, but additional symptoms will most likely develop as well. It's common for those who have been using heroin for longer periods of time to develop:

  • Serious skin problems, such as infections and abscesses
  • Diseases in the liver and kidneys, as well as other organs
  • Needle marks and bruising of the skin around injection sites
  • Significant heart problems
  • Veins that have collapsed from injections
  • Lung diseases, such as pneumonia and tuberculosis

The symptoms of heroin addiction are all very serious, regardless of what stage of use an individual is in. Getting immediate help is critical in order to avoid progressing to a later stage, and possibly even risking death because of complications, overdose or disease.

The Detox Process for the Heroin User

Detox is the process of removing a particular substance from the body. It is generally not a process that happens without withdrawal symptoms, and these definitely vary depending on the type of substance that is being detoxed from. In regards to heroin, users will usually experience severe withdrawal symptoms that can be alleviated in several different ways to make the process easier. There are several different methods that can be implemented for heroin detox, and these include:

  • Holistic Detox - During this process, patients are not given medications to aid in the detoxification process. Instead, they are "prescribed" a diet that's rich in nutrients, along with plenty of physical activity to allow the body to release and remove toxins through its own natural processes.
  • Outpatient Detox - During outpatient detox, patients are prescribed specific medications to aid in helping to relieve their withdrawal symptoms while the toxins from heroin leave their bodies. Frequent clinical check-ins are a must during outpatient detox for patient safety.
  • Rapid Detox - During rapid detox, patients are administered medications that are known as opioid antagonists, which serve to block the actions of heroin in the body. This process carries many risks, such as heart complications or pulmonary edema.
  • Rapid Detox with Anesthesia - This type of rapid detox carries many more risks because of the fact that patients are asleep during the process. Also, toxins are flushed from the body very quickly, which can lead to heart attack or other medical complications. Some patients have even died, which is why this method is generally not recommended in most cases.
  • Medical Detox - This process refers to the medical supervision of patients who are undergoing a detox procedure. Symptoms can be managed appropriately, and medical detox may include the use of prescription medications to ease withdrawal symptoms and cravings.

Medical Detox Explanation

Not all drugs require a medical detox in order to stop using them safely. However, some drugs do require it, and some types of drug users find that going through a medical detox makes their withdrawal symptoms much more manageable, and it also makes the experience of stopping drugs more comfortable for them. Heroin users certainly can benefit from medical detox when it is stopped.

Most people who are addicted to heroin will be recommended to go through medical detox as the beginning step in their recovery journeys. It's important to note that detox is not recovery in and of itself; rather it is the first step. Medical detox involves a stay in a medical facility that is equipped with highly trained medical staff for each patient's detoxification process. Having the right medical care during detox can eliminate many of the discomforts associated with stopping the use of heroin, and there are even patients who claim that they were able to find relief from most of their withdrawal symptoms by opting for medical detox.

Nursing care is available around the clock in the detoxification center, and patients are usually offered medications that help the body to process toxins faster. In addition, there are other medications that can be given to patients for the purpose of alleviating their withdrawal symptoms.

There are some experts in the addiction treatment field who are against using medications to aid in detox for heroin users. Others claim that the use of medications is necessary to help with comfort during the detox process, and to aid in the removal of toxins. In every case, patients should be assessed according to their specific needs during detox and recovery. Not all patients will be appropriate for heroin detox that includes the use of prescription medications, but medical supervision is always recommended, regardless of the method that is used.

Does Heroin Require Medical Detox?

There are certain substances that absolutely require medical detox because trying to stop using them without it can cause serious medical complications or even death. Heroin is not one of those drugs, so while detoxing at a medical facility is highly recommended, it is not always necessary. Even so, any drug detox facility should carefully go over each patient's medical history with them to determine whether or not they should consider going through medical detox for heroin, based on their past.

Every patient is different. Detoxing from heroin without medical support is very difficult, and although it can be done, it's much easier and safer in the long run to be surrounded by medical professionals in a setting that will ensure that the proper help is always available.

Heroin Withdrawal Symptoms

Heroin is a powerful drug, and it's important to note that the withdrawal symptoms that are experienced when the drug is stopped will be different for everyone. There are many factors in play when it comes to heroin withdrawal, and these include:

  • The length of time the drug was used
  • How the drug was abused
  • How much heroin was taken during each use
  • Whether or not the heroin was mixed with another type of drug
  • Whether or not the individual had tried to stop using heroin in the past and relapsed

Because heroin is an opiate drug that works by suppressing the central nervous system, many different body functions are affected when it is used, including heart rate, respiration and body temperature. When it is stopped, the central nervous system is severely affected, resulting in withdrawal symptoms.

Some of the more common heroin withdrawal symptoms might include:

  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Becoming restless or agitated
  • Experiencing abdominal cramps with or without diarrhea
  • Feeling very fatigued
  • Alternating sweats and chills
  • Severe and ongoing depression
  • A rapid heart rate
  • Muscle spasms in the body
  • Intense cravings for the drug
  • Insomnia and other sleep difficulties
  • Problems with breathing
  • Aches in the muscles and bones

Having adequate medical support on hand can help many of these withdrawal symptoms, lessening their severity, and making the detox phase more comfortable.

Can You Detox from Heroin at Home?

Many people do attempt to detox from heroin at home, and while it is not ideal, they often believe it would be better to give it a try and fail before opting to go to a medical facility for heroin detox.

There are certain steps that should always be taken before attempting to detox from heroin at home. First of all, an at-home heroin detox should never be attempted without someone there to provide support. A friend or a relative should be available for at least three days, which is when the worst of the withdrawal symptoms should start to subside.

Experts believe that slowly tapering off heroin might be the best way to begin detoxing if it is attempted at home, rather than stopping the drug cold turkey. Even so, there are many people who find it impossible to self-regulate tapering off this drug because the addiction and the compulsion to use are so strong. More often than not, people end up relapsing before they even get to stop the drug completely.

The risk of dehydration is high during an at-home heroin detox, which is why having enough fluids on hand is a critical part of the process. Water and electrolyte solutions such as Gatorade and Pedialyte are highly recommended for proper hydration. In addition to the risk of dehydration, nausea, diarrhea and aches and pains are common withdrawal symptoms that most people experience. Over the counter medications are available that can help to ease these symptoms, and they should always be available when attempting an at-home heroin detox.

Other items that should be on hand during an at-home heroin detox might include:

  • Movies or books to provide distractions
  • Extra sheets for the bed because of excessive sweating
  • A fan or air conditioner to cool down
  • Soft blankets for warmth and comfort
  • Healthy and nutritious food

In addition, it is always wise to consult with a medical doctor before attempting the detox process at home. A physician will be able to offer words of advice, and possibly even prescription medications that can be taken to help ease the discomfort that withdrawal symptoms can bring.

Overdose Risk with Heroin

Since 2007, heroin use in the United States has been increasing. In 2014, more than 10,500 people died from heroin overdoses in this country.

Although it is possible to overdose on heroin the first time it is used, a heroin overdose is much more likely to occur when someone has become addicted to it, tried to stop using it, and then relapsed. People who use heroin quickly build up a tolerance to the drug in their bodies. This tolerance causes them to use larger amounts of heroin over a period of time because they need more of it in order to experience a high. When the drug is stopped, withdrawal symptoms begin, and this is the time when a relapse is most likely. As soon as the heroin is stopped, the body's tolerance levels begin to change drastically. If a relapse occurs, people will often go back to using the same amount of heroin that they were previously using. This amount is now too much for their bodies to handle, and an overdose occurs, which can be fatal.

Fortunately, there are antidotes to reverse an overdose, but these must be obtained quickly. Loved ones should know what the signs of overdose are when someone they love is a heroin user, or that individual is attempting to detox from heroin. These signs include:

  • Breathing difficulties, such as shallow breathing, slow breathing or no breathing at all.
  • A dry mouth
  • Very small pupil; even as small as a pinpoint
  • Discoloration of the tongue
  • A very weak pulse
  • Low blood pressure
  • Blue tint on the nails and lips
  • Spasms within the stomach and intestines
  • Extreme constipation
  • Delirium or disorientation
  • Feeling drowsy
  • Going into a coma

If an overdose is expected, the individual should be taken to the nearest emergency room immediately for treatment. He or she will be monitored closely, and any overdose symptoms will be treated. If possible, a medication called naloxone will be administered to reverse the effects of the overdose. However, every patient is different, and depending on what the heroin was mixed with, a hospital stay may be necessary to treat other issues that may have arisen because of the overdose. Organ damage, pneumonia or infections are quite common in those who have overdosed on heroin.

Length of Time it Takes to Detox from Heroin

Detoxing from heroin is a process that is going to be different for everyone, based on a number of factors. If the individual has only been using smaller doses of heroin for a short time, the detox phase should not last very long. However, for those who have been using increasing doses of heroin for years, their heroin detox will take much longer.

Heroin withdrawal symptoms usually begin between six and twelve hours after the last dose of heroin has been taken. At that point, symptoms may be relatively mild, and the user might even be familiar with them if he or she has gone without using heroin for a short period of time in the past.

Over the next three days, withdrawal symptoms will increase in their severity, and newer, more severe symptoms may begin as well. Generally, withdrawal symptoms will begin to peak at about the third day, and then they will begin to subside over the next week or so.

Unfortunately, withdrawal from heroin is rarely as cut and dry as most recovering individuals would hope it to be. For anyone recovering from a heroin addiction, once detox has been completed, there is always the risk of developing post-acute withdrawal syndrome, or PAWS as it is often called. This refers to withdrawal symptoms that may persist for a long time after a drug has been discontinued. PAWS is very common among those who have detoxed from heroin, and it can result in lasting or even new symptoms that can persist for weeks, months or even years past the date that the individual expected to be finished going through withdrawal.

The risk of experiencing post-acute withdrawal syndrome relies on a number of different factors that can all play a key role in whether or not it is experienced. These factors include:

  • Individual patient's biology
  • Whether the drug was tapered or stopped cold-turkey
  • How much heroin was used at a time
  • How often heroin was used
  • How long the individual was addicted to heroin

Detoxing from heroin is difficult, but it is certainly not impossible. Many people go through the detoxification process and leave their heroin addictions behind for good because they were able to obtain the proper type of support to help them. Heroin is a very dangerous addiction, and it is important to get professional help to overcome it as soon as possible.

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