Heroin Withdrawal Symptoms and Side-Effects: Must Know Info

Heroin withdrawal symptoms are said to be one of the hardest things any addict will ever face. This is compared to other drugs that cause addiction. Decades ago, use of the drug would be unheard of in the mainstream. There is a stigma that only homeless junkies would ever get involved in such a dangerous street drug. Sadly, the prescription opioid epidemic has caused average people to turn to heroin because it’s easier and cheaper to obtain.

The cause of addiction with opioids are due to how it works within the body. It doesn’t take long for addiction to set in and once it does, the withdrawal is agonizing. It clings onto the nervous system, causing the brain to put the body through intense pain and discomfort if it doesn’t get the drug. Abstaining from it will involve professional services that involve a variety of treatments. The intense addictive nature of heroin is what causes the withdrawal symptoms.  Here is the must know information you should know about heroin withdrawal. This can help you or someone you understand what it takes to recover.

“Doing heroin is like walking around with a terrorist as your friend. It’s like taking a terrorist around to parties. You never know when it’s going to blow up on you.”

~ Julian Casablancas

According to the American Society of Addiction Medicine, almost 600,000 Americans over the age of 12 suffer from substance abuse disorders involving heroin. As prescription opioids become harder to obtain, that number is only expected to grow. Statistics say that 80% of heroin abusers start out by misusing prescription painkillers.

Among drugs of abuse, heroin is particularly dangerous for two reasons.

  • It is extremely addictive–Nearly 1 out of every 4 people who try heroin will develop an addiction.
  • It is deadly –In 2014, there were almost 11,000 fatal heroin overdoses in the US.

Heroin’s Side-Effects Are Harmful to Both the Body and the Mind

Heroin abusers love the drug because it produces a warm, pleasurable euphoria of well-being and safety. However, it’s all illusory – the empty euphoria doesn’t last and the user is anything but safe. It’s not just heroin withdrawal that’s the issue, regular heroin use can result in numerous short-term and long-term side-effect:

  • Depressed respiration
  • Confusion
  • Nausea/vomiting
  • Pronounced drowsiness
  • Lowered body temperature
  • Dental problems, including bad teeth and inflamed gums
  • Sweating
  • Chills
  • Itching
  • Constipation
  • Weakened immune system
  • Muscular weakness
  • Sexual dysfunction/impotence
  • Disturbances in menstrual cycle
  • Facial pustules
  • Insomnia
  • Depression

It is important to note that overdoses resulting in coma or even death can happen at ANY time, including the very first use. Many times, when someone relapses after a time of abstaining, they will have lost tolerance. They will then use the same amount they did before they stopped. The body can no longer handle the same amount and they overdose. Drug manufacturers and dealers often “cut” the drug, so it is virtually impossible to know how pure or potent any individual dose of heroin is.

What Heroin Withdrawal Is REALLY Like

Like all substances of abuse, the use of heroin causes chemical and physical changes to the brain. Whenever a person performs any activity necessary to survival, such as eating or reproduction, the brain produces dopamine, a neurotransmitter associated with feelings of pleasure. This is a “reward” that trains the brain that the activity should be repeated.

Heroin also triggers a dopamine response, but the surge is much faster, heavier, and longer-lasting. Over time, the brain’s dopamine receptors become exhausted from over-stimulation. In response, the brain reduces dopamine production – not just to the drug, but to ALL pleasurable behaviors.

For the heroin addict, this means that the ONLY way for them to experience pleasure or even feel normal is by seeking ever-the greater doses of the drug, which paradoxically deliver ever-diminishing pleasurable sensations.

These brain changes are not necessarily permanent, but they can be long-lasting. For this reason, heroin withdrawal can be characterized by several symptoms, that while not life-threatening, can nevertheless be harshly unpleasant:

  • Flu-like symptoms
  • Wild mood swings
  • Severe muscle cramping
  • Abdominal pain
  • Profuse vomiting
  • Uncontrollable diarrhea
  • Tremors and shaking
  • Nervousness and agitation
  • Anxiety and depression
  • Extreme craving for drugs

How long will withdrawal last? The symptoms of heroin withdrawal typically begin 6-12 hours after the last use, will peak in severity after 48-72 hours. The initial physical symptoms can last up to 10 days. It’s important to note that the battle is not over. Many addicts will make it through the detox only to succumb to the drug due to emotional issues.

Dr. Marc Myer, a Minnesota-based addiction specialist, says, “I think one of the most difficult parts is the mental withdrawal. (It’s a combination of) a severe depression and feeling that you’re never going to pull out of that state. It’s pretty well-known among providers that, because of that feeling of hopelessness, the anticipation of the withdrawal is oftentimes worse than the actual thing.”

Because quitting heroin is so difficult both physically and mentally, it is ALWAYS recommended that a person not try to go “cold-turkey” on their own. Instead, they should undergo a drug detoxification safely under the care of a qualified medical staff in the controlled confines of a professional facility.

Afterwards, the newly-clean-yet-still-fragile recovering heroin addict should participate in a long-term drug rehabilitation program, in order to get the assistance and support they will so desperately need during the coming months. This is their best chance to achieve successful recovery while minimizing the risk of relapse.

In Idaho, the region’s premier drug rehab program is offered by . The experienced clinical staff at Northpoint uses the most widely-accepted Evidence-Based Treatment protocols to create individualized recovery plans for each client.

Most importantly, Northpoint Recovery uses multiple treatment approaches to combat the disease of addiction on every level – physical, mental, psychological, nutritional, and spiritual – to maximize the person’s chances of regaining their stability, sobriety, serenity, and sanity.

What Does Heroin Addiction do to a Person’s Life?

When someone is addicted to this dangerous drug, they become an empty shell of a human being. They will lie and steal from those that they love. They will pass out on the street and share needles. The risky behaviors when someone is using heroin can cause a myriad of problems. There is the risk of contracting H.I.V. or other infectious diseases.

Risky sexual behaviors can cause pregnancy, leaving heroin withdrawal symptoms in newborns. Babies addicted to any kind of drugs suffer from neonatal abstinence syndrome. They endure a sort of pain no baby should have to. They may gag, change in color, breathe too quickly, and experience fever, vomiting, and diarrhea.

Addicts will lose everything they have to obtain more of the drug they can’t live without. Heroin detoxification will be a sort of hell they want to avoid at all costs. Family, career, and social life is all given up eventually. It is rare that they will seek out help. They will often do their best to hide the fact they are addicted. They will segregate themselves from those that love them so they can continue taking heroin. It gets to the point where all an addict cares about is when they’ll get their next hit.

What Treats Heroin Addiction?

Addiction specialists and the medical community have found ways to make it easier to treat heroin addiction. Although it’s difficult to abstain, the treatment today helps make recovery possible. The methods will involve behavioral and pharmacological treatments. When both treatments are used together, they are more effective than if just one or the other is administered. As the addict is being weaned off the drug, often through a tapering program, they will also go through therapy. Between the two, the person will become stronger in mind and body. This has been shown as the most effective method.

There are intense addiction treatment programs that are highly effective because they use many different methods. Everyone addict is different and through assessments, treatments will be administered on a person to person basis. Detoxing from heroin will be the first step. A medical detox may be administered to make it easier on the addict. After that, behavioral or pharmalogical treatment will ensure.

Heroin addiction recovery may include medications approved specifically for treatment of stopping the drug. They work with the same opioid receptors in the brain but are safer, especially under constant supervision. The medications that can assist with detox are divided into three separate types. They include:

  • Agonist – Activates opioid receptors such as methadone. It is taken orally and is slow-acting. It dampens the effects so the addict won’t feel as high. It also prevents heroin withdrawal symptoms. Methadone has been used for a long time to treat addiction to opioids.
  • Partial agonist – Activates opioid receptors but has a ceiling effect. Buprenorphine is an example of this. The brand name Subutex relieves cravings without getting the person high. It also reduces the side effects of any opioid. While methadone has to be administered daily in a clinic, buprenorphine can be prescribed.
  • Antagonist – Blocks receptors so an addict won’t get the rewarding effects of opioids. Depade and Revia are the brand name of drugs that have the working medication Naltrexone. Naltrexone blocks the action of opioids in the brain. It’s non-addictive and with the new long-action injectable version called Vivitrol, it eliminates having to take daily doses.

Withdrawal and Tolerance

Tolerance to any addictive drug causes a physical consequence which leads to addiction. It takes time for the body to crave more of the drug to get the high. When the time comes to withdraw, the body has built up such a tolerance, it has lead to dependency. The body can no longer function normally without the drug it’s become dependent on. The brain doesn’t produce the chemicals that are necessary to feel normal.

It takes chronic use of heroin to cause the tolerance. The body adapts to the exposure of the drug over time. With heroin though, it doesn’t take much for full-blown addiction to develop. The euphoric effects of prescription opioids will cause the chronic tolerance. Dosages will be increased and abuse such as snorting or injecting may become the norm. This is how your average American turns to the streets. They can get the most powerful drug in heroin, which is often easier to obtain and cheaper. They already have a tolerance to similar working drugs so the transition can be seamless. This isn’t always the case as some may die the first time they ever use heroin.

What Heroin Does to Your Body

Opioids bind and activates receptors in your brain. They are known as the mu-opioid receptors. Our body has chemicals known as neurotransmitters that bind to these receptors via the brain and body. It’s designed to regulate pain, release hormones and give you a sense of well-being. When the mu-opioid receptors are activated in the reward center portion of the brain, it releases dopamine.

This is what reinforces drug taking behavior and how addiction develops. This is a direct consequence of taking a drug to induce good feelings as opposed to relying on your own naturally occurring chemicals. The factors of how addicted one becomes depends on how often it’s used, where it binds in the brain and body, and how strongly it will bind. Additionally how long it will bind, how rapidly it gets there and what occurs after.

When heroin does enter the brain, it converts to morphine. There will be a feeling of pleasure, known as a “rush”. The intensity of this is dependent on how much of the drug has been taken and how fast it gets to the brain. It will be coupled with a flushing of the skin, dry mouth, and a heavy feeling. Adverse side effects include nausea, vomiting, and itching. Mental function is slowed, as does the heart and breathing functions. The breathing function can be so significantly slowed that it can cause brain damage or death. There is also the heroin withdrawal symptoms that occur when the drug has left the body.

Famous People Who Died from Heroin Addiction

Even with all the money and power in the world, there have been many tragic stories of famous people who died alone via heroin overdose. This drug can take over anyone’s life and it doesn’t take long. From Janis Joplin in the 1970’s to Philip Seymour Hoffman just recently, this drug has long been destroying lives in Hollywood as well as suburban U.S. Here are some of the famous people showed ‘cause of death’ on their death certificate as heroin overdose.

Philip Seymour Hoffman

This American actor, director, and producer was in countless movies and often played a lowlife. Hoffman started his film career notably in the early 1990’s. He had been sober for 23 years but relapsed in 2012. He was found dead on February 2, 2014.

River Phoenix

He started his career at the young age of 10 but died at aged 23. He was an ‘A’ list actor who was friends with all the big deal Hollywood people at the time. He died in front of the Viper Room which was Johnny Depp’s club. Present the night he died was Joaquin, his sister Rain and Flea from the Red Hot Chili Peppers. Even with so many people around that cared about him, he managed to obtain, take, and overdose on heroin without anyone being able to help him.

John Belushi

This American actor was a great comedian. Best known for being one of the original cast members on Saturday Night Live, he was found dead at a ski resort on March 5, 1982. He was just 33 years old. He injected a combo of heroin and cocaine.

Janis Joplin

Janis Joplin, an American musician, is a part of the 27 club which represents a myriad of famous people that died at age 27. She had struggled with alcohol and drug addiction for many years. In 1970, she died of an overdose.

Jim Morrison

Another member of the 27 club was Jim Morrison, the American musician and singer for the Doors. On July 3, 1971, he died of cardiac arrest from heroin and cocaine use. While no autopsy was ever completed, he was known for indulging in various drugs.

Sid Vicious

Sid Vicious was just 21 when he died of a heroin overdose in 1979. He was the bass guitarist for The Sex Pistols. It was believed he intended to commit suicide. He was charged with murdering his girlfriend Nancy at the time he died.

Cory Monteith

This Canadian actor was well known for his main role in the TV series, “Glee.” In 2013, he died from abusing both alcohol and heroin at the same time. He had a problem with addiction since he was a teenager and died at aged 31.

What Works for Heroin Addiction?

As one of the most addictive drugs one can take, heroin should not be something you manage on your own. There are many tried and true methods that can help one abstain. Fundamentally, the person has to want to quit. A family can stage an intervention but that doesn’t mean the person will feel compelled to get better. Hopefully, if an addict is willing to go through detox and they begin the rehabilitation process, there’s hope for change.

Home detox from heroin is not recommended because the risk is too high for relapse. There should be constant supervision from addiction professionals that know how to manage an addict. Within a clinic, medical detox may be necessary to ease the symptoms that are so challenging to manage. Medications used for medically assisted detox will be on a tapering schedule. This allows the person to more comfortably detox. The amount of medication will be on a case-by-case basis dependent on how much heroin a person was taking and for how long. Slowly, the medications will be tapered until the patient is no longer taking any medication.

Different types of therapy can be applied that helps the addict understand their addiction. With this understanding, recovery is possible. The mindset of an addict can be adjusted and their bodies can begin to normalize. The therapy gives patients opportunity to gain the strength and conviction they need to desire recovery.

Once the person has completed rehabilitation, they will need to change habits and lifestyle. This will help the recovering addict avoid triggers and situations that could cause relapse.

Inpatient Heroin Detox

Because quitting heroin is so difficult both physically and mentally, it is ALWAYS recommended that a person not try to go “cold-turkey” on their own. Instead, they should undergo a drug detoxification safely under the care of a qualified medical staff in the controlled confines of a professional facility.

Afterwards, the newly-clean-yet-still-fragile recovering heroin addict should participate in a long-term drug rehabilitation program, in order to get the assistance and support they will so desperately need during the coming months. This is their best chance to achieve successful recovery while minimizing the risk of relapse.

In Idaho, the region’s premier drug rehab program is offered by Northpoint Recovery. The experienced clinical staff at Northpoint uses the most widely-accepted Evidence-Based Treatment protocols to create individualized recovery plans for each client.

Most importantly, Northpoint Recovery uses multiple treatment approaches to combat the disease of addiction on every level – physical, mental, psychological, nutritional, and spiritual – to maximize the person’s chances of regaining their stability, sobriety, serenity, and sanity.

Heroin Withdrawal Symptoms and Side-Effects: Must Know Info
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By | 2018-10-07T20:44:45+00:00 October 1st, 2018|

About the Author:

Loraine Couturier
Loraine Couturier is a writer and researcher for Northpoint Recovery. She has been writing since 2012 and has been fortunate enough to write about yoga, psychology, health, and wellness. She sees writing as a means to helping others on a grand scale.

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