Not too many decades ago, the best-known “treatment” for heroin withdrawal was toughing it out “cold turkey”—which, in stereotypical media portrayals, usually meant a stark bedroom setting with a dirty cot and no supervision. Not a pleasant image, nor a particularly accurate one, since hospital treatment has been an option for over a century.
Today, with substance use disorder better understood and addiction-medicine specialists widely available, we encourage readers to pursue proper medical care to aid in recovery from heroin addiction.
Heroin Withdrawal Symptoms
Withdrawal from heroin and other opiates produces symptoms similar to a serious case of the flu:
- Runny nose and watering eyes
- Aching all over
- Muscle tremors
- Nausea, vomiting and diarrhea
- Chills and/or heavy perspiration
- Racing pulse
- Feeling exhausted without being able to fall asleep
In addition, the detoxer will experience intense emotional cravings for more heroin, often accompanied by panic attacks or severe depression.
Withdrawal symptoms typically begin six to twelve hours after the last dose of heroin, are at their worst on the third day and dissipate after five to seven days. However, some people develop post-acute withdrawal syndrome (PAWS) and suffer periodic mood swings, insomnia and/or physical pains for as long as two years. Even without PAWS, cravings to return to heroin often surface repeatedly for months (especially at times of stress or in settings associated with the old habit), so one vital step in long-term recovery is creating a “relapse prevention plan” to prepare for and defuse such temptations.
Risks of Unsupervised Detoxification
Heroin is not the most dangerous drug to quit cold turkey: alcohol and its chemical cousins in the benzodiazepine family are far more likely to produce life-threatening symptoms. But heroin withdrawal is hardly to be taken lightly, and there have been associated fatalities.
The most common causes of death during withdrawal are:
- Dehydration from severe vomiting and diarrhea
- Overdoses if someone yields to the craving for a fresh dose of heroin (putting more drugs into a partly detoxed and physically ill body is an extremely serious risk)
- Suicidal behavior under the influence of severe anxiety and/or depression
Occasionally, a detoxer may die from extra-high fever (over 103 degrees Fahrenheit) or—if there are underlying physical-health conditions—intolerable stress on vital organs.
Heroin Withdrawal Treatment
To minimize danger as well as discomfort, and to ensure help close by, medical supervision is essential during withdrawal. Basic treatment consists of keeping the patient safe, well-hydrated and as comfortable as possible, with staff on hand to offer support as needed.
If someone has particularly bad withdrawal symptoms or is at high risk for relapse, medication may be administered during detox or prescribed for the post-detox recovery period. Methadone, once the go-to drug for heroin treatment, is less used these days because it can turn into a “substitute addiction.” Newer options include naltrexone (a medication that blocks the brain’s opioid receptors to reduce cravings, and is usually administered as monthly injections after detox) and buprenorphine (an opioid that stimulates the receptors to a lesser degree than heroin or methadone, reducing withdrawal symptoms without reaching potentially addictive levels itself).
How to Manage Heroin Withdrawal
The first rule of navigating heroin withdrawal is to go to an established, reputable clinic and follow your detox supervisors’ instructions. Additional measures that may help ease withdrawal symptoms:
- Stay hydrated and well-nourished—but since your digestive system will be under high stress, stick to small, easily digestible portions. Your detox supervisors may recommend a diet.
- Yoga and light exercise can help. Ask your supervisors for guidance, and be careful not to overexert yourself.
- Get your mind off the pain. Cheerful, low-key music and videos are good for occupying your thoughts without requiring much effort. Other options include reading and journaling.
- Focus on the positive. Keep reminding yourself this won’t last forever and there’s a better life waiting on the other side of heroin withdrawal.
Treatment for Heroin and Other Addictions
Drug withdrawal is an unpleasant and potentially dangerous experience, but treatment from a professional detox center can keep it from becoming worse than it has to be. In addition, qualified medical treatment includes longer-term care and counseling to reduce the chances of a patient’s relapsing into active addiction.
Cumberland Heights offers treatment for addiction to heroin and other opioids as well as alcohol, marijuana, hallucinogens, methamphetamines and cocaine. Contact us today to learn more about how we can help you.