Heroin withdrawal symptoms caused by the detoxification that occurs when a heroin addict is without opiates to maintain their addiction can be intense. Whether or not there is a psychological dependence upon the drug, the physical dependence is very difficult to break.
Depending upon the addictive dose of heroin, other drugs of abuse regularly used, co-occurring mental health issues, and other factors, heroin detox could last for a few days, or it could last for a few weeks. For those who use maintenance medications to avoid the brunt of withdrawal symptoms in early recovery, heroin detox will last for as long as they continue to take these medications, but in most cases, the withdrawal symptoms will be less overwhelming.
The withdrawal symptoms experienced by patients who are addicted to heroin and stop using the drug will vary but usually occur in stages. In the first stage, patients often experience:
- Runny nose
- Dilated pupils
- Tearing of the eyes
- Agitation and irritability
Later, these symptoms may worsen and/or be joined by other symptoms, including:
- Stomach cramps and diarrhea
- Intense bone and muscle aches
These withdrawal symptoms can occur in any combination and may be worsened by use of other addictive drugs, co-occurring mental health symptoms, and underlying medical problems, such as chronic pain.
There are a number of different medications that have been shown to be effective in treating the withdrawal symptoms associated with heroin detox. Not all will be appropriate in every case, and some patients will fare best with no medication at all. The most popular options include:
- Methadone. Methadone not only mitigates heroin withdrawal symptoms by binding to the opiate receptors just as heroin would but at high doses (usually between 80 and 120 milligrams), it can block the effects of other drugs should the patient relapse while using the drug. The drug is heavily regulated. Only drug treatment centers that are registered with the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) and certified by SAMHSA are legally allowed to provide the medication to patients on a daily, in-person basis until they complete the requirements that allow them to take a certain number of doses home to self-administer.
- Buprenorphine. Buprenorphine is the first medication to be approved for treatment of opiate withdrawal that can be given to patients on a purely outpatient basis from a regular doctor’s office, as long as that doctor has undergone the training necessary to be able to legally prescribe the drug. It too binds to the opiate receptors in the brain and mitigates the symptoms of heroin withdrawal.
- Naltrexone. Naltrexone is the only medication of these three that is not an addictive drug itself. This medication works by blocking the opiate receptors as well as binding to these receptors, rendering other opiate drugs ineffective. It is given by injection under the brand name Vivitrol and is a long-acting drug.
Babies born to mothers who are addicted to heroin very often have low birth weight, are born prematurely, and are born with neonatal abstinence syndrome (NAS), a physical dependence upon heroin. NAS causes withdrawal symptoms in infants, a problem that affects one baby every hour, according to the National Institute of Drug Abuse (NIDA). The average length of the hospital stay after birth for these babies is about 16.4 days, as compared to 3.3 days for infants born without heroin withdrawal symptoms.
The most effective way to address heroin withdrawal symptoms is to undergo detox and comprehensive care at a medical center dedicated to the treatment of addiction. Contact us today to connect with the best heroin treatment for your addicted loved one. We can help.
Further Reading About What to Expect from Heroin Withdrawal
David W. Newton is a board certified pharmacist and also has been a board member for boards of examiners for the National Association of Boards of Pharmacy since 1983. His areas of expertise are primarily pharmaceuticals as well as cannabinoids. You can read an article about his expertise in CBD on the National Library of Medicine.
Reviewed by: Kim Chin and Marian Newton