Can You Die from Heroin Withdrawal?

There’s the intense body ache, the alternating sweats and chills, restless sleep and a feeling that it’s never going to end. Now imagine the worst flu of your life, multiply it by ten, then add a mental obsession so all-consuming that you would do anything to relieve it. That’s heroin withdrawal.

While death from heroin withdrawal is rare, ask anyone who’s detoxed from the powerful opiate and they’ll tell you they felt like they were dying. It’s one of the reasons many heroin addicts—and opioid addicts in general—go to such great lengths to prevent withdrawal. For many, it isn’t even about getting high anymore. It’s about just not getting sick.

The fear and anxiety around the physical and mental torture that comes with heroin withdrawal can keep people stuck in addiction. They want to stop but when the withdrawal symptoms get too strong, their only relief comes from going right back to the drug that started it all. It’s a vicious cycle. But Discovery Place has helped thousands of men safely walk through withdrawal and start a life free from heroin.

What Heroin Does to You

Heroin is a highly addictive and illegal drug. Naturally derived from the poppy plant, heroin, along with drugs like morphine and codeine, are considered opiates.

When you use heroin, it latches on to your brain’s opioid receptors, the part of the brain that controls your pain and reward center. It’s a triple threat, working on your central nervous system, your brain stem and your peripheral nervous system. Opiates like heroin, but also synthetic opioids like fentanyl, hydrocodone and OxyContin, work on the central nervous system by giving you that comfy, sleepy feeling. Then in the brain stem, they tell your body to relax its breathing. (This is what actually tends to kill people in an opioid overdose. They stop breathing.) And finally, opioids work on your peripheral nervous system by slowing down pain signals.

Basically, heroin tells your brain to tell your body to make everything feel really good. And that euphoric feeling can be so addictive that people will destroy their lives, their family and their future for a chance to feel that way again and again.

Addiction is a cruel disease though. And the same drug that at first makes everything feel great, will leave the same person begging for mercy when they’re without it.

Symptoms of Heroin Withdrawal

Because heroin is so addictive, it’s easy to start using the drug more frequently and in greater quantities. As you use more of the drug, your tolerance and dependence increase. Over time, the opioid receptors become less responsive, and you need more of the drug to get the same effect. Eventually, the neurons in your brain controlling your opioid receptors will only function normally with heroin. Without the drug, you go into heroin withdrawal. This can start in as little as 6-12 hours from the time of your last dose.

People experience a range of symptoms during detox, but here are some of the most common ones:

  • Drug cravings
  • Anxiety
  • Muscle aches
  • Stomach cramps
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Irritability
  • Sweating
  • Shaking and restless legs
  • Insomnia

How to Safely Detox from Heroin

Detoxing from heroin isn’t easy. Not only are the physical symptoms intense and painful, but your mind will also be simultaneously trying to convince you in a million different ways that the best way to end your suffering will be to do more heroin. It’s a trap, of course. And besides, once you’re deep in your addiction, doing heroin won’t return you to that euphoric state. That’s gone. Now you’re only using to stop the withdrawal symptoms and quiet your mind.

If you’ve made the decision to stop using heroin, there are two main ways to detox.

Cold turkey

If you’ve been using a while, chances are good at some point you ran out of drugs and found yourself accidentally cold turkey-ing it. Or maybe you got fed up one day, said enough is enough and decided to white knuckle it. Either way, you know the cold turkey detox is not for the faint of heart.

For those who are able to fight it out, physical symptoms like dehydration from vomiting and diarrhea can be life-threatening. Not only that, but if you vomit while you’re sleeping you could choke and die.

The mental and emotional pain that comes from detoxing—severe depression, anxiety, restlessness and agitation—can lead to self-harm and even suicide.

The detox process is so mentally and physically difficult that most people trying to quit cold turkey will eventually give in to their cravings. The danger then is an increased chance of overdosing. Why? Because as soon as you stop using heroin, your tolerance starts to go down. If you’ve stopped using and then start again, you’re at risk of using too much, overdosing and possibly dying.

Medically assisted treatment for withdrawal 

Medically assisted treatment (MAT) can help with detox. At one time, many in the medical profession considered methadone to be something of a cure-all detox drug. Today, we know better. Methadone addiction is a real thing and can leave addicts trading one drug for another.

Buprenorphine, known by its more popular brand name, Subutex, is a partial opioid antagonist. Opioid antagonists, like Vivitrol and Narcan (more on those in a minute), block opioid receptors and prevent the effects of opioids. Their job is to stop drugs like heroin from doing what they do. But Subutex is only a partial opioid antagonist. It can still produce some of the effects of opioids, like that feel-good sensation and slowed breathing, but at a much less powerful rate. This is what makes it a useful drug for easing withdrawal symptoms.

But buprenorphine isn’t a long-term recovery strategy. It’s one part of a whole-person approach—mind, body and spirit. It can help you get through the initial stages of withdrawal, but the goal is to move away from it and toward total abstinence.

Suboxone is another popular drug to help with heroin withdrawal. While Subutex only contains buprenorphine, Suboxone is made up of both buprenorphine and naloxone. That’s an important difference.

Naloxone, which you may know better by its brand name, Narcan, is an opioid antagonist. Its entire purpose is to stop opioids from working by blocking them from attaching to opioid receptors. It’s the drug used to stop opioid overdoses. So, adding naloxone to buprenorphine makes abusing Suboxone harder to do. In fact, if someone tries to inject Suboxone, the naloxone will kick in and immediately push the person into withdrawal.

There’s another opioid antagonist you can turn to for help, but this drug should only be used after you’ve fully detoxed. Naltrexone, which might be called Vivitrol, ReVia or Depade, is an injectable drug used to treat alcohol use disorder (AUD) and opioid use disorder (OUD). Like naloxone, Vivitrol blocks your opiate receptors. So, if you try to take an opioid, you won’t feel the effects of it.

How Long Does Heroin Withdrawal Last?

If you’ve been through heroin withdrawal, then you know it feels like it lasts forever. It isn’t forever, but it also isn’t done overnight.

Withdrawal can start in as little as a few hours after the last time you’ve used. If you continue to stay stopped, you’ll experience the most severe symptoms over the course of about a week. Peak discomfort, to put it mildly, comes around days 3-4.

Depending on just how strong your dependence is, withdrawal could last two or three weeks. Some people may also experience what’s called post-acute withdrawal syndrome, or PAWS, which can last from several months to up to a year or more. The symptoms of PAWS tend to be more psychological than physical—things like mood irregularities, disrupted sleep and anxiety.

Getting Professional Help for Heroin Addiction

One of the reasons so many people struggle to make it through heroin withdrawal is because they’re trying to do it alone. And it’s not surprising. By the time full-blown heroin addiction has taken over, many people will have already lost the support of their family and friends. But trying to go through something as difficult as heroin withdrawal alone isn’t the answer. Not only is it unsafe but it’s usually unsuccessful.

Discovery Place can help. If you called us right now, we’d bet good money that just about anyone who picks up the phone is a recovering heroin or opioid addict. Nearly every employee at Discovery Place has been through our programs, starting with the 30-Day Residential Program. They made it through detox, and you can too.

We offer community, connection, and most importantly, a solution to addiction that works. If you’re ready for something better than a life chasing heroin, let us know.

Related Articles:

Benzo Withdrawal: The Ultimate Guide

Opiate and Opioid Addiction: An Explanation of Cause and Effect

Opioid Overdose Signs and Symptoms

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