Although quitting heroin is one of the best things you can do for yourself, attempting to do so by quitting cold turkey is often difficult, distressing, and painful.
Heroin is a powerful opioid derived from morphine. It may be encountered in white or brown powder form or as a black, sticky, tar-like substance, known as black tar heroin.1 People use heroin for its calming and euphoric effects. Like many other substances, heroin can be used in a variety of ways, such as by snorting, smoking, or injecting it.1
Heroin is highly addictive. Addiction refers to the inability to abstain from substance abuse despite significant consequences, such as medical, psychological, interpersonal, financial, or legal issues. Once someone becomes addicted to heroin, it can be challenging to quit due to the emergence of painful withdrawal symptoms.1 Many people who attempt to stop abusing heroin on their own relapse in order to alleviate the unpleasant symptoms. For this reason, many people will need a professional detox setting to withdraw from heroin safely.
Because of the power of deceit and denial, it can be difficult to discern whether you or a loved one has developed an addiction to heroin. Some signs and symptoms of heroin abuse, which are likely to be seen in some combination in those with addiction, may include:
When someone struggles with a heroin addiction, they will likely exhibit the following:4
Heroin users can experience some or all of these symptoms, depending on the severity and longevity of their addiction. An important step towards recovering from an addiction is first recognizing that you have a problem. Acknowledging that your heroin use has negatively impacted you and those around you can help further you down the road toward recovery.
Heroin dependence, which is the body’s natural adaptation to the presence of the drug, develops as a result of chronic use. Once the body adjusts, a heroin user will require heroin or other opioid drugs to feel and function normally, and if heroin use is dramatically reduced or stopped altogether, unpleasant withdrawal symptoms will emerge.
These symptoms can range from mild discomfort to severe pain and distress. Heroin withdrawal symptoms may emerge within 6–12 hours after the last heroin dose, peak within 1-3 days, and dissipate within 5-7 days.4
Common heroin withdrawal symptoms include:4,6
These symptoms can be wildly unpleasant and difficult to endure. Many people continue using heroin or other opioids to avoid or relieve them, thus creating a vicious cycle of use. This is why professional detox and addiction treatment can be so beneficial in helping people stop that cycle and become clean and sober.
While heroin withdrawal is not inherently fatal, complications can arise because of various symptoms. These potential risks include:6
Thus, quitting heroin on your own, while achievable, can be risky and potentially life-threatening due to the potential of medical complications.
The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Service Administration (SAMHSA) recommends 24-hour medical care as the preferred detox setting for heroin withdrawal. This is recommended on basic principles of medical safety and ethical humanitarian concerns.6
Heroin users can receive detox services in a variety of settings, including:
An important component of heroin detox is the use of opioid detox medications. The following drugs may be used throughout the withdrawal process:6
Detox itself is not a substitute for comprehensive drug addiction treatment, as it does not rectify problematic behaviors associated with heroin abuse. Furthermore, detox alone does not equip the drug user with appropriate coping skills for distress tolerance and mood management. As a result, detox often represents the first step, but it cannot be used to promote long-term sobriety.
Entering a comprehensive addiction treatment program can help heroin users understand more about their addiction, how to cope with triggers, and how to successfully reintegrate back into society.