Heroin is a common illegal drug derived from morphine, a potent painkiller. Heroin, morphine, and related drugs are known as opioids. These drugs are known to be addictive, and as with many addictive substances, they can cause withdrawal symptoms when you suddenly stop taking them.
Heroin withdrawal is generally uncomfortable, and in rare cases, it can be fatal. Read on to find out why.
What are the symptoms of heroin withdrawal?
Symptoms common to withdrawal from opioids, including heroin, are described as a flu-like illness. They consist of the following:
- Dilation of the pupils
- Muscle aches
- Teary eyes
- Runny nose
These symptoms may take a while to progress. But in the case of heroin, which is a fast-acting opioid, the withdrawal symptoms peak 2 to 3 days after your last dose.
Can they be fatal?
While most heroin withdrawal symptoms are not life-threatening, the last two — vomiting and diarrhea — can be. If you experience frequent diarrhea and vomiting, and you do not seek medical care, you may suffer from dehydration, hypernatremia (high level of sodium in your blood), and later on, heart failure.
In one documented case in 1998, a female prison inmate in the United Kingdom died due to brain damage caused by cardiac arrest. Before her death, she was reported to have persistent vomiting, dehydration, and sudden weight loss. The root cause of it all was heroin withdrawal.
Can the withdrawal symptoms be treated?
With appropriate medical attention, the potentially deadly effects of heroin withdrawal can be averted. Death is not immediate, so early medical care can save your life if you’re suffering from those withdrawal symptoms.
If you have persistent diarrhea and vomiting, you can soon become dehydrated. This condition is not fatal in itself, but if left untreated, it can lead to life-threatening consequences. But if you get early medical interventions, like intravenous fluids, your body can recover. As a result, you are less likely to develop any fatal complications.
However, treating the withdrawal symptoms alone is not enough. If you continue taking heroin, withdrawal will come back any time you stop taking the drug. The solution is to get treatment so you can live a drug-free lifestyle.
How can I quit heroin without the fatal withdrawal symptoms?
If you have a heroin addiction and have decided to quit, the best thing to do is to enroll in a comprehensive rehab program. Talk to your doctor or a mental health specialist first so you can come up with a treatment plan.
Usually, the first phase of heroin addiction treatment is medically-assisted detox. The goal of this procedure is to wean your body off heroin until you can comfortably live without taking any of it.
Often, detox involves tapering off your dose of heroin slowly over a few days. This ensures that withdrawal symptoms are kept to a minimum. Typical detoxes last for 7 days, though if your case of addiction is more severe, you may need up to 10 days.
During the entire process, a team of doctors and medical personnel will always be there to help you in case of any emergency. If you feel discomfort, pain, or anything at all, you can ask for immediate assistance.
Additionally, you may be prescribed a few medications to help manage any withdrawal symptoms. Here are some of them.
Methadone is another kind of opioid drug used to treat addictions to other opioids, including heroin. It is known as an opioid agonist, which means it mimics the effects of heroin in the brain. Methadone is less potent and acts more slowly than heroin, though, so it gives your brain the familiar sensations but in a less intense form. This helps prevent unpleasant withdrawal symptoms from developing. Additionally, methadone can be used as a maintenance drug for long-term prevention of heroin withdrawal.
While methadone is itself an opioid, it is not likely to cause addiction when used with medical supervision.
Buprenorphine is a partial opioid agonist. It reduces your cravings for heroin without making you high. With that, you also avoid the many detrimental side effects of heroin. When taken as prescribed, this medication is very safe and has no addictive potential.
This medication is known as an opioid antagonist. Unlike opioid agonists, naltrexone blocks opioids from reaching their receptors. As a result, you will not feel the effects of heroin anymore. Naltrexone is quite safe too because it is neither addictive nor sedating. Additionally, naltrexone is useful for preventing heroin relapse.
Behavioral therapies for heroin addiction
Detox and medications alone are not enough to stave off a heroin addiction. They are just the first steps of a complete rehab program. After that comes behavioral therapies, which will deal with the mental and emotional components of the addiction.
Behavioral therapies can be administered in both outpatient and inpatient settings. Two of the most common behavioral therapies effective in treating heroin addiction are cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and contingency management therapy.
In CBT, your therapist will teach you how to change your mind about the things that trigger drug cravings. CBT aims to replace negative thought patterns with positive, realistic ones. As a result, your desire to take drugs will diminish. At the end of CBT, you will develop healthy ways of coping with negative emotions instead of turning to drugs.
In contingency management therapy, you earn “points” and vouchers for good behavior — specifically, getting negative drug tests. The longer you stay clean, the more vouchers you get, and you can “redeem” items that further push you to live drug-free.
There is no one-size-fits-all
One important thing to note about behavioral therapies is there is not one therapy that works best for everyone. Therapies must be tailored for your specific case. What works for many other patients may not necessarily work as well for you.
To know the best treatment route for you, talk to your doctor or a mental health professional today.