Heroin is an illegal opioid drug that’s processed from the naturally occurring opioid morphine, which is made from the seed pods of specific poppy varieties.1 Heroin is a very strong opioid and is known to produce an initial feeling of euphoria (feeling of being intensely happy or excited) and relieve pain.
However, heroin is a central nervous system depressant (CNS), meaning it slows down a person’s breathing and heart rate, sometimes to dangerously low levels, which can result in coma or death.2
Due to these dangers and the addictive qualities of heroin, it’s important to understand how it affects the body and how to safely quit heroin.
This article will:
- Define heroin addiction and the dangers of using heroin.
- Explain heroin withdrawal and symptoms.
- Discuss safe ways to detox from heroin.
- Outline different heroin treatment programs and aftercare.
What is Heroin Addiction?
Heroin addiction is a chronic, relapsing, and treatable brain disease characterized by an inability to control substance use despite knowing the negative effects it has on your health and well-being. Addiction occurs due to many factors, including your environment, genetics, brain chemistry, and life experiences.1, 6
Addiction, also called substance use disorder (SUD), may develop because of genetic predisposition, environment, personal life experiences, other substance use, or behavior patterns unrelated to substance use.5
While heroin addiction can negatively impact a person’s life, addiction is a treatable disease.5 Like other chronic medical diseases, treatment may be effective at helping a person maintain sobriety and long-lasting recovery.5
Effects of Using Heroin
Heroin has many adverse short-term and long-term side effects. While heroin users report an initial feeling of euphoria, often referred to as a “rush,” other common side-effects of short-term use include:6
- Dry mouth.
- Nausea or vomiting.
- Heaviness in arms and legs.
- Severe itching.
- Drifting in and out of consciousness (“nodding off”).
- Irritable mood.
The long-term effects of heroin use are more complex. Chronic use can change the structure and physiology of the brain, creating chemical imbalances that are sometimes irreversible.7
Other long-term complications include:9
- Anti-social behavior.
- Sexual dysfunction.
- Damage to the nasal septum (when heroin is snorted).
- Collapsed veins (from intravenous use).
- Bacterial infections of heart valves and blood vessels.
- Clogging of blood vessels that lead to major organs (because of unknown additives cut with heroin).
- Risk of Hepatitis C or HIV (from sharing needles for intravenous use).
Heroin Withdrawal Symptoms
Physical dependence is a result of the body’s adaptation to the drug.7 Over time the body becomes used to heroin to the extent that if the individual stops using heroin or decreases the dose, the individual is at risk of physical withdrawal symptoms.7
Withdrawal symptoms can sometimes be felt within hours of a person’s last heroin use.7
Heroin withdrawal symptoms will vary based on the severity of a person’s addiction to heroin, as well as other co-occurring conditions, including mental and physical conditions.7
Some symptoms of withdrawal may include:6, 10
- Hot and cold flashes.
- Muscle and/or bone pain.
- Depression and/or anxiety.
How to Safely Quit Heroin
If you or a loved one are struggling with heroin use and want to quit, doing so under the care of qualified treatment professionals can provide a safe place to do so. Trying to quit heroin “cold turkey” or without medical supervision may increase the chances of experiencing mild to severe withdrawal symptoms.23 The desire to avoid unpleasant withdrawal symptoms may cause a person to want to use heroin again and lead them to relapse.11
Using medications during heroin withdrawal can help a person’s brain return to normal functioning and reduce cravings, thus preventing relapse. 6, 22 After a person goes through a detox phase, behavioral therapies can be effective at treating heroin addiction in combination with other treatment services and ongoing medication managament.23
Treatment for heroin addiction can take place in a variety of settings based on a person’s individual needs.
What is Medical Detox for Heroin Addiction?
A medically supervised detox is when a person goes through the detoxification process while under the care and supervision of trained medical staff. They monitor withdrawal symptoms and psychological complications of withdrawal.13 A medically supervised detox provides a safe environment for a person to stop using substances and prepare for further heroin treatment.
Treatment using medications has been proven to increase retention in treatment programs and decrease drug use, infectious disease, and criminal behavior for those struggling with heroin and opioid addiction.11 Since the medication needs to be administered by health care professionals, medical detox might be the best course of action for people who are at risk of severe withdrawal symptoms.
Medication for Heroin Withdrawal
Medications like methadone, buprenorphine, and naltrexone can help by blocking opioid receptors in the brain, or weakening the response to them so that a person does not feel the same rewarding effects of the opioid drug.11
There are several effective medications to treat heroin withdrawal. Each one works in slightly different ways and has different drawbacks as well. Based on a person’s specific needs and medical concerns a medical professional will help determine the best medication.
Some common medications used include:
- Methadone, an opioid agonist that binds to opioid receptors in the brain. It acts much more slowly, diminishing the high felt from drugs like heroin. It can only be dispensed through approved treatment programs, and it is dispensed to patients daily.11 It is important to note that methadone can be addictive and carries a high potential for abuse, which is why it is only dispensed daily through approved programs. When taken as prescribed, however, it can be an extremely effective treatment for people seeking help for heroin addiction.15
- Buprenorphine, a partial opioid agonist that can help manage the symptoms of opioid withdrawal and can also be given long-term to help people maintain recovery and decrease cravings for opioids. Buprenorphine when combined with naloxone is also sold under the names Subutex and Suboxone.
- Naltrexone, an opioid antagonist, acts slightly differently than methadone and buprenorphine. Instead of binding to opioid receptors in the brain, it blocks the action of opioids.11 It does not cause physical dependence. However, treatment with Naltrexone requires a person to fully detox from opioids because naltrexone can cause opioid withdrawal symptoms if opioids are present in the body.16
Heroin Addiction Treatment
Detoxification is the initial step in long-term recovery. Treatment must be individualized to each person to meet their unique needs and medical concerns. There is no one-size-fits-all approach to healing from addiction.
Effective treatment addresses all a person’s needs.22 Creating an individualized treatment plan with a treatment professional can help to get those needs met. Counseling, behavioral therapies, and long-term relapse prevention skills are part of a complete recovery treatment plan.
Inpatient services provide 24-hour support and structure for people who have not been able to manage recovery in an outpatient setting. During inpatient treatment, a person stays in the facility overnight. Inpatient services can be offered at various levels of intensity depending on a person’s needs.17
Outpatient treatment is when a person visits a facility to receive treatment services. There are varying levels of outpatient treatment that can include detox, behavioral therapy, and medication management.17 Outpatient treatment for heroin addiction may be best suited for people who have ample personal and social support and need to go to work or school.13
There are many types of behavioral therapies that have shown to be an effective element in treating heroin addiction:
- Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) seeks to identify and correct problematic behaviors and negative self-talk. It addresses negative thought patterns and helps people develop healthy coping strategies.12, 18
- Contingency Management involves offering tangible rewards to reinforce positive behaviors such as not using heroin (abstinence). Sometimes people get vouchers that can be used to buy food, movie passes, games, or monetary prize incentives.19
- Motivational Enhancement Therapy (MET) helps people resolve their mixed feelings about their substance use and/or treatment. It promotes internal motivation for change and helps people develop coping strategies for high-risk or triggering situations that may arise. It is designed to help empower people to discover their own motivations to change by asking questions that may draw out a person’s personal values and priorities.20
Aftercare for Heroin Addiction
Long-term continuing care may be beneficial for people during recovery, particularly those at a higher risk of relapse, those with poor social support, or less motivation to stay sober.21 Continuing care can help by keeping people engaged in their recovery process even after they are finished with treatment.
Some treatment programs may assist you with creating an aftercare plan, which may include:13
- 12-step facilitation.
- Behavioral therapy.
- Group counseling sessions.
- Individualized drug counseling.
Get Help Quitting Heroin
The current opioid epidemic has revealed the devastation that heroin, and other opioids, inflict on individuals, families, and communities. However, treatment is available, and recovery is possible.
If you or someone you know is struggling with heroin addiction, American Addiction Centers can help. Call 24/7 to speak with one of our compassionate admissions navigators to learn about treatment options, check your insurance coverage, and begin the road to recovery.
- National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA). (2021, June). What is Heroin and How is it Used.
- Huecker, M., Koutsothanasis, G., Abbasay, M.S., & Marraffa, J. (2021, April 19). Heroin. National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI).
- Department of Justice, Drug Enforcement Administration. (2020, April). Drug Fact Sheet: Heroin.
- American Psychiatric Association. (2020, December). What is a Substance Use Disorder?
- American Society of Addiction Medicine (ASAM). (2019, September 15). Definition of Addiction.
- National Institute of Drug Abuse (NIDA). (2021, June). Heroin Drug Facts.
- National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA). (2021, June). What are the Long-Term Effects of Heroin Use?
- Fields, D. (2010, November 5). Change in the Brain’s White Matter. National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI).
- National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA). (2021, June). What are the Medical Implications of Chronic Heroin Use?
- National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI). (2009). Withdrawal Management.
- National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA). (2021, June). What are the Treatments for Heroin Use Disorder?
- American Psychological Association. (2017, July). What is Cognitive Behavioral Therapy?
- National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA). (2018, January). Types of Treatment Programs.
- National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA). Comorbidity: Addiction and Other Mental Illness.
- National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI). (2009). Methadone Maintenance Treatment.
- National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA). (2018). How Effective are Medications to Treat Opioid Use Disorder?
- ASAM Continuum. (n.d.). What are the ASAM Levels of Care?
- National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA). (2018). Cognitive Behavioral Therapy.
- National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA). (2018). Contingency Management Interventions.
- National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA). (2018). Motivational Enhancement Therapy.
- McKay, J. (2021). Impact of Continuing Care on Recovery from Substance Use Disorder. National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI).
- National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2019). Treatment Approaches for Drug Addiction DrugFacts.
- National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2020). Treatment and Recovery.