Can You Die From Heroin Withdrawal?

Heroin is an illicit opioid that is responsible for thousands of deaths each year. What many people don’t know is you can develop a physical dependence on substances like heroin. This means the body will require the substance to function normally.

If you are dependent on heroin and suddenly stop, you will experience severe withdrawal symptoms as the body attempts to detox and function without it. Opioid withdrawal is notoriously challenging to overcome. Heroin withdrawal can even be life-threatening.

A substance use disorder (SUD) is a serious issue that usually requires treatment. There are many treatment programs around the US created specifically for overcoming heroin withdrawal and addiction. Long-term recovery is possible with the right care.

What Makes Heroin So Addictive?

Heroin addiction can be extremely difficult to overcome, even with treatment. Opioids work as a central nervous system (CNS) depressant, giving the user an overall feeling of well-being, euphoria, and pleasure.

Opioids bind themself to opioid receptors throughout the central nervous system, blocking pain messages. This effect is what makes opioids highly effective painkillers, but also highly addictive.

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIH), research has shown that many people who become addicted to heroin were first introduced to opioids by the use of prescription opioids. Common prescription opioids that could be prescribed are OxyContin or Vicodin.

Opioid painkillers are prescribed by medical professionals to treat pain that does not respond to over-the-counter pain medication. These drugs have a similar effect on the body as heroin.

Heroin Addiction

Due to the pleasurable effects of heroin, a person may abuse the substance. This can lead to becoming mentally or physically dependent on heroin use. Heroin is an illicit opioid, meaning it is illegally manufactured and has no medical purpose. If a person has become dependent on opioids and can no longer obtain them legally, they may seek to purchase them illegally. This could lead to using heroin.

Heroin can be snorted, sniffed, smoked, or injected. Heroin comes in the form of a white or brown powder, which is typically used for snorting and smoking. Heroin is also sold as a black, sticky substance known as black tar heroin. To inject heroin, the substance is diluted with a mild acid, mixed with water, and heated up. The liquid form of heroin is then injected.

No matter how heroin is taken, it is a highly addictive substance. The body will develop a tolerance to heroin quite quickly, meaning a person will have to take higher doses of the drug to achieve the same ‘high’.

Over time, prolonged substance abuse leads to physical dependence. A dependence means the body has become so used to the presence of the drug in its system that it now requires the drug to function normally. If a person has a physical dependence on heroin and they suddenly stop taking it, they will most likely experience severe withdrawal symptoms.

What Is Heroin Withdrawal?

When the body has become dependent on a substance and that substance is suddenly removed, the body will go into shock. During heroin detox, the body needs to adjust to functioning without heroin. When a person who is dependent on heroin stops taking it, they will begin experiencing withdrawal symptoms.

Withdrawal symptoms may vary from person to person. How severe the withdrawal symptoms are will depend on a few factors: age, overall health, the severity of addiction, and length of addiction. In general, the longer a person has been abusing heroin, the more intense the withdrawal symptoms will be.

Withdrawal will affect a person’s mind and body and as a result, they will experience both mental and physical signs. Quitting cold turkey is not recommended with heroin addiction as the symptoms can be severe and dangerous.

What Are Heroin Withdrawal Symptoms?

People will experience opioid withdrawal differently. Common physical symptoms include:

  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Stomach cramps
  • Muscle aches
  • Increased blood pressure
  • Increased heart rate
  • Insomnia
  • Fatigue
  • Watering eyes
  • Chills
  • Muscle spasms
  • Sweating

Withdrawal will be psychological as well as physical, especially if a person has become mentally dependent on the drug. Psychological and emotional withdrawal symptoms can include:

  • Mood swings
  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Inability to concentrate
  • Intense drug cravings
  • Psychosis

Withdrawal symptoms can make a person vulnerable to relapse. Without addiction treatment and emotional support, a person could start taking heroin again to relieve the withdrawal symptoms. It is never recommended to do an at-home detox. The physical effects of heroin withdrawal can be dangerous.

Can Heroin Withdrawal Be Dangerous?

Yes, heroin withdrawal can be extremely dangerous. Physical effects of withdrawal such as vomiting and diarrhea can cause physical complications.

During withdrawal, a person is more likely to relapse due to drug cravings and other symptoms that are difficult to overcome. A recent study by the University of Southern California found that during the withdrawal to relapse period, a person is more likely to engage in risky behavior such as needle sharing. Sharing needles increases the risk of contracting blood-borne illnesses like Hepatitis C, Hepatitis B, and HIV. Furthermore, during withdrawal, the risk of accidental overdose is increased.

Psychological withdrawal symptoms could cause a person to self-harm or have suicidal thoughts. It is never recommended to attempt to detox by yourself at home. Addiction treatment programs that include medical supervision can ensure a safe withdrawal process. Programs such as medication-assisted treatment, or a medical detox program will provide round-the-clock care.

Can You Die From Heroin Withdrawal?

Yes, there have been fatalities from heroin withdrawal symptoms. While it is not extremely common, a severe withdrawal period can be life-threatening. Symptoms such as nausea, sweating, vomiting, and diarrhea can lead to dehydration. Dehydration can cause kidney, brain, liver, and heart failure.

As withdrawal symptoms can be life-threatening, it is never recommended to detox at home by yourself. There are many treatment options designed to help those going through opioid withdrawal. Addiction treatment programs will include constant medical supervision to manage severe withdrawal symptoms. Furthermore, addiction treatment provides mental health supervision by mental health professionals to avoid any psychological complications.

How Quickly Do Withdrawal Symptoms Start?

Although the timeline will vary depending on the extent of the drug addiction, heroin withdrawal symptoms start around six to twelve hours after the last dose. The withdrawal process will start with mild symptoms.

How Long Do Withdrawal Symptoms Last?

After around one to three days since the last dose, the symptoms will peak. This will be the most difficult period of heroin withdrawal. After around one week since the last dose, heroin withdrawal will start to subside and the person will feel some relief. For those suffering from extreme substance use disorders, the symptoms could last up to ten days.

How Can Heroin Withdrawal Symptoms Be Treated?

As the symptoms can be fatal, a safe withdrawal requires constant medical care for the first week. Nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea can be managed by over-the-counter medications. Dehydration can be managed with an IV drip. However, withdrawal experiences like intense cravings can require medical intervention.

Addiction treatment medications are used to manage cravings during heroin withdrawal. For example, naltrexone is a drug that works as an opioid antagonist. Opioid antagonists block opioid receptors. This means if a person was to engage in opioid drug use while on naltrexone, they won’t be able to achieve the pleasurable effects.

Buprenorphine is a similar drug that works as a partial opioid agonist. A partial agonist works like heroin, a full agonist, but only attaches partially. This effect reduces cravings and other negative effects of withdrawal, without the ‘high’ of a full agonist.

Heroin Addiction Treatment

Recovering from heroin and other substance use disorders is not easy, but with the right treatment program, it is possible. There are many different treatment programs to choose from depending on individual needs. During withdrawal and the first few weeks of recovery, residential treatment is recommended for constant supervision.

In the early stages of withdrawal, a supervised medical detox can be extremely beneficial. Medical detox will provide the patient with addiction medicine for cravings and difficult withdrawal signs. A person can also opt for an outpatient program as they are more flexible and interfere less with a person’s regular daily life.

For long-term recovery, support groups can provide excellent emotional support. Addiction is a chronic illness that needs life-long care. There is no ‘cure’ for addiction, but it can be managed. It is possible to be free of substance abuse.

Alina Lodge

If you or a loved one is engaging in heroin use, you may be wondering, can you die from heroin withdrawal? If so, you should consider seeking substance abuse treatment. An addiction to heroin or other opioids can be detrimental to physical, mental, and social well-being. However, there is hope.

At Alina Lodge, we help people overcome addiction to drugs and alcohol every day. We provide a range of treatments such as a medical detox program, medication-assisted treatment options, family therapy, and cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT). We specialize in treating mental illness as well as addiction treatment, as the two often go hand in hand.

Relapsing on heroin use or other drugs can make you feel hopeless. To prevent this, we have a chronic relapse treatment center and a specialized relapse prevention program. Contact us today to discuss your treatment plan with a trained addiction specialist.