10 Symptoms of Heroin Withdrawal: Dealing with the Dragon

Information is empowering when it comes to conquering addiction. If you are or a loved one is considering heroin addiction treatment, anxiety about going through outpatient detox might be a reason for not seeking treatment. Understanding the healthy and necessary process of detox will help.

While it is true that regular users of heroin and other opioids are likely to experience moderate to severe symptoms during detox, with the guidance of an intensive outpatient program the process is rarely life-threatening. On the other hand, continuing to use heroin does put your life at risk, and an overdose or other health issues become more likely the longer the drug is used.

When addicts are ready to begin recovery, the medical expertise and wellness knowledge of their outpatient support teams will help them deal with:

The Top 10 Symptoms of Heroin Withdrawal

Of the almost half a million people who use heroin regularly,1 most will experience symptoms like these during detox:

  1. Joint pain, as well as muscle spasms, aches, and pains.
  2. Cold sweats, goosebumps, and tremors.
  3. Nausea and vomiting, with associated abdominal cramps.
  4. Watery eyes and runny nose.
  5. Agitation and restlessness with trouble concentrating.
  6. Insomnia and fatigue.
  7. Anxiety and/or depression, including difficulty feeling pleasure.
  8. High blood pressure and a rapid heart rate.
  9. Shortness of breath.
  10. Intense drug cravings.

Is It a Good Idea to Detox by Yourself?

While the physical symptoms are usually not life-threatening for a healthy person, the effect on the heart and vascular and digestive systems should be monitored. There might be an undiagnosed underlying condition or the addiction might have led to overall system weakness due to dehydration, malnutrition, and lack of exercise. It may be risky to try to tough it out on your own, especially when professional help is available.

Anxiety and depression are normal brain reactions to detox but could be life-threatening on their own. No matter how tough people may be, they need supervision when experiencing these types of symptoms.

There are medications available to step down more gradually from the addiction, which will reduce the severity of symptoms, but these medications are only available under medical supervision in outpatient detox centers and inpatient facilities.

Having friends or family as additional support at home is also very helpful, as there are ways to prepare for the detox process. If you don’t have that type of support, an intensive outpatient treatment plan will include a mentor and group support to help build a healthy network for your continued success.

Ways to Prepare Yourself for Detox

Prepare as if you knew you were going to be down with a very bad flu. Have a friend or family member who will check on you and help with chores and meals if at all possible.

  • Have comfortable clothing available for several days—sweatpants, tee shirts, pajamas, and several changes of sheets for the cold sweats.
  • You will need to stay hydrated and eat if possible. Stock up on sports drinks with electrolytes and meal replacement drinks.
  • You may feel hot and need a fan, or feel cold and want extra blankets.
  • Plan to keep yourself occupied with books, movies, games, or other distractions to help the time pass.
  • Be careful of online cure-alls or other advice that doesn’t come from your doctor or treatment program.
  • Look into natural ways to increase your endorphins, including meditation, yoga, stretches, and dietary changes, all of which can help ease the transition.
  • If that’s not your cup of tea, a walk outside and a treat of chocolate will also raise endorphin levels and will help your sense of pleasure and enjoyment begin to return.
  • Having a structured program behind you will provide more resources to help you combat cravings and find joy in other things.

Why Are Opioids Like Heroin So Addictive?

heroin addiction treatmentPart of successful heroin addiction treatment is learning more about yourself and your reasons, rationalizations, and triggers for using the drug. More than 80% of opioid addictions began with a prescription medication.2

Whether that applies here or not, know that opioid addiction is difficult to avoid. These substances directly hot-wire the brain’s pleasure centers and, with regular use, create an addictive cycle for almost anyone.

The cycle of heroin addiction looks like this:

  • A drug-induced release of endorphins causes an exaggerated feeling of well-being known as euphoria.
  • An inevitable come-down occurs when the feeling of euphoria fades as the artificial endorphin levels fall, prompting a desire to return to the euphoric state.
  • Another dose causes the brain chemical overload of euphoria again—but less strongly each time. This reduced response is called tolerance. Larger doses are needed to achieve any pleasurable effect.
  • The body slows down its natural production of endorphins, serotonin, and dopamine in response to the abnormally high levels being caused by the drug. This reduction in critical brain chemicals causes depression and anxiety.
  • At this point, the body has become dependent on the drug and will no longer produce natural endorphins in response to healthy stimuli. Only the drug will create feelings of pleasure, and the absence of the drug causes physical and mental withdrawal symptoms.

Medical doctors are aware of this addictive cycle and will usually limit opioid prescriptions to the short term in an attempt at prevention. If addiction has already developed, however, many of those caught in this cycle turn to street drugs like heroin because of untreated pain and overwhelming cravings or to combat their withdrawal symptoms.

Why Are Heroin Withdrawal Symptoms So Extreme?

  • The changes in brain chemistry that occur with physical dependence are the primary cause of heroin withdrawal symptoms. The brain cells have changed their function slowly and need time to adjust back to normal function without the drug.
  • The digestive system has also adapted to heroin and changed its water and acid balance to compensate for the constipating opioid effects. Returning to healthy function will take time. Nutritional plans can be designed to help this transition.
  • Heroin is a strong pain reliever with a numbing effect. The nerve cells adjust to this numbing, and the absence of the drug can be perceived as pain during outpatient detox. When the nerve pathways return to healthy activity, these pains will pass. In the meantime, safe medications are available.

Without heroin, the digestive and nervous systems begin to return to normal function and the chemical balance in the brain will be naturally restored over time. In the short term, medication and wellness techniques will help combat depression and discomfort.

How Long Does Heroin Withdrawal Last?

Regular heroin users may experience the first symptoms of withdrawal within 6-12 hours. For others, it may take a day or more. Symptoms tend to reach peak intensity 48-72 hours after the last dose, and withdrawal lasts 5-10 days, on average.

This physical detox should be followed up with an intensive outpatient program, which will help the patient deal with cravings during the recovery phase. Building a new support system, enhancing life skills, and coping with trigger situations are all part of the longer-term treatment which will prevent relapse.

Why Just a Little More Won’t Help

When this discomfort is at its peak, the temptation to take heroin to relieve withdrawal symptoms can feel overwhelming. At the peak of withdrawal, a dose at the old tolerance level can be especially dangerous—sometimes even causing an overdose.

At this darkest point, the endorphins are lowest, but this is also when the brain’s healing begins. The body must have time to recognize that it needs to start producing its own endorphins again. This is the low point your system needs to start the process of self-correcting.

When this peak point is reached, having a strong support structure around will get you over the hump. With a holistic intensive outpatient program, you can be more comfortable physically during the process and keep yourself safe from relapse.

Seizing the Day

Men running depicting overcoming addictionWhile the symptoms of heroin withdrawal are uncomfortable, they can be endured and overcome. Like any person combating a disease, knowing that there are treatments available and a light at the end of the tunnel can motivate us to succeed and survive.

Taking advantage of the tools and medicine available just makes sense when you need to heal. There is no need to go through this experience alone. As part of heroin addiction treatment, you will meet and inspire some of the many others who are going through this same challenge.

BlueCrest Recovery Center in New Jersey offers a safe and supportive environment and intensive outpatient programs that will allow you to remain independent while enjoying the full spectrum of ancient and modern addiction treatment methods. Medically supervised detox is coupled with spiritual and behavioral therapies to provide a strong balanced foundation for a new life.

You can find out more with no strings attached. Reach out to us today by phone or by using the contact form. Our compassionate and understanding team is ready to answer all your questions and help you start planning your victory over addiction.


  1. https://www.cdc.gov/vitalsigns/heroin/index.html
  2. https://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/drugfacts/heroin

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