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Most heroin users don’t try to deny how dangerous it is.
On an average day, over 100 Americans die from overdosing on opioids like heroin. That’s twice as many as in just 2010.
Even knowing the dangers and increasing the risk of use, the obstacles in the path of recovery are very real. One of the first obstacles to hurdle is the fear of what detox and heroin withdrawal are like.
Do not let the horror stories you’ve seen in the movies stop you from quitting. Read on to get a realistic picture of the process and what you can do to make it easier.
What Is Heroin Withdrawal and Why Does It Occur?
With continued use, at high levels, the body becomes used to heroin’s effects and will start to rely on the substance for normal functioning. Prolonged heroin use can actually change brain physiology.
This is known as chemical dependency: cravings increase over time, level of use escalates, and more dangerous and harmful behavior occurs.
When the chemically dependent person goes without the drug it doesn’t take long before withdrawal symptoms set it.
What Are the Symptoms of Heroin Withdrawal?
When trying to anticipate what to expect from withdrawal, it’s important to understand that the timeline and intensity of effects depend on the extent of use. But you can get a rough understanding from knowing what detox is like for most people.
For most people addicted to heroin, the first signs of withdrawal can begin within about 6-12 hours of the last use.
The earliest symptoms to appear are often muscle aches, body shaking, anxiety, and an inability to sleep. All of these symptoms can be expected to increase in severity over the course of the first two days.
By about the third day of detox, the effects of heroin withdrawal are in full swing.
Around this time severe cramping and nausea occur with vomiting and diarrhea.
The body goes through big temperature changes, sweating, and shivering. Fevers during detox can run dangerously high.
The appearance of goosebumps on the skin along with frequent chills is probably why they call it “going cold turkey.”
Throughout the time of withdrawing from heroin, extreme mood swings can occur. Many people experience deep depression and get very agitated at slight provocation.
Most people report the strongest cravings to use occurring throughout the entire period of detox.
What Can Help?
Although heroin withdrawal is almost never life-threatening, it can be very painful, distressing, and dangerous.
When you’re experiencing the symptoms of your body detoxing from heroin, over-the-counter medicine can help, when used in the proper dosage.
These include medications containing:
- Loperamide for diarrhea, like Imodium A-D
- Dimenhydrinate for nausea, like Dramamine
- Acetaminophen or ibuprofen for aches and pains, like Tylenol or Advil.
Do not exceed the recommended dosage of any medicine.
There is evidence to support the use of vitamins and herbal supplements in helping to mitigate the effects of heroin withdrawal.
It also helps to practice daily wellness:
- Drink more liquids than usual, like water
- Eat nutritious meals regularly
- Get moderate exercise
- Engage in relaxing activities
Do I Need Professional Support?
It is advised to seek the counsel of a medical professional when planning the best treatment pathway for you.
Professional support can mean seeing your doctor or another medical professional to prescribe medication. There are prescription drugs that can ease the severity of symptoms.
These drugs function as withdrawal and recovery aids, not as heroin replacements:
- Methadone is prescribed to reduce pain and craving during withdrawal and help heroin addicts gradually reduce opioid dependency.
- Buprenorphine is prescribed to shorten the duration of detoxification and lessen the severity of withdrawal symptoms like agitation, nausea, and restlessness.
- Clonidine is similar to buprenorphine. It is used for muscle pain, as well as anxiety and agitation.
Inpatient facilities, such as the detox ward in your hospital and addiction treatment centers, offer these and other medications and will assess and closely monitor your medical condition.
You may also receive other therapeutic assistance and see mental health professionals. Diagnosis, including dual diagnosis, will help you to receive the medication and other treatments that are most effective for you.
The data shows that you’re more likely to get through heroin withdrawal without using if you admit yourself to an inpatient detox program.
The Ongoing Effects of Heroin Withdrawal
The greatest severity of withdrawal symptoms will start to taper off in the later part of the first week. However, for those who have a considerable history of use, many of the symptoms can linger on through most of the first month of abstinence, with the intensity continuing to lessen over time.
This phase of withdrawal is known as acute-withdrawal. It is the most difficult phase to manage and the most difficult time to stay off heroin when both symptoms and cravings are the worst.
Once you have successfully detoxed you’ve come a long way but don’t be discouraged when you see it can still be difficult. It will keep getting easier with more time.
Recovery from heroin addiction is an ongoing process and there will be other difficulties after detox.
Depending on the duration and intensity of addiction, other symptoms may continue on through the first year of recovery. These symptoms are known as post-acute withdrawal syndrome (PAWS).
In recovery from heroin use, the effects of PAWS vary from person to person, but will likely appear as cravings, exhaustion, mood instability, and cognitive impairment in some form.
You may experience difficulty sleeping and fatigue, agitation, and aggressive tendencies, anxiety, paranoia, depression, trouble concentrating, and/or difficulty with short-term memory.
Some of these things may come about and cause frustration in recovery. As you continue in the recovery process understand that you will see these improve more and more over time.
More Help with Recovery
The effects of heroin withdrawal can make early recovery a very challenging time.
That’s why it can make a critical difference to have professional help in developing and carrying out your recovery plan.
There are many different options for heroin addiction treatment to choose from. Ranging from long-term inpatient to much less intensive outpatient programs. Use the resources here or reach out to become more informed of your options and move forward in the process.