Heroin Withdrawal Symptoms and Treatment

an image of a man dealing with heroin withdrawal symptoms
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By: Renaissance Recovery

Clinically Reviewed by: Diana Vo, LMFT

Last Updated:


Authored By: Joe Gilmore

Table of Contents

To fully comprehend the severity and complexity of heroin withdrawal symptoms, we first need to explore how the drug works. If you or a loved one is struggling with heroin use disorder there are treatment options including heroin rehab like Renaissance Recovery to help you get the assistance you need.

If you can better understand how this potent narcotic affects the mind and body, you’ll dramatically increase your chances of stopping using the drug.

Heroin Withdrawal Symptoms

When your body becomes dependent on opioids like heroin, you’ll almost inevitably experience a laundry list of disagreeable withdrawal symptoms if you discontinue use.

It’s during the detox stage of recovery when your body starts purging itself of heroin along with all the other toxic metabolites. As this purge occurs, withdrawal symptoms tend to manifest.

Even the abstract concept of withdrawal is enough to stop many heroin addicts from putting down the needle and seeking any form of treatment.

It doesn’t need to be this way, though.

Even simply becoming aware of these withdrawal symptoms and what to expect from them can help you to see that, while unpleasant, heroin withdrawal symptoms are eminently manageable.

Now, not all heroin users suffer the same withdrawal symptoms. There are many variables impacting both the extent and the severity of side effects.

The length of the drug habit, the amount of heroin being used, and the nature of the abuse will all play a part in the nature of withdrawal symptoms. Anyone with a prior history of opioid withdrawal or mental illness is liable to find withdrawal symptoms more severe.

Heroin withdrawal symptoms are the opposite of the high induced by the drug. When you take heroin, you suppress some of the core functions of your CNS (central nervous system). You also noticeably increase feelings of pleasure. When you stop taking heroin, you can expect lowered mood, a raised heart rate, and a general feeling of anxiety to set in. This is in stark contrast to the euphoria and relaxed state triggered by heroin use.

someone dealing with heroin withdrawal symptoms

Understanding the Signs of Heroin Withdrawal

We can group the symptoms of heroin withdrawal on a sliding scale as follows:

  • Mild heroin withdrawal symptoms
  • Moderate heroin withdrawal symptoms
  • Severe heroin withdrawal symptoms

Mild Heroin Withdrawal Symptoms

As long as you haven’t been abusing heroin in large amounts or for lengthy spells, you might be surprised at how mild withdrawal effects can be.

Having said that, a short-term, moderate heroin user who suddenly stops taking the drug can still experience a range of acute and unpleasant side effects, including:

  • Bone and muscle aches
  • Nausea
  • Chills
  • Profuse sweating
  • Excessive yawning
  • Abdominal cramps
  • Runny nose
  • Eyes tearing

Moderate Heroin Withdrawal Symptoms

How about when you have been abusing larger amounts of heroin? What if you have had a heroin habit for an extended period?

Well, as you would expect, the withdrawal symptoms when use is discontinued tend to be more debilitating.

Moderate heroin withdrawal symptoms can include any or all of the following:

  • Difficulty focusing
  • Diarrhea
  • Fatigue
  • Agitation
  • Vomiting
  • Tremors
  • Restlessness
  • Goosebumps

Severe Heroin Withdrawal Symptoms

When heroin use is severe and long-term, there can be a severe backlash if you stop using the drug, which is why some treatment centers use MAT and a drug tapering program to help ensure safety.

More severe heroin withdrawal symptoms can include:

  • Strong cravings for heroin
  • Anxiety
  • Inability to feel pleasure
  • Depression
  • Insomnia
  • Hypertension
  • Rapid heart rate
  • Muscle spasms
  • Uncontrollable leg movements
  • Respiration problems

We fully understand if looking at that long list of negatives doesn’t inspire you.

There’s some good news, though: heroin withdrawal is quite quick, and we’ll explore that timeline right now.

someone learning about heroin withdrawal timeline

Heroin Withdrawal Timeline

You can expect the first symptoms of heroin withdrawal to occur anywhere from 6 to 12 hours after your last dose. Known as the comedown period, this is when the euphoric effects of heroin are dwindling.

For most users, these effects peak during days 1 to 3 of sobriety. Side effects can start diminishing toward the end of the first week of heroin detox. This is because heroin is a short-acting opioid, meaning that it will kick in quickly, but it also leaves your bloodstream quickly.

Some chronic heroin users may experience PAWS (post-acute withdrawal syndrome) where withdrawal symptoms can drag on for weeks, sometimes even for months. This situation will require careful management.

Although heroin users may experience different withdrawal symptoms, there tends to be one constant: an intense craving for more heroin. In part, this is due to a desire to experience that pleasurable high again. Beyond this, the user is aware that taking heroin would immediately relieve most of these nasty side effects.

The intensity of these cravings should not be underestimated. If you are dependent on heroin and you intend to stop using the drug, it’s vital to have an appropriate course of treatment lined up.

What can you expect from that?

Heroin Withdrawal Help

Heroin withdrawal treatment is one aspect of addiction treatment programs and takes place in a continuum of settings, typically under medical supervision.

If you have been using heroin for any length of time, it’s usually unwise to try attempting withdrawal alone and reliant on willpower alone. If you don’t at minimum have an adequate support framework in place, you will lack the robust foundation you need for successful and sustained recovery.

You should consider detox as the starting point, and as a crucial component of a wider-reaching recovery plan. To stop using heroin is only the first step on a lifelong journey, but if you fail to get this first step right, you’ll stall before you start.

Serious heroin addiction normally warrants inpatient treatment. One study shows that inpatient detoxification increases the likelihood of long-term recovery. A powerful benefit of inpatient treatment is the way you can seamlessly transition from this setting into counseling, also a core element of sustained recovery from heroin addiction.

For users who have been taking smaller amounts of heroin, or users who have only recently started taking the drug, outpatient treatment can be viable. For this to be effective, though, you’ll need a stable environment with plenty of support on hand. With outpatient treatment, you’ll still need to visit a treatment center regularly, as you’ll need observation, tests, medication, and counseling.

So, with residential treatment, you’ll equip yourself with the best chance of successful withdrawal from heroin.

The environment is guaranteed to be drug-free, and you’ll also benefit from a comprehensive suite of medical support on demand. You’ll be continuously monitored and you can also take advantage of MAT if you need some of the more severe withdrawal symptoms diluted.

To recap, detoxing from heroin might be fairly quick, but it’s only the very first step on a lifelong journey to recovery. By ensuring that detox is medically supervised, your overall experience will be more comfortable. You can also rest assured that any issues, whether psychological or physical, can be addressed head-on by qualified medical professionals.

Speak with your doctor first so you can assess the feasibility of withdrawing from heroin in an outpatient setting. He may inform you that residential rehab would make more sense in your circumstances.

If you elect to detox from heroin at home, tread carefully with any remedies you might source online. Use the wrong product and you could end up creating more harm than good. If you are detoxing at home, you’ll need plenty of resolves, the support of those around you, and regular visits to a treatment center. As we have already mentioned, an outpatient setting should only be considered if you are a casual, short-term heroin user.

How about if you choose to pursue a medically supervised detox in a residential rehab center? Well, it pays to be completely realistic about the core goal of heroin withdrawal.

Goals of Medically-Supervised Heroin Withdrawal

You should view all withdrawal services as a gateway to ongoing recovery rather than a treatment guaranteeing abstinence. If you approach heroin withdrawal with unrealistic expectations, you’ll be predictably disappointed if the treatment doesn’t give you recovery any traction.

What can you expect from heroin withdrawal under medical supervision, then?

All treatment programs differ, but they all share some core goals:

  • Minimize distress during heroin withdrawal: For most heroin users looking to detox in a medical setting, the primary driver is the way in which discomfort can be effectively managed.
  • Reduce the chances of complications from heroin withdrawal: You should be aware that heroin withdrawal is seldom life-threatening. Unfortunately, complications can occur. These complications can be inflamed if there is an underlying mental condition. When someone simultaneously suffers from addiction and a mental health disorder, this is known as co-occurring disorder. In a residential setting, it’s possible to manage these withdrawal symptoms more effectively.
  • Improves chances of managing a relapse: Any relapse that occurs outside of a residential setting carries more chance of an overdose. Your tolerance to opioids will have decreased, so taking the same amount of heroin as before could prove fatal. In a drug-free residential treatment program, this won’t happen.
  • Form a transition into counseling and ongoing recovery services: Heroin addiction is a chronic, relapsing condition. Most withdrawal services focus on the short-term outcome of detoxification. A treatment center can help you transition seamlessly into ongoing treatment and counseling so you stay strong during the early stages of abstinence from heroin.

Medication-Assisted Treatment for Heroin Withdrawal

If you required medication-assisted treatment for heroin addiction, there are several medications proven to effectively minimize withdrawal symptoms.

  • Methadone: Methadone, a long-lasting opioid agonist used for the maintenance treatment of heroin addiction and stabilizing a patient during withdrawal, is a mainstay of treatment centers the world over. The medication is administered under supervision, and the course of Methadone is slowly tapered off during the recovery process.
  • Buprenorphine: Buprenorphine is a synthetic opioid. The medication targets the same opioid receptors impacted by heroin. A partial opioid agonist, buprenorphine has a less powerful and more limited effect than heroin. You take buprenorphine sublingually and the medication delivers some relief from withdrawal symptoms without any danger of encouraging relapse. This unwitting tendency to trigger relapse occasionally happens when using a full opioid agonist.
  • Naltrexone: A compound that helps to block opioid receptors, naltrexone is routinely used to discourage the abuse of opiates after successful recovery.
  • Suboxone: Suboxone is a combination of naloxone and buprenorphine. The medication is designed to inhibit heroin abuse. Containing both an opioid antagonist (naloxone) and an opioid activator (buprenorphine), you can move slowly away from the grip of heroin addiction while benefiting from reduced withdrawal symptoms.

All of the above medications must be administered by qualified medical staff. None of them are suitable for a home detox.

Now, if you consider your heroin addiction is severe enough for residential rehab, it’s imperative not to rush into choosing a treatment center. Take the time to get this right and you’ll dramatically enhance your chances of kickstarting a successful recovery.

Fortunately, it’s not that hard to choose a suitable treatment center for heroin withdrawal.

people who found treatment for heroin withdrawal

How To Choose The Right Treatment Center for Heroin Withdrawal

Start by considering some basic questions, including:

  • Is there a supervised medical detox on offer at the center?
  • What’s the staff-to-patient ratio?
  • Are any medications used? If so, which ones?
  • How much does treatment cost and can you afford this?
  • Will the treatment center accept insurance? If so, what out-of-pocket expenses must you bear?
  • How long is the treatment program and does this mesh with your schedule?

Remember, always consult with your primary healthcare provider before making any attempt to quit using heroin.

By taking ample time to explore a range of treatment centers, you can better determine which makes the smoothest fit.

Now, if the problem with heroin addiction is urgent and time is of the essence, we can help.

Getting Treatment for Heroin Addiction with Renaissance Recovery

If you or a loved one is ready to stop using heroin and start the long and challenging road to recovery, you can contact us today at Renaissance Recovery’s California rehab. Call us at 866.330.9449 and we’ll help overcome heroin withdrawal symptoms and help you get right back on track at our Orange County rehab.

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Pat C

“I owe my life and my happiness to these people. October 8th, 2019 marked two years of sobriety for me, and prior to finding Renaissance I hadn’t had 24 hours sober in nearly 20 years.”

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Paige R

“They truly cared for me and the other people that I served with! From this group, I have made 8 new brothers and friends for life! We have continued on, after the program, to take care of each other”

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Courtney S

“Great staff who took the time to get to know me. They have a lot of experience in this field and have first hand experience with what I was going through. IOP is outstanding and really built up a ton of great relationships and found this program to be a ‘breath of fresh air’.”

Joseph Gilmore has been in the addiction industry for three years with experience working for facilities all across the country. Connect with Joe on LinkedIn.

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