Heroin is a highly addictive opioid painkiller made from morphine (a natural chemical that is extracted from the seed pod of opium poppy plants). Heroin binds to opioid receptors in the brain and quickly delivers a short-lived surge of euphoric pleasure but at a price.
What Is Heroin?
Heroin is one of the most addictive, dangerous, and damaging drugs in the world. It packs a double punch, being both physically and psychologically addictive. Long-term use can cause liver or kidney disease, heart or pulmonary infections, infertility, collapsed veins, and injection use increases the chances of contracting hepatitis or HIV — not to mention possible overdose and death.
According to the CDC, over 13,000 people died from a drug overdose involving heroin in the United States in 2020; this was nearly seven times higher than in 1999.
Pure heroin is a white powder with a bitter taste. It is sold as a white or brownish powder that can be injected, sniffed, snorted, or smoked. “Black tar” heroin may be sticky or hard with a dark color that is often dissolved and injected. Heroin use has increased because of the popularity of club or rave drugs. It goes by the street names of Big H, Brown Sugar, Dope, and Junk, among many others. Its increased accessibility and social acceptance have resulted in a new generation of heroin addicts.
Once addicted, the biggest obstacle keeping heroin users from getting treatment or quitting altogether is the uncomfortable detoxification process. Detox is the first step toward recovery, and the physical and psychological withdrawal symptoms can feel overwhelming. Many people find the symptoms get so intense that they decide to use heroin again just to feel better.
Fortunately, heroin withdrawal itself is not lethal or deadly — just extremely uncomfortable and painful to where many have said that heroin withdrawal made them wish they died. Many factors add significant risks, and complications arising during “self-detox” can lead to hospitalization and death if left untreated. As a result, people can die from heroin withdrawal.
Heroin withdrawal symptoms include cravings, dysphoria (a profound sense of unease or dissatisfaction — basically the opposite of euphoria), insomnia, nausea, fever, chills, vomiting, stomach pain, diarrhea, or other flu-like symptoms. People may also experience runny nose, body aches, increased sensitivity to pain, tremors, and fatigue. Psychological symptoms such as depression, major mood changes, restlessness, agitation, or anxiety can occur.
Heroin detox is different for everyone, but a severe long-term heroin addiction will likely lead to a more intense and painful detox period. Withdrawal symptoms typically begin 6 to 12 hours after the last dose, peak in 1 to 3 days, and gradually fade over the next 5 to 7 days. After this, people are likely to experience periods of intense drug cravings. Some users may experience weeks or months of withdrawal symptoms, called post-acute withdrawal syndrome (PAWS).
While none of these symptoms are lethal, they can aggravate underlying physical issues and may require medical intervention. Withdrawal can lead to increased heart rate, stroke, respiratory depression, or seizures, so medical monitoring is vital.
Can You Die From Heroin Withdrawal?
Some life-threatening complications can arise during heroin withdrawal. The most common cause of death when detoxing is dehydration. Vomiting and diarrhea are natural processes for cleansing the body of foreign substances, and both result in a significant loss of hydrating fluids.
Dehydration can lead to seizures, organ damage, kidney failure, heart attack, or hypovolemic shock (very low blood pressure and blood oxygen level caused by lack of fluid). Dehydration is often difficult to overcome because of nausea, diarrhea, vomiting, and stomach cramps, where drinking even water may increase their intensity. It can also lead to electrolyte imbalances, particularly elevated blood sodium (hypernatraemia), which can cause heart failure and result in cardiac arrest.
Certain psychological issues during withdrawal can make a person more likely to harm themselves. Throughout withdrawal, they may experience amplified depression, depersonalization, severe panic attacks, and hallucinations. This altered state of mind, coupled with extreme discomfort, can increase suicidal tendencies. At one point, Psychology Today estimates the rate of suicide among substance abusers who fail to seek treatment to be approximately 45%.
Heroin addiction damages the body in many ways. For example, heroin smokers often develop problems with their lungs and respiratory system that only get worse during detox. Other physical conditions unrelated to heroin use such as cancer, diabetes, or heart disease may increase a person’s risk of dying from withdrawal.
During detox, any relapse could be enough to cause death. During detoxification, the body is in the process of purging opioids from its system, thus decreasing tolerance levels for the drug. If someone relapses and uses the same amount that they took before withdrawal, their body may not tolerate the dose, resulting in a possibly fatal overdose.
It is highly recommended that professional medical supervision be present when an addict is ready to pursue sobriety. With 24/7 monitoring, proven treatments, and FDA-approved medications, inpatient medically assisted detox can help overcome their withdrawal symptoms safely and comfortably. While it is possible to overcome the pain and discomfort of heroin withdrawal by yourself, there are several potential complications that only medical professionals will have the knowledge to recognize and treat before they become fatal.
Why Choose Bridges Of Hope?
Bridges of Hope is a Joint Commission accredited dual diagnosis adult substance abuse treatment program. Our program is designed to achieve long-term recovery. We are licensed by the State of Indiana Department of Mental Health & Addiction.
Our treatment philosophy is based on a comprehensive and integrated approach to addressing all issues related to substance use and mental health disorders. We leave nothing to guesswork as we utilize therapeutically proven, evidence-based clinical practices. We place superior patient care as our highest priority and offer them all-inclusive treatment services.
Mission Statement: We provide hope and healing for anyone with alcohol and substance abuse disorders.
We connect everyone to their own personal journey, bridging the gaps previously unmet.