Heroin withdrawal can begin as soon as four hours for those who are heavily dependent on the drug, making supervised treatment a good option for many addicts. Without another dose, withdrawal becomes worse.
Sometimes referred to as “dope sickness,” the anticipation of the coming trauma only adds to the craving to take another dose. This then becomes a repeated daily nightmare of fear and anxiety.
For those brave enough to undergo a complete withdrawal, the situation deteriorates over the next 48 to 72 hours and then slowly resolves. This phase consists of more than just psychological craving, but includes severe physical symptoms.
Intense feelings of restlessness and insomnia take over. Along with this comes diarrhea, nausea and vomiting, and shivering.
The physical component of the restlessness sometimes becomes an uncontrollable kicking motion, and this is where the phrase, “kicking the habit” arises.
Other symptoms of heroin withdrawal:
- Temperature regulation problems, with sweating and chills
- Repeated yawning
- Runny nose and watery eyes
- Irritability and anxiety
- Intense craving for the drug
Some withdrawal methods that seek to eliminate the harshest physical symptoms.
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Because there are drugs available that will quickly clear heroin from its active sites in the body, medically supervised withdrawal can be less severe than someone trying it on their own. Called opioid antagonists, drugs like Narcan (Naloxone) or Naltrexone can be used to block heroin’s effects and bring someone rapidly off a high (or an overdose).
Combined with anesthesia, so called ‘rapid detox’ is used to try to limit withdrawal symptoms in patients. The user is knocked out and the antagonist is administered. After several hours (up to 8) the person is then allowed to wake up and the heroin is cleared from their system. Various studies show that withdrawal symptoms can be lessened with this method, but that long-term success is no better than traditional withdrawal. The advantage seems to lie in convincing addicts to undergo the treatment. Any heroin addict who has experienced withdrawal before may be reluctant to put themselves through the traditional process.
photo by Rodrigo Valladares