Substance Use

Can I Go Cold Turkey and Stop Using Heroin?

sad woman abusing heroin with needle

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You may be wondering, “Can I really quit using heroin?” If you are one of the thousands of Americans who are struggling with a heroin addiction, hope is not lost. The recovery process can be challenging for individuals who have used heroin, but it is not impossible.

Heroin is a highly addictive drug that is very difficult to quit on your own due to severe withdrawal symptoms. (1)

About 948,000 Americans reported using heroin in 2016, according to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health. Heroin use has been on the rise since 2007. (2)

The number of people using heroin for the first time is higher than normal; approximately 170,000 people admitted to starting heroin use in 2016, which is nearly double the number of people in 2006 who started using heroin.

The rise in heroin use can be attributed to a few factors including the opioid crisis. However, it is not a journey one should try alone. If you are considering attempting to quit heroin cold turkey, there is a very slim chance you will be successful.

Unfortunately, heroin is a highly addictive substance and withdrawal comes with severe side effects.

In this article, we are going to explore what heroin is, what heroin withdrawal would be like, and the best way to detoxify to be able to lead a sober life.

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What is Heroin?

The United States Drug Enforcement Administration has classified heroin as a Schedule I controlled substance. (3) In simple terms, this means that heroin has no medicinal uses and it has a high risk for one to develop a dependence because of its addictive nature. (1)

Some consider the substance to have the greatest potential out of all available drugs for a user to develop an addiction.

Heroin is derived from substances in poppy plants and the drug is considered an opioid. Users typically administer the substance through an injection, although the drug can be used in other ways. (1)

What Is Heroin Withdrawal? How Long Does It Last?

Individuals who develop a dependence on heroin often fall into an endless cycle.

Even when one wants to quit, the withdrawal symptoms can be severe enough to lead a user to use again to get the symptoms to stop.

The severity of withdrawal symptoms from heroin depends on factors like: (4)

  • Length of time someone has been using the drug
  • The amount of the drug they use
  • How they consumed the drug
  • Whether they used heroin in combination with other substances
  • Other factors such as the person’s metabolism, weight, and genetics

So how long does the withdrawal process last?

The short answer is that it depends on the person. In heavy users, the first onset of symptoms might materialize within 12 to 24 hours after they stop taking the substance. Other people might experience withdrawal symptoms even sooner than that. (5)

In the early stages, someone going through withdrawal can expect to experience the following symptoms:

  • Headache
  • Nausea
  • Fatigue
  • Jitters
  • Anxiety
  • Nervousness
  • Agitation
  • Cravings
  • Muscle aches
  • Vomiting
  • Spasms
  • Runny Nose
  • Watery eyes

As you can imagine, an individual going through this process would be depressed, anxious, and possibly agitated.

A person going through withdrawal can expect the peak of the worst to happen within 1 to 2 days after symptoms begin. Users often relapse during the peak or the initial onset of symptoms.

However, if they can make it 3 to 5 days without using, the symptoms will begin to become less and less severe most of the time. (6)

A person going through withdrawal would still have aches, pains, anxiety, and irritability, but the symptoms would not be as intense as they were earlier in the process.

Most people going through this process will see their symptoms decline drastically after a week. They might still have ongoing issues with depression, anxiety, or apathy, but the other symptoms should decrease or subside altogether.

However, some people will continue to deal with issues with their mood, motivation, cravings, and sensitivity to stress for a prolonged period after they stop using heroin. When this happens, that person could be experiencing post-acute withdrawal symptoms (PAWS). (7)

Post-acute withdrawal symptoms, also known as protracted withdrawal, is a condition that might go on for months or even years. Some researchers have identified it as an aspect of withdrawal; however, it is likely to be related to other psychological issues and is not part of the withdrawal process. 

Research studies have not been able to identify whether these symptoms are part of the biological withdrawal process.

Heroin withdrawal symptoms are not considered dangerous in that they do not typically have fatal consequences. However, there is a real risk of falling back into the cycle of using. Overusing can also lead to a heroin overdose, so it is best to not attempt a heroin detox program on your own.

Would It Be Safe to Quit Heroin Cold Turkey?

After reading about the timeline of heroin withdrawal, you may wonder if you could quit heroin cold turkey on your own. However, quitting heroin cold turkey and without medical professionals present or medical assistance is not recommended. (8)

Even though an attempt to get heroin out of your system would likely not be fatal, there are other factors to consider before attempting withdrawal without medical help.

As a disclaimer, please consider the following points before attempting a heroin withdrawal on your own:

  • The possibility of a relapse is extremely high during withdrawal. As we mentioned earlier, most individuals going through a withdrawal will begin using again to ease the pain or discomfort they experience during withdrawal. (9) If you or a loved one is trying to stop using heroin and deal with your substance use issue, cold-turkey detoxification is typically not going to help you reach your goal.

    If you fail at this process, repeatedly you may become discouraged. Once you have the attitude that you cannot detoxify, it becomes harder to convince yourself that you can. This mental block can make your substance use disorder worse.
  • An overdose can occur during the withdrawal process. Many people detoxing from heroin use struggle with psychological and emotional distress. When a person is struggling mentally during heroin detoxification, there is the danger that the individual will not use good judgment and could overdose after ingesting too much of the substance.

    While the symptoms associated with heroin withdrawal are usually not fatal, the potential for an overdose is still dangerous. A medical professional can help keep you safe during this process.
  • You could make other bad choices or have an accident.  Once again, someone going through withdrawal has a high probability of experiencing symptoms that will affect their mental state. You could become confused, anxious, or depressed, and this can impair your judgment. (10)

    You might harm yourself by sharing needles during a relapse, get heroin from someone who is untrustworthy, or become suicidal. There is also the likelihood that you could end up in an accident.
  • Your environment might still affect you.  Some people might attempt to begin the withdrawal process without changing their environment or other factors that cause them to continue to use it. One is not likely to have success with detoxification if they are still spending time with people who use heroin, living in a neighborhood with known regular drug use, or have an inability to manage stressors and triggers that can cause relapse.

    Detoxifying in a rehab treatment facility can help remove those factors as well as help one learn strategies to deal with any stressors that cause one to use.
  • Some issues associated with withdrawal symptoms can be dangerous. A lot of things can go wrong during detoxification. One issue you may face is severe dehydration. If your symptoms during withdrawal cause one to have appetite loss, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, or a combination of these issues, one could end up needing medical attention. If you experience vomiting during detoxification, one also has the risk of choking; these issues have the potential to be fatal.
  • You do not have to be in pain. People who struggle with addictions often carry a lot of shame. One may feel intense feelings of guilt or shame during withdrawal due to the frustration with oneself for being addicted to a substance in the first place. However, we are here to support individuals through their struggles. Just because one struggles with an addiction does not mean they are not worthy of having a good life. At the minimum, one does not have to be in pain.

    There are advancements in medicine that aid in the management of withdrawal symptoms for several drugs including heroin. These pain management therapies during withdrawal can keep one from experiencing severe withdrawal symptoms for a long period. This can set one up for success in recovery because they are not spending all their energy on battling withdrawal. It also makes the likelihood of successful detoxification more possible.

There are a lot of risks associated with heroin withdrawal. It is always best to consult medical professionals when planning a detoxification. Our caring and compassionate staff are here to aid you in recovery.

How to Manage Heroin Withdrawal

Heroin withdrawal management is when a medically licensed physician is present to aid with withdrawal symptoms. This process is also known as medical detoxification. So what exactly happens during a medical detoxification?

Here is what you can expect during the withdrawal management process:

You will be placed in a safe environment.

Before the withdrawal management process can begin, safe conditions need to be established for the patient. Medical professionals will be available to provide support during the medical detoxification and establish ongoing treatment for any co-occurring conditions. (11)

It is also beneficial to have someone there who has gone through the detoxification process before. If a patient struggles with severe cravings or begins experiencing suicidal ideation, there will be a comforting expert at their side to keep them safe.

You could be given opioid replacement medications.

The medical detoxification process from heroin usually involves the use of opioid replacement medications to minimize withdrawal symptoms. The two most used opioid replacement medications are buprenorphine and methadone. (12)

Buprenorphine is a partial opioid that can be used during medical detoxification. This medication occupies the same neurons in the brain that heroin does, but it does not produce the same effects. However, the effects are milder but similar. (13)

Methadone is also a partial opioid. This substance stays in an individual’s system longer than heroin, so if one uses methadone, they will not experience many of the effects associated with taking heroin. Methadone is effective at reducing physical symptoms such as cravings, withdrawal symptoms, and the thoughts to use heroin.

The use of an opiate replacement medication allows an individual to be slowly weaned off the substance while also treating any withdrawal symptoms that might occur. (14) Usually, a physician will prescribe an initial dose that will cause the individual to not experience any withdrawal symptoms and then slowly reduce the dose at certain intervals to wean the person off the substance.

For anyone who has had multiple relapses, the use of methadone management may be extended and can even be indefinite to keep them safe.

You might also be treated with other medications.

Partial opioids are not the only medications used during a heroin medical detoxification.

Other medications that could be used during the withdrawal management process include:

  • Naltrexone – This drug is an opiate antagonist, also known as naloxone. The substance does not address the withdrawal symptoms of heroin, but it is often used to reduce cravings in individuals who continue to have them despite the treatment. (15)
  • Clonidine -This medication was originally designed to treat hypertension. However, it can also reduce symptoms of stress, anxiety, irritability, insomnia, and jitteriness in someone going through medical detox. While it is not approved for this purpose, it is often prescribed to help manage symptoms during withdrawal. (16)
  • Robaxin – Robaxin is a muscle relaxant. Just like Clonidine, it is not formally approved to treat heroin withdrawal, but it is still helpful for treating muscle aches, tension, anxiety, or any pain a patient is experiencing during the withdrawal process. (17)
  • Other medications – The medical professional might also prescribe many other types of medications when addressing symptoms that could occur during the withdrawal process.

Quitting Heroin: Cold Turkey vs. Medical Detoxification

Someone can detoxify from heroin through the cold-turkey approach. We understand that some people might be reluctant about the idea of taking another substance while they are detoxing from heroin. Logically, you might think it makes more sense to stop taking substances altogether.

However, a medical detoxification is much safer than a cold turkey detoxification. There is the added benefit of having a physician on-site to aid with the withdrawal management process. You would also have someone with you who has been through this process and successfully seen it through. 

If you are still thinking of going through a cold turkey detox, we advise you to reconsider. While you may have found an anecdotal report online of one who has successfully completed the withdrawal process without help, many people who try this will relapse during detoxification and could even possibly overdose.

You might not find information about these complications through exploring perspectives on the internet. A significant portion of people who experience a relapse will not take the time to write about their experiences online, as they may have fallen back into the cycle of addiction. (18)

Ultimately, choosing medical detoxification over a cold turkey detoxification is more than likely going to provide a positive result. A medically assisted withdrawal program will help you get a head start and have a better chance at long-term recovery. Medical detoxification also helps prevent relapse and prepares you for the long road to recovery.

How Can I Proactively Aid My Recovery?

Even though we have established that medical detoxification is the most effective choice, you still do not want to be passive in your recovery. You should know that nothing is ever going to change unless other parts of your lifestyle change with you. 

To get yourself on the right track, specifically in the early stages of recovery when cravings or withdrawal symptoms may occur, you need to take action to aid in your recovery.

Some healthy choices to consider include:

  • Your diet affects your mood more than you may think. Try eating a balanced diet and avoiding processed or junk food to help you manage your stress levels and overall health.
  • Try to get more sleep. Getting enough rest and remaining hydrated is important for your physical health as well as your recovery.
  • Attempt to exercise regularly. Exercise can provide a source of distraction and reduce your stress. However, make sure you are doing exercises you are currently capable of and not overexerting yourself. Try to find something you enjoy like running, yoga, or swimming.
  • Find ways to combat your stress. Stress has the potential to lead you to relapse during recovery.
  • Find strategies that help you cope with unpleasant feelings. You can learn more about stress management techniques in therapy or consider taking up meditation. Maintaining positive relationships will also help reduce stress and add to the likelihood of your success during recovery.

You can also consider other areas to find social support such as participating in inpatient or outpatient recovery support groups. These include 12-step groups, community healthcare groups, and group therapy. It is comforting for those in recovery to have a group of people they can go to who relate to what they have been through.

How Does Heroin Addiction Develop?

Moreover, the development of heroin addiction is influenced by various factors beyond its immediate neurological effects. Socioeconomic conditions, adverse life events, and mental health conditions can amplify vulnerability to heroin use. Individuals facing challenges such as trauma, stress, or lack of social support may turn to heroin as a way to cope with emotional pain or distress.

The intertwined relationship between these external factors and the neurobiological impact of heroin highlights the complexity of addiction development. Effective intervention and treatment approaches should consider these multifaceted aspects to address the root causes and provide individuals with the necessary tools for sustained recovery.

Get the Care You Deserve and Detoxify From Heroin

It is possible but unlikely you will be successful in trying to quit heroin with a cold-turkey approach. Entering a formal withdrawal management program exponentially increases the likelihood that you will be successful in this first stage of recovery.

With a medical detoxification, you will have a good chance of going through withdrawal without experiencing distress and discomfort as well as avoid potential complications that could be life-threatening.

A medical detoxification program aims to make sure you are in a safe and secure environment, such as a treatment center, during the process. We always try to get our patients through withdrawal without any severe complications and then take the time to prepare them for the challenges they may face after heroin use has stopped.

If you or someone you care for needs help with medical heroin detoxification and substance abuse, our dedicated staff of professionals are here to guide you through the process. To schedule a free initial consultation and get started on the path to recovery without various treatment programs, contact us or call (855) 430-9439.


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