What It’s Like to Quit Heroin: A Withdrawal Timeline
In recent years, mental health experts have replaced the term “drug addiction” with “substance use disorder.” This change signifies an important distinction, not just in diagnosing a substance use disorder but in helping clarify the differences between drug dependence and addiction.
Healthline reports that although many people use the two terms interchangeably, the circumstances of each differ. An addicted person displays harmful behavior fueled by the substance but may not be physically dependent. A person who is dependent has built up a tolerance to the drug, so the body needs a higher dose to elicit the desired response and will experience withdrawal symptoms if the physical need for the addictive substance is not satisfied.
Still, in both cases, the user will probably find it challenging to quit the drug — and that’s not the only commonality between addiction and dependence. Anyone who uses drugs frequently enough to develop one, or the other, is bound to encounter withdrawal symptoms when they cease use.
In 2021, about 1.1 million Americans aged 12 or older reported using heroin within the past 12 months. In addition, over 9,000 people died that same year from a heroin overdose. Given the prevalence of heroin use in this country and the importance of quitting such a dangerous drug, we wanted to clarify what someone might experience during that process with a quick snapshot of a heroin withdrawal timeline.
What is Withdrawal?
Before detailing a timeline of what can happen during withdrawal, we should explain more precisely what withdrawal is. Withdrawal is a set of symptoms that occur in the body when someone abruptly stops using a drug like heroin after prolonged use. While the symptoms one might experience during heroin withdrawal (more on those later) are not generally a risk to the person’s life, withdrawal symptoms can be uncomfortable, painful, and both physically and mentally taxing.
It’s also important to note that not all heroin withdrawal experiences are the same. How long and how frequently someone has been using the drug, along with their level of dependence and physical health, can play a role in determining the severity of the symptoms.
The First 24 Hours After Quitting Heroin
Though this time may not be the most physically painful, the first 24 hours after quitting heroin are challenging for many people. While enthusiasm and positivity surrounding the thought of quitting are often high in this stage, it’s also when withdrawal symptoms begin and the detox process feels real. Uncomfortable side effects occur because the body metabolizes heroin rapidly, so the person may feel symptoms mere hours after discontinuing use.
During these first 24 hours, it’s normal to experience an elevated pulse and body temperature, along with faster breathing — all of which can be scary when it’s happening to you or someone you love. Sweating, nausea, vomiting, cramps, diarrhea, and muscle aches can also occur the first day after quitting. In a perfect world, the person could sleep through at least some of these symptoms, but the reality of heroin withdrawal is that insomnia and other sleep disturbances make that essentially impossible.
Days 2 and 3 After Quitting Heroin
During this phase of the process, the symptoms we described in the first 24 hours intensify. Muscle aches and cramps worsen, digestive issues become even more uncomfortable, and watery discharge from the eyes and nose runs like a faucet. In fact, experts caution that people “feel the worst of the symptoms between 48-72 hours after the last use.”
For many people, this period represents a critical juncture — where they must choose between giving in to the cravings to use or continuing down the detox path. This period is also when cravings to use heroin may be at their strongest, as the body yearns to replicate the feeling the drug provides. It’s also when mental health can take a turn, with depression, mood swings, anxiety, restlessness, and problems concentrating can all creep in.
Days 4-14 After Quitting Heroin
After arguably the most brutal stretch of the entire process, withdrawal symptoms wane as the drug leaves the body for those with a mild substance use disorder or who have not been using it for very long. Unfortunately, most long-time heroin users will likely experience these symptoms for up to 10 days. Some users may even have lingering symptoms for two weeks or more.
Two Weeks and Beyond After Quitting Heroin
The symptoms we talked about earlier are characterized by what’s called acute heroin withdrawal. Recovering heroin users can expect strong cravings and a reduced feeling of well-being to last up to six months. However, the longer-lasting post-acute heroin withdrawal, also known as protracted withdrawal, brings its own tests, especially the risk of relapse.
Relapse is common during post-acute heroin withdrawal, along with feelings of anxiety, depression, prolonged fatigue, loss of interest in the hobbies or activities the person once enjoyed, short-term memory and concentration problems, and difficulty making decisions.
The Most Effective Way to Quit Heroin is with Professional Help
As mentioned, the symptoms of heroin withdrawal are rarely enough to be considered life-threatening, but receiving care from professionals specifically trained in the process can improve the experience significantly.
Midwest Recovery Centers offer a safe, supervised detoxification process in our Residential Detoxification Center, designed to provide a comfortable detox experience. Our team offers medically supervised care to clients 24/7, supporting them with whatever they need, whenever they need it.
Following safe detox, clients can continue working with Midwest Recovery Centers through our heroin addiction treatment program. We tailor our multi-phase recovery approach to fit the needs of each client. The program typically includes hands-on therapy in both an individual and group setting. Not only do we help clients identify and address the root problem spurring their heroin use, but we guide them in gradually readjusting back to everyday life and finding joy in the healthy activities they used to love.
If you or someone you love is regularly using heroin, the time to stop is now, and Midwest Recovery Centers is here to help. Contact us today to learn more about our programs.
Reviewed and Assessed by
Taylor Brown, B.A.Com., CADC
Tim Coleman, M. of Ed.