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Heroin Detox Timeline

a person with a hood on sits sadly on a floor

Heroin is an extremely dangerous substance that is a big part of the opioid epidemic that is currently ravaging America. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), in the past decade, heroin abuse has more than doubled among young adults aged 18 to 25 years old. The alarming growth rate of heroin use has brought with it even more troublesome side effects: more and more people are overdosing and dying. The CDC also reports that overdose deaths related to heroin have more than quadrupled since 2010. The death rate increased by 20.6 percent from 2014 to 2015 alone. Hopefully, these stats show what a truly dangerous drug heroin is and will inspire those currently using to quit. However, the process of kicking a heroin addiction is complicated and takes some time. Heroin is NOT a substance that you can quit overnight, especially if you have been a long-time user. Those who try to quit heroin cold turkey put themselves at a high risk for some serious health concerns, as well as an elevated potential to relapse, overdose, and die. In order to safely stop using heroin, you will need to enter a professional detox facility, and taper off of the drug under close supervision. Depending on your level of abuse and addiction, this can be a very uncomfortable and trying time that will require some professional help. While everyone’s long-term recovery experience will be different, there is a general heroin detox timeline that you can expect to follow. No matter what, this process begins with a person developing an addiction to heroin, so let’s start with how that happens.

Heroin Addiction

A synthetic opioid that comes from morphine, heroin is usually found in white powder form, although it can sometimes be yellow, brown, or black, given its content, purity, and whether or not it is mixed with any other substances. The powder can be “cooked” and injected, or smoked and even snorted. Regardless of how it is taken, heroin produces a profound effect on the user’s brain and acts quickly, producing euphoric effects. This intense, euphoric high is what makes heroin so popular. Unfortunately, it is also part of why the substance is so addictive. Heroin produces its effects by binding to opioid receptors in the user’s brain, releasing a neurotransmitter called dopamine. Dopamine regulates the body’s feelings of pleasure and reward, and when a person takes heroin, the drug gives them a rush of dopamine, causing intense versions of these feelings. The initial sense of euphoria will wear off rather quickly, sometimes in a matter of minutes. This will then be replaced by grogginess, lethargy, and some other, less-enjoyable symptoms. Rather than deal with the almost flu-like side-effects of coming down from a heroin high, the user will often be tempted to use again to go back to the happy feelings the drug produced. Then the behavior is repeated, and the cycle continues until they have a full-blown addiction. Heroin becomes the only thing that can activate their pleasure-reward sensors, and the drug abuse will begin to consume all aspects of the user’s life. Once they are fully dependent on heroin to maintain their status quo, family and work responsibilities will become unimportant, relationships will suffer, their personal health and hygiene won’t even matter anymore — all they will care about is their next high. This worsens as the user builds a tolerance to the drug. It’s very easy for someone abusing an opioid like heroin to develop a tolerance to the substance, which is another major reason it is so dangerous and addictive. At a certain point in their addiction, their current dosage will no longer be enough to achieve their desired effects, as the body rebounds to combat the substance. This leads the person to take a higher dose, or using heroin more often. These alarming addictive behaviors will put the user at higher risk for overdose. It should be noted that absolutely anyone can overdose from heroin, whether they are a long-time user or trying it for the first time, because there is no regulation over the drug, and therefore you have no idea how potent the substance will be, or what it may be mixed with. While drug addiction is very difficult in itself, the user may eventually decide, or be pushed by friends and family, to quit using. This will hopefully lead the person to enter a detox facility, to help them safely get clean from heroin. The initial stages of attempting to stop abusing heroin are so hard, because this is when withdrawal sets in.

Heroin Withdrawal Timeline

Withdrawal is the part of getting clean from a heroin addiction that will be most difficult to deal with, and heavily influences the timeline of heroin detox. Withdrawal itself is rarely fatal, but is so unpleasant that it can trigger the person to relapse at a time when they are most vulnerable to overdose. This is why a supervised detoxification is the safest path to take for recovery. The withdrawal process will be different for everyone, and depend on a number of factors. This mainly includes how long they abused heroin, and how dependent their brain and body are to the substance. Typically, the longer and higher volume their abuse, the more severe and longer-lasting their withdrawal will be. Those with a history of mental illness or addiction may have a more challenging withdrawal period as well as those who used other substances at the same time they were abusing heroin. Those who haven’t used heroin for long may only experience minor withdrawal symptoms, which typically won’t last for much time. Withdrawal can begin as soon as six to 12 hours after the user’s last dose of heroin, and the symptoms will range in severity from mild to moderate, and in some cases, severe.

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Mild Withdrawal Symptoms

Most short-term withdrawal symptoms are physical in nature and will start to pop up shortly after the user’s last dose of heroin. The mild withdrawal symptoms of heroin may include:

  • Minor nausea
  • Abdominal cramps
  • Dehydration
  • Runny nose
  • Excessive sweating
  • Chills
  • Uncontrollable yawning
  • Muscle and bone aches
  • Muscle spasms
  • An excessive secretion of tears
  • Restlessness
  • Insomnia
  • Mood swings
  • An inability to concentrate

Moderate Withdrawal Symptoms

As the person’s withdrawal progresses and their body continues to rebound and adjust to the lack of heroin in the system, the withdrawal symptoms will begin to intensify. Moderate withdrawal symptoms can include:

  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Agitation
  • Restlessness
  • Tremors
  • Trouble concentrating
  • Goosebumps
  • Fatigue

Severe Withdrawal Symptoms

Those who have not abused heroin for long may not reach this level of withdrawal, however, long-time users can expect some intense effects. These may include:

  • Anxiety
  • Insomnia
  • Depression
  • Hypertension
  • Rapid heart rate
  • Frequent, severe muscle spasms
  • Impaired respiration
  • Difficulty feeling pleasure
  • Intense drug cravings

Quitting Heroin Cold Turkey

Because of how intense heroin withdrawal symptoms can be, it is not advised to try and quit heroin on your own, or all at once, also known as “cold turkey.” Withdrawal will undoubtedly be a part of the recovery process, and it will be safer and easier to deal with in a rehab facility, where medical professionals know how to deal with your withdrawal symptoms. Suddenly stopping the use of heroin can cause its own dangerous symptoms such as convulsions, hallucinations, and seizures. Most detox facilities will help a person taper off of their addiction, with the aid of medications. This helps to reduce the severity of their withdrawal symptoms and help the person get clean in a safe, controlled environment.

The Heroin Detox Timeline

The heroin addiction recovery timeline is closely related to the timeline of heroin withdrawal symptoms. However, the process of heroin detox will vary in time and intensity based on a number of factors, including the user’s age, body composition, health and addiction history, length of usage, and dosage amounts. Heroin withdrawal can last anywhere from a day for those who did not use heroin for long, to a week or a matter of months for long-time users. The first symptoms of withdrawal usually pop up within six to 12 hours, depending on how long the person has been using. Those with a longer relationship with the drug will not see withdrawal symptoms pop up until later because of how much heroin is built up in their body.   Withdrawal symptoms typically peak at around 72 hours after the user’s last dose, and will gradually become less intense over the next few days. Some withdrawal symptoms may persist for much longer, and linger long after the person has become “clean.” This is why recovery is thought of as a lifelong process.  

The Heroin Detox Timeline Phase 1: Days 1-3

Withdrawal symptoms will begin within the first 24 hours of the person’s last dose, and will be uncomfortable, at minimum. In some cases, it can be extremely painful. Relapse is most likely during this period, as the symptoms may be too much for a person to deal with, leading them to take more heroin. Symptoms of the first phase of withdrawal may include:

  • Headaches
  • Irritation
  • Muscle aches
  • Sweating
  • Nausea
  • Diarrhea
  • Insomnia
  • Anxiety
  • Loss of appetite
  • Panic attacks
  • Aggression

Because the first few days are so intense, this is perhaps the most important period of the heroin detox timeline.

The Heroin Detox Timeline Phase 2: Days 3-5

Past day 3, the most intense symptoms should begin to subside, and the person will likely experience some further muscle aches, stomach cramps, shivering, and general fatigue. Eating a healthy diet and drinking lots of fluids during this time is crucial to help boost the immune system.

The Heroin Detox Timeline Phase 3: Days 5-7

During this period, the symptoms should lessen further, and subside completely after a week. However, for others, some symptoms may lessen. Regardless of whether or not withdrawal symptoms have completely disappeared, reaching the one-week mark does not mean that the person is cured and their recovery is over. Most people should continue going to therapy for months, years, or even the rest of their life after their heroin addiction treatment concludes. This helps the person avoid relapse and deal with any symptoms that may persist. Because of heroin’s profound effect on the brain, some may even have lingering withdrawal symptoms for the rest of their life, known as post-acute withdrawal symptoms (PAWS).

Detoxing From Heroin In A Rehab Facility

As we’ve mentioned, detoxing from heroin is safest in a professional rehab facility. This is the best option for a heroin addict’s physical and mental health, allowing them to recover from their addiction in a controlled environment. Medical professionals at rehab facilities are trained to treat intense withdrawal symptoms to make the process as comfortable as possible. They will also help the person taper off of the drug rather than quitting cold turkey. This will involve taking some medication, typically another opioid, and safely reducing the dosage until it is safe to stop completely. In this way, the user can avoid the most severe symptoms of withdrawal and will have less risk of relapse. After the initial treatment is complete, patients can transition to outpatient treatment, therapy, meetings, and other options, but it will be a lifelong process. A healthy diet should also be continued.


A heroin addiction is among one of the most difficult to detox from because of its intense long-term effects on the brain and difficult withdrawal symptoms. The detox timeline from heroin will vary, but generally lasts at least a week, depending on the person’s relationship with the drug. If you or someone you know needs help to quit a heroin addiction, Apex Recovery treatment center can help you start the road toward healing.

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