Can You Die From Heroin Withdrawal?

The news is in -- and it isn't good. According to the National Center for Health Statistics, over 66,000 Americans died of drug overdoses during the 12-month period ending in May 2017. Not only does that number represent a 17% increase from the previous year, but it's also equivalent to the population of Portland, Maine.

If you have a friend or family member who is addicted to heroin, prescription opioids, or another drug, you most likely live in fear that your loved one will die of an overdose. You may also have wondered if withdrawal will claim the life of your loved one.

Can you die from heroin withdrawal? We've got the answer to that, and to other frequently asked questions about heroin abuse, addiction, and recovery.

What Does Withdrawal Look (and Feel) Like?

As with all drug addiction, the symptoms of withdrawal depend on how long the individual has been using the drug, how much they use, and other factors. It's important to understand that heroin works to fundamentally alter the structure of the brain, so chemistry plays a huge part in the severity of the withdrawal.

Some of the withdrawal symptoms that a heroin addict might experience include:

  • Nausea and/or vomiting
  • Abdominal cramps and diarrhea
  • Sweating and/or chills
  • Aching muscles or muscle spasms
  • Agitation, restlessness, or lack of concentration
  • Fatigue or insomnia
  • Anxiety or depression
  • Impaired respiration
  • Apathy, or difficulty feeling pleasure
  • Last but not least, cravings for the drug

While these symptoms might not sound particularly bad -- after all, many of them are similar to what someone with the flu might experience -- rest assured that the experience of withdrawing from a drug is debilitating. What's more, it's not something that anyone should go through alone.

Why Is It Difficult to Detox On Your Own?

Your loved one may have tried to quit heroin many times. Going "cold turkey" is never easy, nor is it usually effective. This is particularly true if the individual's addiction is advanced, and if they do not have caring, knowledgeable people on hand to support them.

The biggest risk with quitting heroin by simply white-knuckling through withdrawal? It's the temptation to ease the symptoms by any means necessary -- including using the drug of choice again. For someone who is both physically and psychologically addicted to a narcotic, resisting that temptation is nearly impossible without help.

How Long Will Heroin Withdrawal Symptoms Last?

Heroin, a short-acting opioid, takes effect quickly, especially when used intravenously. That means that the drug also exits the bloodstream relatively rapidily -- beginning within six to 12 hours after the most recent use. The full effects of withdrawal can last up to about two weeks.

The peak of these effects, however, can happen several days into the process. Since the withdrawal isn't always predictable, the possibility of relapse remains a danger. For this reason, and for many others, medical detox is the best method for heroin users to become clean.

What Happens During the Medical Detox Process?

Heroin users who enter a medical detoxification facility are often given a prescription medication to help with the process of clearing the heroin from the body. These medicines, which include buprenorphine (Suboxone), methadone, and naltrexone, can also be used as an ongoing treatment for relapse prevention even after the detox process is complete.

Being in the care of physicians and other trained, experienced, and compassionate clinicians can make all the difference in the early days of withdrawal and rehab. These professionals will monitor the individual's vital signs and make sure that medical intervention is on hand to address any issues that may arise.

They can also help the addicted individual understand what's happening with their bodies and the physical effects of withdrawal. Even though these effects are lessened by the administration of prescribed medications, a user can still experience physical symptoms -- and the process can be frightening.

Can You Die From Heroin Withdrawal?

Although the physical effects of withdrawal are not likely to result in death, that doesn't mean that death is not a very real risk in a person who is undergoing withdrawal. Anxiety, depression, anger, rage, and emotional instability triggered by withdrawal from heroin and other opiates can lead to destructive behavior, include suicide.

This problem is compounded by the fact that many drug users have mental health issues in addition to their addiction.

Many people who suffer from depression, anxiety, or PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) use illicit drugs to self-medicate, rather than getting the treatment they need. When their means of doing so is removed from the equation, serious emotional issues may arise -- leading to relapse, self-harm, or dangerous risk-taking behavior.

Experts estimate that about half of all people with severe mental disorders are also addicted to drugs or alcohol. In clinical terms, this is known as dual diagnosis.

What About After Detox Is Complete?

Detox is almost always used as the first step in a comprehensive treatment plan. In most cases, the process occurs in an inpatient rehab facility; the individual then goes on to complete a short-term rehab program.

Inpatient rehab combines therapy, peer support groups, 12-step recovery programs, skills building classes, and recreational opportunities to support the individual in learning how to live a sober, drug-free life.

So, Is Medical Detox and a Rehab Program the Only Answer?

Choosing to enter rehab, and receiving medical attention and assistance during the withdrawal process, is not the only way to make the transition from addiction to sobriety. Yet it is the most effective way to do so safely, and to give the addicted individual the very best possible chance at staying sober -- and thereby going on to live a healthy, productive life.

As you can see, asking "can you die from heroin withdrawal" isn't an easy question to answer. There are so many factors that affect an individual's attempt to quit using heroin and determine the consequences of that decision. What is clear, however, is that medically supervised detox followed by inpatient rehab is the safest and most effective way to get clean.

If you or a loved one is ready to make a change and stop using heroin and other opiates, use our online tool to find a rehab facility that's right for you.

Not quite ready to take that step? That's understandable. It's a difficult step to take. Read more of our informative articles about addiction and recovery, and know that whenever you are ready, we are here to help.