Heroin is a type of opioid that is commonly abused as a recreational drug. It is created by chemically changing morphine, a naturally occurring drug that can be derived from the seeds of certain poppies.
Morphine itself has a strong painkilling effect but can be addictive and is only available for legitimate medical purposes on prescription. Heroin is much stronger and is used recreationally for its mind-altering and euphoric effects. It is also extremely addictive and can cause severe problems both for individual users and society as a whole.
The effects of heroin
The majority of heroin misusers inject the drug directly into their bloodstream, but the drug can also be smoked, snorted and even taken rectally.
Once in the system, it produces a euphoric ‘rush’ followed by feelings of relaxation and contentment. Heroin and other opioids impact the production of brain chemicals including endorphins and dopamine.
They can affect breathing by changing neurochemical processes that regulate automatic functions such as breathing and heart rate. They also have an effect on the limbic system, which controls emotions, and on pain messages transmitted through the body.
While there are pleasurable sensations associated with heroin use, these soon wear off. Repeated usage of the drug causes physical and physiological changes in the brain. These reinforce the addiction and compulsion to keep using the drug.
Meanwhile, increasing tolerance means that the addict needs more and more heroin to experience the same euphoria and eventually just to feel ‘normal’. The addict will become physically dependent, meaning they will start to feel unpleasant side effects or withdrawal symptoms when the drug does leave their system. All this creates a vicious cycle of drug use and addiction.
How long does heroin stay in your system?
Heroin’s effects last longer than some other illegal drugs such as cocaine and methamphetamine. Despite this, its half-life is actually shorter than many other drugs. This is the time it takes for your body to metabolise or process the substance in your system.
Heroin has a half-life of about half an hour, meaning you will process half the drug currently in your system in about 30 minutes, half of the remaining drug in another 30 minutes and so on. The time it takes to process the substance until there are negligible amounts in your system can vary but is typically a matter of several hours.
There are a number of factors that can have an effect on how quickly you do metabolise the drug, however.
- How much was taken
- The purity of the heroin
- Your body weight and metabolism
- Method of consumption
- The presence of other drugs in your system
- General health and fitness
- History of use/ tolerance to the drug
Detoxing from heroin
In biochemistry detox or detoxification is defined as the metabolic process during which toxins in the body are changed into less toxic or more readily excretable substances. Strictly speaking, in terms of detoxing from heroin, this would mean the time it takes to metabolise the substance. As discussed above, this is not actually a very long time.
In terms of addiction treatment, however, the term ‘detox’ is generally used to refer to the period of treatment covering the actual physical detox, as well as the physical and psychological withdrawal symptoms that follow and accompany this process.
Detoxing from any drug is difficult but heroin can be particularly tough due to the extreme withdrawal symptoms and the levels of compulsion and craving associated with addiction to the drug. Going ‘cold turkey’ without support is unlikely to succeed and could be potentially dangerous. A supervised detox in a professional rehab or treatment programme is both safer and far more likely to succeed as you will have round the clock access to support and medical assistance if required.
Symptoms and duration of heroin withdrawal
The fact that heroin has such a short half-life and physically leaves your body quite quickly means that the withdrawal symptoms can also take hold quickly. They can typically start within 6 to 12 hours after your last fix but can last for between five and ten days – much longer than the time that the heroin actually stays in your blood system.
These symptoms tend to be at their worst after between two and three days but the severity and range of symptoms experienced can vary depending on the individual and a number of other factors include the length of your addiction, the heaviness and frequency of usage.
Some typical withdrawal symptoms related to heroin include:
- Muscle pain
- Abdominal cramps
- Nausea and sickness
- Shaking and chills
- Sweating and fever
- Increased heart rate
- Extreme anxiety
Even after the initial phase of withdrawal symptoms, known as acute withdrawal, is over other symptoms can persist for several months or even longer. These can be caused by the neurological changes that chronic heroin use brings about and tend to be psychological rather than physical. This phase is sometimes known as post-acute withdrawal syndrome (PAWS) and symptoms can include depression, anxiety, irritability, mood swings, insomnia and chronic fatigue.
Drug tests for heroin
Another question people often want an answer to is how long does heroin stay in your system in terms of being detectable by a drug test. A drug test may be required by an employer, as a condition of parole or in some other circumstances.
Because of the drug’s short half-life, heroin can become undetectable in bodily fluids like blood and saliva after just 5-6 hours. It tends to be detectable in urine for longer, because it takes time to process the drug through the kidneys. Even so, heroin is usually undetectable in urine after around two days. The only test for heroin that is reliable after a week is a hair follicle test. This type of drug test can detect heroin for up to three months after the last use of the drug.
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