05 Mar Is It Safe to Detox From Heroin at Home?
Detoxing from heroin at home is a painful, risky, and complicated process. Due to the nature of heroin and how it affects our anatomy—which will be explained in this article—opiate withdrawals have the propensity to damage the person experiencing them (both psychologically and physically). Of course, many who struggle with addiction would prefer to “bite the bullet” and beat their disease in the comfort of their own home.
Unfortunately, this is almost never recommended by clinicians, doctors, physicians, or anyone who understands the science of heroin detox.
Why Is Detoxing at Home Dangerous?
There is a reason why heroin drug detox is often executed under strict medical supervision, and that’s because health complications can arise during the process. Without a proper understanding of the body and brain or what the necessities required to keep them stable during the process are, addicts who quit “cold turkey” or “taper” themselves down run the risk of damaging their respiratory system, cardiovascular system, psychological well-being, and more.
To say that it’s not possible would be a lie. Many users will advocate quitting at home and taking the bull by the horns, but the success and safety of detoxing at home from drugs depends on a host of factors:
- Degree of opiate use: how many times heroin is a used in a day and the duration of use
- Method of use: those who administer heroin intravenously are at higher risk than those who smoke it
- Expectancy of withdrawal severity: what is to be expected from the detoxification process
- Psychological profile: if the user has a history of mental illness or emotional volatility
- Health: the state of a user’s physical and psychological health
- Age: how old the user is when attempting detox from drug addiction
While it would be rare for a healthcare professional to recommend detoxing from heroin at home, the only time it would make slight—but not much—sense is if the user had an extremely low dependence to the drug. We’re not talking about addiction, only its precursor.
The sad reality is that few opiate addicts or dependents use the drug moderately. Heroin has a reputation for drawing people in quickly, building tolerance and fostering addiction after only a few trials.
A Thorough Explanation
When heroin is ingested, the body metabolizes it into morphine and the substance binds to mu-opioid receptors in the brain. The receptors work to send signals to our brain, commonly stating that a part of the body is experiencing pain. This is why heroin is an analgesic, because once it binds to these receptors, it halts their communication, diminishing our pain response.
Additionally, heroin stimulates the production of dopamine, a chemical in our brain responsible for our “happiness.” This chemical is linked to our reward system, which is why heroin use is correlated with “positive feelings,” and why it produces its euphoric effects.
Lastly, heroin suppresses the CNS (central nervous system), which then depresses the respiratory system, lowers heart rate and blood pressure, slows motor function, and creates the drowsiness commonly associated with opiate use.
When the body and brain have become accustomed to the presence of the opiate, once removed, a reaction occurs.
If someone is to quit at home, without any medical supervision, they will have to face withdrawals alone. The health administration of Australia states: “Physical symptoms generally commence 6 to 24 hours after last use, peak in severity during days two to four, and generally subside by day seven, while the psychological features of dysphoria, anxiety, sleep disturbances and increased cravings may continue for weeks or even months. Heroin withdrawal symptoms are unpleasant, though rarely life-threatening in physically fit people. It can, however, significantly complicate concomitant medical or psychiatric conditions.”
Unfortunately, these concomitant medical or psychiatric conditions are often left undiagnosed, only to arise during the detox process. If blindsided by these issues, a person withdrawing from heroin can fall into a state of psychosis, experience seizures, and struggle with both cardiovascular and respiratory system problems.
Which is one of the reasons why detoxing from home isn’t recommended. If the person has the willpower to push through, why risk medical complications when there are safer alternatives to assist with withdrawal management?
Additional Withdrawal Symptoms
Aside from the above, a host of other withdrawal symptoms occur during heroin detox. Heroin abuse can cause anxiety, depression, and a whole host of other issues. They include but are not limited to:
- Nausea & Vomiting
- Extreme Muscle Spasms
- Pupillary Dilation
- Delirium Tremens
- Elevated Blood Pressure
- Acute Anxiety
- Extreme Irritability and Mood Swings
- Profuse Sweating & Leakage
- Dehydration (Especially Paired with Diarrhea)
Heroin withdrawals are notorious for their severity and, when experienced without medical and professional support, can dissuade the user from trying to quit. A recent study on heroin withdrawal and the various methods to manage detox stated that those who undergo treatment without support often hurl themselves toward relapse in hopes to remedy the difficult symptoms. This is especially dangerous in two ways:
A Fear is Solidified
Being that the user attempted to quit heroin at home, suffered the withdrawals, then relapsed, both failure and fear become facets of his or her mentality. This will further dissuade the person from trying to quit heroin again. The withdrawals were too intense, and “anything beats having to go through that again.” This is perhaps the most dangerous risk of all; a change in an addict’s resolve.
Rehab and medical professionals work to mitigate this risk by providing medicine and support, easing the otherwise brutal withdrawal symptoms into a manageable state. Relapse is often a part of the road to recovery. However, if detox if facilitated correctly and the patient still happens to relapse, he or she won’t be as fearful of re-attempting treatment, knowing the level of support and quality of care that is made available.
Overdose Following Withdrawal
Another study concluded that overdose following withdrawal, if a relapse is to occur, is an extreme danger to the person attempting to quit:
“This can occur with resumption of heroin use following the reduction in opioid tolerance that accompanies withdrawal, and due to the combined sedative effects of heroin use and medications used for the management of heroin withdrawal (e.g. benzodiazepines).”
Being that tolerance lowers at a rapid rate, the user may inject or smoke the same dosage they were used to before, only to overdose because they can no longer handle that amount of heroin. This becomes even more dangerous if the user is self-medicating with benzodiazepines (Xanax, Valium, etc.) to ease the withdrawal symptoms.
A common withdrawal symptom linked specifically to heroin is severe dehydration paired with an unforgiving fever. Diarrhea and vomiting make it difficult to keep food, let alone liquids down, and pain in the stomach is commonly referred to as being “dope sick.” This will then lead to other complications like dizziness, mental duress, and fatigue.
If the “dope sick” symptoms prove to be too severe, the person undergoing detox will not be able to provide his or her body with the necessities it needs to stay afloat. This is why thousands of people go to the ER each year due to dehydration from heroin use or withdrawal. We all know that the body cannot survive without water and that’s why medical professionals will test, monitor, and regulate hydration levels.
The mu-opioid receptors targeted by heroin panic when the opiate is removed. Unfortunately, the opioid system is what we rely on for pain relief. Once heroin is removed, it doesn’t just flick a switch and return to normal. Instead, it sends its own and other organ systems into shock, which can trigger pain in multiple parts of the body.
Consider this: a heroin addict has been masking their pain relief system for years, only to stop using. Over the time of use, these mu-opioid receptors have been subject to brutality and cannot—initially—function properly. The body’s natural painkilling system shuts down, which turns the knob up on everything the person feels during withdrawals.
Again, this is one of the facets of medically-assisted detox, being that doctors and physicians will prescribe nonaddictive non-opiate painkillers to ease the process. This pain alone can be what motivates relapse and halt detox treatment.
The Success Rate
It should be obvious to you by now that one of the main principles of detoxing under the guidance of medical supervision is to make success as attainable as possible for the patient. The reality is that outpatient detox treatments performed at home is not the most effective method. From the symptoms above to the lack of support in managing them, relapse is not uncommon when people attempt to put down heroin on their own.
There are various medications that can be used to mitigate the symptoms, curb the cravings, and help the user through detox. While it’s not always recommended to introduce new medications—though treatment programs are usually tailored for the specific individual—at the very least, the support of medical professionals won’t provide an environment for relapse.
What we mean to say is that when in a facility or under the care of a doctor, relapsing becomes less of a risk. Getting ahold of heroin isn’t as easy as if the person were at home, stuck in the same environment. Likewise, the reduced withdrawal symptoms and expert support make it easier for the user to push through, thus leading the person further away from substance abuse.
In other words, there’s no easy “out.”
Being that the body and brain are trying to find balance, all sorts of psychological problems can arise. Most commonly, this takes the form of depression. If someone is predisposed to the disorder or has had a history of mental illness, and tries to withstand heroin detox at home, there is a risk that the person can slip into depression. The greater risk is suicide.
The NCBI states that “overall, heroin users are 14 times more likely than peers to die from suicide. The prevalence of attempted suicide is also many orders of magnitude greater than that of community samples.”
Heroin use and suicide have an ugly relationship. Opiate detox is a taxing ordeal, both on the psyche and body. If someone is trying to curb the symptoms of heroin withdrawal at home, the risk of falling victim to depression and ultimately committing suicide increases.
This is another reason why detoxing from heroin at home is dangerous; the support systems needed to help push the patient through obstacles, emotionally speaking, are often lacking. By utilizing addiction specialists and related services, they will provide outlets for the user to speak on what he or she is going through, then build tools to help them manage it.
I Don’t Care, I Want to Detox at Home
Despite the warnings, if you are set on detoxing at home, then it’s paramount you at least call a doctor or clinic to speak on what you’re about to go through. Because detoxing from heroin at home is dangerous and not recommended, you should:
- Research the withdrawal symptoms: it’s important to understand what symptoms you are likely to face, as you can prepare for them as they come. This could be as simple as stocking up on Pedialyte to fight dehydration, to getting a prescription of a medication that will help the process.
- Research the complications: you must know what can go wrong, especially if it can happen to you. This way you can better detect an issue and take yourself to a hospital to prevent any permanent damage.
- Reach out to loved ones for support: going through heroin detox alone is a nightmarish endeavor. You’re going to need downtime and, if you can have it, you’ll want the support there to walk with you through the fire.
- Consider tapering off: tapering off heroin comes highly recommended. Research tactics employed by people who have detoxed on their own (there are multiple written accounts online) and see if you can replicate them. “Cold turkey,” especially outside of professional help, is almost never recommended for those addicted to heroin.
Whatever treatment program you decide to undertake, know that you’re doing the right thing. If you are reading this out of concern for a friend, be sure you are able to recognize the signs that a loved one is addicted to heroin in order to get them the help they need. Sobriety is the end goal everyone is looking and rooting for. The fact that you’ve decided to quit means you’re already on the road to recovery—even if you’re just researching how to before the decision is made.
We don’t advocate quitting heroin at home, but if that’s what you plan to do, please pick up the phone and call our Georgia drug rehab center so we can help you mitigate risks, stay safe, and complete a successful detox. To find heroin addiction treatment in Georgia, please call our rehab center today.
Lintzeris, Nicholas. “Buprenorphine Dosing Regime for Inpatient Heroin Withdrawal: a Symptom-Triggered Dose Titration Study.” Drug and Alcohol Dependence. 2003. 15 Mar. 2019. https://www.gacguidelines.ca/site/GAC_Guidelines/assets/pdf/187_Lintzeris_2003.pdf
“Guidelines For the Management of Heroin Withdrawal.” Health.gov. 15 Mar. 2019. http://www.health.gov.au/internet/drugstrategy/publishing.nsf/Content/9011C92D2F6E1FC5CA2575B4001353B6/$File/bupren4.pdf
“Tramadol Versus Buprenorphine For the Treatment of Opiate Withdrawal: a Retrospective Cohort Control Study.” NCBI. 2003. 15 Mar. 2019. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/14723474