How Long Does Heroin Stay In Your System?
Perhaps your or a loved one’s heroin habit has spiraled into addiction, or you are wondering how long it takes for the drug and its toxins to leave your body as you want to quit its use. To answer the question “how long does heroin stay in your system?” a better look at the substance itself, its effects, and addictive qualities may be helpful.
What is Heroin?
Heroin is a semisynthetic, illegal opioid drug obtained by acetylation of morphine – a natural substance from the seed pods of various poppy plants – produced in clandestine laboratories.
In the United States it is classified as a Schedule I controlled substance and tightly controlled by the drug enforcement administration due to its damaging nature to health and well-being, addictive quality, and the fact that it has no medical use. As an opioid drug that is most often smoked, snorted, or injected directly into a user’s veins, heroin produces a fast rush of euphoria and pain relief followed by relaxation, contentment, and sleepiness.
The drug typically comes in powdered form, and is many times mixed with crack cocaine, other cheaper drugs, or cut with other substances like powdered milk or sugar.
Effects of Heroin
Heroin enters the brain very quickly, is converted to morphine, and quickly binds to opioid receptors – which control pain, pleasure, and breathing – located there. This is what produces a euphoric feeling. This feeling is described by users as a surge of intense joy and pleasure. The intensity of this rush is affected by the speed at which heroin enters the brain, which is why some users inject the drug as opposed to smoking it, despite the many additional risks it comes with.
This rush does not last very long. Depending on the dosage, intense euphoria can last between 45 seconds and a few minutes. A longer drowsy, sedated high is caused by the compound morphine. After the initial effects, a person’s mental function is clouded, their heart function slows down, and their breathing also severely slows down.
The danger of slowed breathing is that it can be severe enough to become life-threatening, while slowed breathing can also result in permanent brain damage or coma. Other physical effects include nausea, flushed skin, constricted pupils, dry mouth, and a feeling of having heavy hands or feet. A person may experience intense itching of the skin, warm skin, fade in and out of consciousness, and have difficulty focusing, thinking, or remembering things. Most effects wear off in three to five hours, but sedation may last even longer.
As with most substance abuse, heroin abuse can lead to a heroin addiction, which comes with a range of additional effects.
According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, addiction manifests by compulsively seeking drugs despite negative consequences. Heroin addiction is a chronic disorder that can develop rapidly, and as with any other substance use disorder, can leave a person feeling out of control.
Often, prescription painkillers pave the way for heroin addiction – about 80% of people who used heroin in 2011 first abused prescription opioids.
Physical Signs of Addiction
A person who is addicted to heroin may experience respiratory problems and have regular chest infections. Uncontrollable itching may leave them with scabs or sores from scratching, while bruises or other skin damage can also come about from injecting heroin. Other physical symptoms include:
- Watery eyes
- Runny nose
- Gastrointestinal problems
- Unintended weight loss and malnutrition
- Disturbed sleep
- Infection of the heart valve and lining
- Blood clots
- Loss of menstrual cycle in women
Heroin use can easily lead to tolerance, whereby the body becomes used to the presence of the drug and over time needs more and more of it for the person to feel the same effects. Addiction is also marked by the overwhelming craving for it and heroin withdrawal symptoms once a person is unable to access the drug or attempts to stop taking them.
Injecting heroin may come with the physical symptom of Hepatitis C or HIV/AIDS as a result of sharing infected needles, while heroin addiction also places a person at high risk for kidney and liver disease.
Psychological Signs of Addiction
One of the psychological signs of heroin addiction is the inability to stop thinking about obtaining the next ‘fix’. A person may also experience anxiety, depression, feelings of shame, and guilt. Extremely low self-esteem, low sense of self-worth, and suicidal thoughts and impulses are dangerous psychological symptoms, which is why addiction treatment is always advised as soon as possible for anyone suffering from heroin addiction.
Other psychological signs include:
- Angry outbursts
- Confusion and disorientation
- Poor judgment
- Feelings of hopelessness, despair, and as though heroin has taken over your life
- Impaired concentration or focus
- Extreme mood swings
Behavioral Symptoms of Addiction
Heroin can cause a person to perform poorly at work, or have poor work attendance. They may only associate or socialize with other drug users or may withdraw socially and isolate themselves. A lack of interest in activities a person once enjoyed and a large amount of time spent on obtaining, using, and recovering from the effects of heroin are also behavioral symptoms.
Other behavioral signs include:
- Continuing heroin use despite negative consequences or impacts
- Lying about the extent of heroin use, activities or whereabouts
- Leaving around or hiding needles, syringes, burned silver spoons, or other paraphernalia related to heroin use
- A decrease in personal hygiene
- Interpersonal relationship problems
- Legal and financial problems
Symptoms of withdrawal from heroin vary according to the frequency and amount of drug abuse, as well as whether it was combined with other substances. Those who regularly abuse the drug for an extended period may experience severe heroin withdrawal symptoms, while light users may experience milder signs. But even in the case of moderate symptoms, many find it very difficult to recover and avoid relapse while the body rebels.
Acute heroin withdrawal can feel like bad flu, with symptoms beginning six to twelve hours after the last dose, and lasting for up to one week.
Common signs include nausea and vomiting, cold sweats and body aches, tremors, insomnia, fatigue, agitation, and intense drug cravings.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that nearly 20% of all opioid deaths in 2020 involved heroin, a 7% increase from 2019.
As with any substance abuse, a heroin overdose can lead to health damage or death. But heroin has a very high potential for accidental overdose, street heroin varies widely in purity and is often combined with substances like cocaine, ketamine, alprazolam, MDMA (ecstasy), and diphenhydramine. While heroin is in a person’s system, they run the risk of drug interactions and a higher chance of overdose.
A heroin overdose is a medical emergency, and it is vital to realize that every time a person takes heroin, they run the risk of a fatal overdose. Signs that a person has overdosed on the drug require immediate medical assistance, and include:
- A significant drop in blood pressure
- Abnormally small, pinpoint pupils
- Shallow breathing
- Muscle cramping
- Drop in heart rate
- Tremors and twitches
- A blue-purple color of the nails, fingertips, or mouth
How Long Heroin Remains In Your System
While the effects of heroin are longer than that of other drugs like cocaine and can dominate a person’s life if they do not seek addiction treatment, an answer to the question “how long does heroin stay in your system?” depends on the drug, the person and the test carried out.
As heroin has a particularly short half-life – the time it takes for half of the drug to be flushed out of a person’s system – it is not easily detectable by standard drug tests after some days. Heroin’s half-life can be less than a day as it is metabolized quickly.
Several factors contribute to how long heroin stays in the system.
Influence of Health on Detecting Heroin
Age, height and body mass, body fat, and liver and kidney health affect the detection time of heroin in the system. While genetics too play a role, personal metabolism and the activity of the kidney and liver play a role in how quickly the drug is processed and flushed out of the body. While the main way of elimination from the body is via the kidneys in urine, heroin can also be excreted through tears, sweat, saliva, and feces.
Dosage and Frequency of Use
The amount of drug taken is the main determining factor in how long heroin will be detectable in a drug test. With light use, it may remain in the body for only one to two days, while chronic or heavy use could make heroin stay detectable for almost one week. Those who are exposed to heroin less frequently may clear the drug from their system faster than those who are regularly exposed.
Purity and Interaction with Other Drugs
As there is little consistency in the purity of heroin, drug interactions with prescription and non-prescription drugs can affect how long it stays. Some drugs have the same metabolic enzymes as heroin and may compete with it, making heroin stay around longer for drug test detection.
How long heroin will show in drug tests depends greatly on the method of drug testing. While most standard drug tests can detect heroin, it varies according to the type of test.
While the effects of the drug last between 30 to 45 minutes, the metabolites that are produced when the drug is metabolized by the liver are detectable and remain in the system after the drug itself has been eliminated. Standard drug screening tests have developed, and tests now look for heroin metabolites, showing for around one to four days. More advanced tests may detect both the metabolic byproducts and heroin itself.
Most standard drug screenings usually involve a standard urine test, which detects heroin for between one to four days. Morphine can be detected in a urine test for up to seven days.
As the half-life of heroin in the blood is short (about three minutes), heroin is undetectable in the blood very fast after the last dose. But the 6-AM assay test, originally designed to be a urine test, is sensitive enough to detect heroin metabolites found in the blood. These blood tests can be useful for two to three days, and for following overdoses or traffic accidents, to differentiate between the therapeutic use of opioid drugs for pain relief and recent heroin abuse.
Used even less than blood tests, saliva tests are less reliable again due to the short half-life of heroin. Rapid metabolism means that metabolites will only be detectable in the saliva for up to five hours after it is smoked, and up to one hour after injecting it.
Hair follicle tests
Only five to six hours are needed for the drug to be undetectable in the above-mentioned fluids, but hair follicles contain heroin for a longer period. These tests can detect heroin for up to three months, and in some cases, up to six months.
Treatment for Heroin Addiction
There are many heroin addiction treatment options. Residential treatment at a treatment center comes with many benefits, including 24/7 medical support, medicines to assist with withdrawal symptoms, different forms of therapy, and aftercare. Other treatment programs offer treatment options on an outpatient basis.
The only true way to get heroin out of the system is by stopping the use of the drug and allowing the body to eliminate it. But as soon as heroin leaves the body, the body crashes into withdrawal. As it could lead to severe and life-threatening withdrawal symptoms, stopping heroin cold turkey and without medical supervision is dangerous.
Treatment facilities can start a treatment process with a medical detox, whereby the withdrawal process is managed effectively by a clinical professional and the use of medications. Acute withdrawal symptoms are alleviated so that they may be less intense, while treatment centers ensure that mental and physical health is monitored throughout the process. This reduces the risk of relapse.
A professional treatment provider may use drugs with approved medical use, such as methadone, naltrexone, or buprenorphine to treat heroin use disorder. These drugs instigate a normalization of brain chemistry, relieve psychological cravings, and normalize body functions. Methadone and buprenorphine suppress withdrawal symptoms and cravings, while Naltrexone specifically blocks opioid receptors in the brain- thereby blocking the effects of opioids like heroin- and is especially used in patients who have already undergone detox.
But medication alone is not a cure for any addiction. The next part of the treatment process involves heroin addiction treatment. Here, therapies address the underlying reasons or causes for initiating heroin use or addiction by self-identification and recognization, and mental health professionals provide tools to respond to any triggers that may cause a person to use again. Substance abuse is replaced with healthy behavior through individual cognitive behavioral therapy or group therapy.
In group therapy, others who struggle or have struggled with heroin abuse share their experiences and insights. Here, a person can learn a lot about coping strategies for life after rehab, as well as find peer support in a time when feelings of isolation are common. Family therapy is another therapy in a group setting, whereby the family dynamics are addressed so that someone suffering can have the most support possible as they undergo recovery. It also gives a chance for family members to express how addiction or abuse has affected them.
Finding a Treatment Center for Heroin Abuse and Addiction
If you or a loved one is struggling with heroin abuse, addiction, or substance use disorder, Ebb Tide can help. We aim to bridge the gap between treatment and recovery, which means we empower you with the tools and skills to ensure that your recovery is sustainable after leaving our treatment center.
We understand that heroin can take over your life and that each person’s experience is unique. That is why Ebb Tide’s supportive, passionate, and committed treatment team designs an individual treatment plan according to your mental, physical and emotional needs, so that you may get the best possible treatment.
Our opioid detox program and medication-assisted treatment are available on both a residential treatment and an outpatient basis. As we are committed to using evidence-based treatment alongside medically oriented approaches, we can address any pain, physical ailment, or chronic relapse that may interfere with your recovery process.