Any person who has been addicted to opioids for a while is well-acquainted with the fear of withdrawal symptoms. Nearly everyone knows that heroin use is inherently dangerous. The specter of overdose and withdrawal are constant companions. Many are aware that withdrawal from alcohol or benzodiazepines can result in deadly seizures. What is not as clear is whether or not heroin withdrawal can be fatal. The answer is a bit complex, but it is safe to say that overdose presents the greatest risk of fatality for any heroin user.
Heroin withdrawal symptoms can include cold chills, muscle spasms, vomiting, and diarrhea. While these symptoms typically are not fatal a great deal depends on the person and the circumstances. Someone caught in the throes of heroin addiction generally is not taking good care of their health. This puts them at greater risk for any number of complications. Vomiting and diarrhea are both ways the body tries to rid itself of toxins. However, the side-effects of those symptoms include severe dehydration and higher blood sodium (hypernatraemia). Those conditions can lead to cardiac arrest and heart failure. (1) While deaths from heroin withdrawal are uncommon, they aren’t unheard of. Withdrawal puts extraordinary stress on the body. Combined with poor nutrition, personal hygiene and a lack of self-care makes it worse. Add just one more element like a congenital heart condition or a propensity for seizures and it is quite possible that heroin withdrawal can be fatal.
Another risk associated with withdrawal comes from the psychological effects. The physical agony is not the only potentially dangerous symptom of heroin withdrawal. Anxiety, depression, and anhedonia (inability to feel pleasure) can be intense during and following heroin withdrawal. Combined with the physical discomfort it can be too much to bear for some, making it a risk factor for suicide.
There is reason to be hopeful, however. The opioid use epidemic in the U.S. has led to innovations in treatment and an increase in accessibility of care. Tens of thousands of people recover from opioid addiction every year in this country. Regardless of how awful your story may be, there are people out there who will genuinely understand and are willing to help. Turning the corner from heroin addiction starts with the addict themselves though. It takes willingness and courage in equal measure to admit you have met your match and you no longer want to live that way.
A range of options awaits anyone who is ready to give up the fight and get off of heroin for good. The ideal for most people is to start with an inpatient medical detox. This is generally the safest and most comfortable way to begin. After detox, it’s best to attend a residential program for at least 30 days if possible and follow that up with a stint in a sober living of 6 months to a year. The ideal protocol may not fit everyone’s life or means, however, and there are choices to be made. Outpatient detoxes and Medication Assisted Treatment have grown in popularity recently and make recovering from heroin addiction within reach for even more people.
If you or someone you care about is struggling with heroin addiction, pick up the phone and give us a call. We are happy to provide information about treatment options or just advice on how to proceed.