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Can You Die From Heroin Withdrawal?

Medically Verified: 2/1/24

Medical Reviewer

Chief Editor

All of the information on this page has been reviewed and verified by a certified addiction professional.

Heroin is an illicit opioid drug that is known to be extremely potent and highly addictive. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), about 1 million people reported using heroin in 2021.[1] Heroin addiction can be incredibly difficult to overcome, but long-term heroin abuse puts individuals at risk of developing a myriad of life-threatening health conditions.

Unfortunately, it is common for people suffering from heroin addiction to avoid going to rehab. Whether they are avoiding heroin rehab due to financial reasons, self-doubt, or a fear of the unknown, doing so can be extremely dangerous. This is especially true when people attempt to stop abusing heroin at home, as they will experience symptoms of withdrawal without proper medical attention.

While heroin withdrawal is not considered as dangerous as withdrawal from benzodiazepines or alcohol, the symptoms can become life-threatening, and it is possible to die during heroin withdrawal. If you or someone you love are struggling with heroin addiction, it is important to seek help from a licensed medical detox program that can provide you with the proper treatments and medications necessary to help you start your recovery safely.

The Symptoms of Heroin Withdrawal

Many people describe heroin withdrawal as having an extremely severe case of the flu, however, the intensity of withdrawal varies from person to person.

The common symptoms of heroin withdrawal include:[2]

  • Anxiety and agitation
  • Excessive sweating
  • Insomnia
  • Muscle aches
  • Twitching of the legs
  • Runny nose
  • Cravings for heroin
  • Abdominal cramping
  • Diarrhea
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Restlessness
  • Chills and goosebumps
  • Dehydration
  • Irregular heartbeat

While these are the most common symptoms of heroin withdrawal, some individuals may develop more severe effects. The life-threatening symptoms of heroin withdrawal are most common among individuals who abused the drug heavily for a long period because their brains will have a more difficult time adjusting to the absence of heroin in their system.

Can Heroin Withdrawal Symptoms Become Life-Threatening?

Despite popular belief, it is possible to die from heroin withdrawal. However, it is important to note that this only occurs when people do not have access to proper detox treatment during their withdrawal process.

One of the biggest risks during heroin withdrawal is dehydration resulting from poor appetite, nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea. Severe dehydration can lead to a loss of important electrolytes and minerals that are vital for sustaining life, potentially leading to respiratory failure and seizures.

You can die from heroin withdrawal if your dehydration becomes severe and results in the following:[3]

  • Cardiac arrhythmia
  • Heart or kidney failure
  • Hypovolemic shock
  • Seizures
  • Threateningly high blood sodium levels

According to the Society for the Study of Addiction, “Persistent vomiting and diarrhea may result, if untreated, in dehydration, hypernatraemia (elevated blood sodium level) and resultant heart failure.”[4]

While heroin withdrawal symptoms can turn deadly, the only reported cases of death stemming from heroin withdrawal were in jails where inmates were not receiving proper medical attention.[4]

Another way heroin withdrawal can be deadly is because of the risk of relapse and overdose. Without medical treatment, your symptoms may get so intense that you decide to use heroin again to make yourself feel better. Using heroin after any period of sobriety, even a short one, can increase your risk of overdose due to reduced tolerance. And, with the amount of fentanyl in street drugs today, overdose is even more likely.

The Importance of Attending a Heroin Detox Program

When you choose to enter a heroin detox program, your risk of dying from withdrawal, or simply experiencing severe symptoms, becomes virtually nonexistent because these programs employ highly skilled and experienced medical staff who can properly treat your symptoms, keeping you safe and comfortable.

But how is heroin withdrawal treated during detox?

Most heroin detox centers will prescribe medications to reduce the intensity of withdrawal. staff will also monitor your symptoms to ensure your comfort and safety.

The most common medications used during heroin detox include:[5]

  • Methadone (opioid agonist)
  • Buprenorphine (partial opioid agonist)
  • Clonidine (alpha-2 adrenergic agonist)
  • Lofexidine (alpha-2 adrenergic agonist)

Full and partial opioid agonists target the opioid receptors in your brain to trick your system into believing it has received the heroin it’s craving. Some individuals may be prescribed other medications to cope with their withdrawal symptoms, such as alpha-2 adrenergic agonists like clonidine and lofexidine. These medications work similarly to opioid agonists, however, they target different receptors in your brain to soothe withdrawal symptoms.

Find a Heroin Detox and Rehab Center Near You

If you or a loved one suffers from heroin addiction, recovery is possible. While the idea of enduring the withdrawal process can be intimidating, attending a professional medical detox program can make this aspect of recovery much easier. With a combination of 24/7 monitoring, evidence-based treatments, and FDA-approved medications, you can overcome your withdrawal symptoms safely and comfortably.

To learn more about how our heroin detox and treatment in North Carolina can help you recover from heroin addiction, contact Carolina Center for Recovery today.