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Quitting Heroin Cold Turkey: Dangers, Risks & Help

Heroin is known as one of the most addictive opioid substances out there. It is produced by the processing of poppy plants commonly grown in regions such as Southwest and Southeast Asia, as well as Latin America (particularly Mexico and Colombia). Heroin is usually used for recreation purposes and is commonly misused to an extent that it may lead to severe bodily addiction and painful withdrawal symptoms. The drug is usually used via injection, but could also be ingested in other ways. How a particular person will react depends on various factors, including one’s genetics and environment. 1 2 3

Heroin is illegal in all of the U.S. states (it is only decriminalized in Oregon).4 Thus, in addition to the associated health issues, the heroin trade puts an additional strain on the law enforcement system. Data from 2020 indicate that there were around 902,000 heroin consumers aged 12 or older across the U.S. Out of these people, 691,000 are thought to suffer from substance use disorders associated with the consumption of heroin. These people are in the greatest need of help.5

What Does It Mean to Quit Taking Substances Cold Turkey?

Getting out of addiction, regardless of whether it involves drugs or alcohol, usually involves a series of gradual steps aimed at achieving a less painful recovery. However, the method that has been increasingly considered by addiction sufferers involves quitting the use of a toxic substance cold turkey. If a person chooses to quit the consumption of certain substances cold turkey, it means that they have decided to just stop using it, regardless of the painful sensation that may be associated with such a move. Despite the hardships associated with it, immediately stopping the use of a toxic substance can certainly have positive effects.6

For example, several studies found that quitting smoking cold turkey may lead to an effective outcomes regarding future abstinence.6 Similarly, quitting taking something cold turkey might spare someone the time and patience needed to follow a gradual recovery plan. However, dangerous symptoms that might be associated with the immediate cessation of substance use include nausea, vomiting, anxiety, sleep, and concentration issues, as well as other, life-threatening conditions.6

What Happens With One’s Brain and Body When Quitting Heroin Cold Turkey?

Dangerous symptoms are particularly prone to arise in the case of quitting heroin cold turkey. These have to do with the process of addiction itself, which is highly pronounced in heroin addiction. The addiction is developed after the drug gets converted into morphine in the brain, at the same time creating sensitivity for future uses. Despite imitating the chemical structure of natural neurotransmitters this way, heroin produces abnormal signals to the brain.3

The parts of the brain that are most affected involve the basal ganglia, the prefrontal cortex, and the extended amygdala. The effect on the basal ganglia is associated with the euphoric feelings that are present during the initial phases of heroin consumption. Due to the sensitivity of the brain, this effect gets less and less pronounced as one embarks on a chronic consumption of heroin.3

The impact on the prefrontal cortex, however, affects one’s rational capabilities, making the person less able to make decisions and control impulses, including the compulsion to use the drug. Finally, the effect on the extended amygdala is manifested in the painful withdrawal symptoms taking place after the initial euphoria had waned.3

As one’s heroin addiction progresses, the alleviation of withdrawal symptoms becomes the sole goal of drug consumption. The person becomes extremely nervous, anxious, and even depressed, feeling that the only way to relieve these emotions would be to continue using heroin. Such symptoms are expected to peak between the first and the second day in most people. However, if one manages to withstand the urges through a week to ten days, they can reasonably hope to achieve recovery.1 7

However, it is not advisable to start quitting heroin cold turkey alone. The supervision of a professional is preferable to avert the possible dangers and risks, such as2 7 8:

  • dehydration
  • seizure
  • relapse
  • overdose
  • heart or another organ failure
  • death

When quitting heroin cold turkey, these symptoms might be present in more or less severe forms. Importantly, some of these symptoms might lead to others. For example, severe cases of dehydration are commonly associated with heart failure, which itself could lead to death.8 Similarly, people who experience heroin relapse are believed to be more prone to overdose. Being highly lethal, heroin overdose has been responsible for 13,165 deaths across the U.S. in 2020.2 7

People who are at a higher risk of developing heroin addiction are usually the ones who are at a higher risk of having difficulties succeeding in quitting heroin cold turkey, thus being more likely to relapse and experience associated ailments (such as organ failure). A lot of this increased risk has to do with one’s genetic makeup. There are also important environmental factors to consider. People are more likely to experience the bad effects of heroin addiction if their peers or even family members encourage them to use drugs. What might also make a difference is the age one starts taking the drug and the way it is taken. People who start consuming heroin earlier in their lives and are using it by smoking or injecting are more likely to develop serious symptoms.3

To avoid dangers associated with the sudden cessation of heroin use, many experts encourage addiction sufferers to opt for medical detoxification. This more gradual method might help people overcome their addiction without so many risks and episodes of pain, at the same time being supervised by medical professionals.2

What Painful Symptoms Can One Experience When Quitting Heroin Cold Turkey?

There are numerous painful effects one can experience after deciding to stop using heroin immediately. These symptoms are usually associated with the sensations of withdrawal, which are particularly pronounced during an abrupt cessation of drug use. Some of the common symptoms are associated with the functioning of the digestive system and involve nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea. Others have to do with the sensations spread throughout the body, such as cold sweats, hot flashes, and goosebumps. Finally, some symptoms are affecting addiction sufferers’ minds. Restlessness, anxiety, heroin cravings, and insomnia belong to this group of sensations.1 7 

Sometimes, especially in their more persistent and severe forms, these symptoms might indicate that there is a serious underlying problem. The common health issues that heroin addiction sufferers face include heart disease, stroke, lung disease, mental health disorders, as well infectious diseases such as HIV/AIDS or Hepatitis B and C. Any prolonged consumption of heroin drastically increases one’s risk of getting any of these diseases.3

Why Does Medical Detox Present A Preferred Treatment for Heroin Use Disorder?

Due to the risks and dangers that are present when quitting heroin cold turkey, professionals commonly recommend going through medical detox treatment. This kind of treatment is preferred primarily because it involves supervision from experts. Once the initial detoxification phase is over, patients might be referred to a supervised rehab program. Mostly conducted on a residential basis, the supervised rehab program often increases the likelihood of a patient’s long-term recovery.2

A successful outcome is achieved as professionals at the facility might be able to design an individualized treatment for each patient. The treatment might involve specifically chosen medication, along with therapy and counseling sessions. It might also be catered to different age groups or other demographic categories, ranging from pregnant women to seniors. There are even special programs for celebrities. Furthermore, any co-occurring disorders could be more effectively addressed on an inpatient basis. After the rehab program is over, patients might be encouraged to take part in certain aftercare activities. Lifelong treatment is often recommended as people who used to suffer from addiction remain at risk of experiencing a relapse.9

How Can One Get Help to Recover from Addiction?

Due to various risks and dangers associated with heroin withdrawal, addiction sufferers are best advised to undergo a medically supervised detox procedure. Starting with the intake and usually taking up to a week, the medical detoxification phase commonly involves a gradual tapering technique. After being thoroughly assessed, addiction sufferers are instructed to reduce the heroin dosage they consume one step at a time. At the same time, they are being watched for by medical professionals in order to prevent the development of dangerous withdrawal symptoms.

Medications are commonly used during the detoxification procedure. Some of the most commonly used medicines include buprenorphine, naloxone (which could be used in addition to buprenorphine), methadone, and lofexidine. These medicines act directly against the issues associated with heroin consumption (such as overdose and euphoric effect). Other medicines are used to address more generic symptoms associated with heroin use. These include clonidine for high blood pressure and ibuprofen for body aches, along with a myriad of drugs that may eliminate nausea, vomiting, or diarrhea.2 10

Patients may reap additional benefits if they decide to opt for treatment following the detox procedure. During the treatment that may take various forms, ranging from outpatient treatments that require an occasional visit to the hospital to fully inpatient programs, program attendees might join therapy sessions aimed at discovering the root causes of their addiction. They might also find out that they possess additional mental health issues that need to be addressed. By going through such a detailed assessment and treatment, patients may reasonably hope for a higher chance of long-term recovery without relapse.9

Anyone needing additional help but unsure about where to find it is suggested to contact our navigators. This can be done via our helpline specifically aimed at heroin users. Addiction sufferers can also consult with navigators from our helplines for other substances. The helplines are fully confidential and in alignment with the country’s privacy laws. Also, people interested in medical detox or other rehab services can search our online tool. The tool provides its users with information about insurance schemes that may cover different rehab programs. This is particularly important as treatment usually has to be paid on a private basis. To be able to start treatment, people might need to examine their payment options and see how much they would need to pay for various treatment modalities.11 12 13

Frequently Asked Questions