How Long Does Heroin Stay in Your System?
Heroin consumption has been growing rapidly in recent years. As the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) reported in 2016, “. . . about 948,000 Americans have misused heroin in the past year — a number that has been on the rise since 2007. This trend appears to be driven largely by young adults aged 18-25 among whom there have been the greatest increases.” The story in Texas is no different. There has been nearly a 30% increase in overdose deaths from heroin between 2006 and 2019. Our state’s opioid crisis started with the misuse of prescription pain pills, but as those drugs became harder to get and far too expensive to keep up with, heroin became a more attractive alternative. Because of heroin’s increasing popularity, more people are wondering how long it can stick around in our systems. This blog post will answer your questions about heroin detection time and also cover the basics of what heroin can do to your body. If you or a loved one is struggling with heroin addiction, please remember Vertava Health is here to help you find long-term recovery.
Heroin Detection Times
Most drug tests discover heroin within the body in the hair, urine, saliva, or bloodstream. Heroin stays for various amounts of time depending on the region. The half-life of a drug indicates the amount of time it has its desired effect on the body. Heroin has a pretty short half-life, lasting from two to six minutes. However, some form of heroin will still linger in your system days after you’ve taken it. The different types of drug tests used to detect heroin include:
- Urine: A urine test is one of the most common drug tests to check if a drug is still present in someone’s system. Urine tests often discover heroin in a person’s body even three days after the last time it was taken. Urine drug testing is often reliable, but there are still false positives from time to time.
- Saliva: Heroin concentrations in the saliva are a little more difficult to determine. It all depends on how much of the drug was taken. You’ll often find the most heroin in saliva within a few minutes after heroin enters the system. However, it disappears fairly quickly, causing saliva testing to be an unreliable method of discovering heroin misuse.
- Blood: Blood testing is not common when it comes to heroin. This is, yet again, another ineffective way of testing for heroin misuse. Although the drug stays in our bloodstream for a few hours after it was taken, it disappears the next day, causing it to be difficult to trace. And blood tests are not at all useful in checking whether that person has been struggling with addiction.
- Hair: A hair follicle test could help determine a timeline of how long someone has misused the drug. Heroin stays in our hair for up to 90 days after initial use. This, of course, will depend on hair length and the frequency of heroin misuse.
What Is Heroin?
Heroin is a depressant drug that slows down brain activity and depresses the central nervous system. It’s an illegal opioid drug created from morphine, a natural substance taken from the seed pod of certain poppy plants. Most people who think of heroin immediately think of needles — however, heroin can also be smoked or snorted. Heroin messes with the mind’s neuroplasticity (our brain’s ability to reorganize and make connections), which in turn prevents us from thinking clearly and increases the pull of addiction. Heroin’s popularity is due to its ability to provide immediate relief from feelings of anxiety and depression. The drug affects dopamine levels in the brain. Heroin stimulates dopamine (a neurotransmitter, or chemical messenger, that creates positive feelings) in the brain, causing our reward circuit (the part of our mind that rewards us for good behavior and achievements) to create a euphoric feeling of great happiness. Altering our reward system does not do the mind any favors. As we keep consuming heroin, we stop creating dopamine in response to natural rewards around us. This will redirect our reward circuit to heroin for dopamine production, which causes us to prioritize the drug over important aspects of our life. Shortly after taking heroin, people report feeling:
- A heat wave across the body
- A dry or parched mouth
- Relief from pain and anxiety
- Heaviness in arms and legs
- Increased body temperature
- Irregular heartbeat
- Slowed breathing
It makes sense that heroin appeals to so many of us. It can be hard to say no to immediate, temporary relief for our self-doubts, guilt, and anxiety. However, heroin can also cause many health problems in our mind, heart, and body. As far as we know, heroin has hardly any medical value (outside of surgery) and is usually only taken for recreational purposes. There’s also a large risk of heart infection with heroin simply because cooking heroin over a flame doesn’t exactly sterilize it. By misusing the drug, we repeatedly inject bacteria into our bloodstream. In extreme cases, our hearts face infection and start to resemble Swiss cheese.
The History of Heroin and the Opioid Crisis
Opioids run as far back as ancient Egypt, as early Egyptian civilization incorporated the drug into medical practices. As the world progressed, the opioid plant was experimented with and later used to develop synthetic drugs (such as heroin). In more recent years, some pharmaceutical companies began to aggressively market new opioid painkillers to doctors and the public without warning about how addictive the drugs could be. Prescription painkiller sales soon skyrocketed, and this kickstarted the country’s current opioid epidemic. Heroin took over the drug trade in many states as a more affordable opioid option. Synthetic opioid drugs like heroin are preferable to more expensive drugs like fentanyl and oxycodone (OxyContin) because it’s easier and cheaper to get. The NIDA Community Epidemiology Work Group reported, “The impact of heroin use is felt all across the United States, with heroin being identified as the most or one of the most important drug use issues affecting several local regions from coast to coast.” All of Texas’ major metropolitan areas– DFW, San Antonio, Houston, Austin–all have rising prevalence of heroin use and attendant problems. It’s not just an urban problem either. Drug use in rural areas has also been on the rise. According to the website Texas Rural Voices, opioid use by women during pregnancy has been a particularly troubling trend.
Effects of Taking Heroin
Heroin can have many varying side effects depending on how long the drug has been taken. It takes about two weeks of recreational misuse to start building a dependency. Some of the side effects include:
- Breathing issues
- Memory Loss
- Runny nose
- Nausea and vomiting
- Loss of appetite
- Hand tremors
As mentioned earlier, continuous heroin consumption builds a tolerance for the drug, which encourages misuse and leads to more long-term effects.
Most people recovering from heroin addiction have more muscular hearts than the average person. This is because heroin misuse causes your heart to exert itself due to bacterial infections of the blood vessels and heart valves.
Hepatitis B, Hepatitis C, and HIV/AIDS
Heroin misuse greatly increases the risk of contracting viral hepatitis, HIV, or other infections from needle sharing. And contrary to many popular myths, the risks aren’t eliminated by taking heroin through oral and nasal pathways.
There are several different oral issues the body deals with from heroin misuse. For example:
- Tooth decay
- Gum disease
- Fractured teeth
- Oral viral infections
A study conducted by the Journal of the American Dental Association described a pattern of decay called “meth mouth” (severe tooth decay and gum disease) showing up as a side effect of heroin misuse as well methamphetamine misuse. Most people leaving a heroin addiction report experiencing some form of poor oral health.
Effects on the Central Nervous System
Our brains are highly impacted by heroin misuse as the drug takes a dig at our limbic system (the system in our mind that controls our behavioral and emotional responses). Between acting as an alternative to endorphins (hormones that help reduce pain) and readjusting our dopamine levels, heroin is already skipping rope with our mental state. But beyond simply the chemical responses, heroin can also cause cognitive (thinking and reasoning) impairment and decay matter in your brain. [inline_cta_one]
Heroin misuse can lead to a very tricky, complicated addiction. Heroin addiction is caused by consistent misuse of the drug. Natural endorphins in our body bind to opioid receptors in the brain to regulate pain signals. But heroin connects with those receptors and manages pain a lot better than endorphins do. Eventually, the body adjusts to constant heroin intake and requires more of the drug to have the same effect. When that happens, a person develops a great risk of falling into a pattern of dependency or addiction.
What Leads to Addiction
There are many ongoing stories about heroin addiction and overdose that lead to mistaken beliefs about how the drug is misused. It starts with simple things, like the image of teens at the schoolyard swapping drugs with the same playground friends they’ve had for years. Or peer pressure causes them to follow a downward spiral into addiction. While these circumstances do occur, they don’t define every (or even most) beginning of heroin addiction. The only similarity found in reasons for taking heroin is a sense of escapism. As mentioned earlier, heroin causes a feeling of intense happiness that wipes away every other guilty or anxiety-driven emotion. And eventually, the chemicals changing in the brain, paired with any emotional relief resulting from heroin misuse, causes a mental and emotional dependency to develop between the person and the drug. Suddenly the body relies on having the drug and adjusts its normal processes based on its presence.
It’s important to identify the differences between a person who is experiencing the high of the drug and someone who’s dealing with an overdose. For example, someone who’s feeling the effects of heroin exhibits signs such as:
- Dilated pupils
- Appearing as if they’ve “nodded off”
- Could scratch a lot
- Slurred speech
- They’ll respond if yelled at
However, there are certain signs to look out for if you’re worried a person might be overdosing:
- They’re unresponsive to shaking or yelling.
- They may have limp arms and legs.
- Their skin might be pale or clammy.
- They could have bluish lips or fingernails.
- They may not be breathing or have very slow breathing patterns.
You can try a trick called a sternal rub that can help determine whether someone is overdosing or not. Try rubbing your four knuckles against the sternum (where your ribs come together in your chest) to see if you can revive them. If the person is wearing thick clothing, you try rubbing the same four knuckles over the top of their lip to see if they’re waking up. If the person wakes, stay with them, ensure that they’re alert, and continue monitoring their symptoms while getting them the help they need. If not, that person is most likely unconscious and requires immediate medical attention. Call 911 for assistance and stay with them until medical professionals arrive.
As people continue to take more heroin to compensate for tolerance, the body’s levels of noradrenaline (a neurotransmitter that affects our emotions, memory, and sleep-wake cycle) start to fall. This causes our body to assume it must continue functioning with the small amount of noradrenaline it’s getting. Our solution is to create receptors with increased sensitivity to noradrenaline — which, of course, is a cycle now dependent on consistent heroin intake. If someone were to detox from the drug, their noradrenaline levels would skyrocket. In this situation, the body has yet to remove all the extra noradrenaline receptors it created for noradrenaline detection. Therefore, the body becomes incredibly sensitive to the neurotransmitter and causes us to experience withdrawal symptoms.
Heroin Withdrawal Symptoms
These symptoms can be quite painful as a person works to overcome heroin addiction. Dependency on heroin causes a need for the drug for normal day-to-day functioning. It no longer becomes about reaching a high. Someone undergoing withdrawal may experience:
- Violent sickness
- Muscle cramps
- Muscle spasms
- Intense cravings
- Nausea and vomiting
Of course, the withdrawal process looks different for everyone and varies depending on how long someone misused heroin and how much of the drug was taken each time. The good news is withdrawal can be much easier in a medically supervised detox center such as Texas Recovery Center.
Withdrawal sounds like a scary process, but there are safe, effective ways to manage withdrawal symptoms through medical detox. Credible recovery centers such as Vertava Health have detox plans that flush out heroin within the body without clients undergoing the extreme withdrawal symptoms often highlighted or dramatized by TV shows and movies. At Vertava, we utilize buprenorphine, an evidence-based medication, to reduce cravings and symptoms of withdrawal. To give you the best chance for lasting sobriety, you will then progress into our individualized treatment program after you successfully complete detox.
Texas Recovery Center
Overcoming heroin addiction can be difficult to do on your own. It’s always helpful to have assistance with the withdrawal process for any kind of substance use disorder. Vertava Health aspires to provide that assistance and more during all stages of withdrawal and recovery. We understand how difficult the process can be and equip you with medical health professionals that strive to make it as smooth as possible. Visit our website to learn more about heroin addiction treatment today, or call us at (888) 759-5073.