Heroin is an opiate drug made from morphine. It is not legally available by prescription in the United States, although it is available on a limited basis in Canada, Netherlands, and the United Kingdom to treat heroin addiction. Using heroin brings a high risk of overdose and dangerous interactions with other drugs and prescribed medications. Knowing how long it could be active in your system can help you understand the risks and variables.
While heroin actually breaks down quite rapidly, the resulting breakdown products can persist for much longer. The intense and euphoric effects of heroin are short-lived, which can cause an individual to seek out another dose while the byproducts of heroin are still in the body. Taking too much heroin can easily lead to a fatal overdose, because it causes respiration to slow down and even stop. Getting treated for heroin use disorder starts with detox, the time during which the drug and its byproducts leave the body, but although the drug may be gone symptoms of withdrawal persist, making quitting very difficult.
Heroin sold on the street is manufactured illegally and differs widely in strength, purity, and what other substances it is mixed with. Nonmedical users take heroin in many different ways, each of which can affect how soon and how long its effects are felt. Heroin can be smoked, injected, or snorted.
The effects of heroin are felt swiftly. Depending on the dose, a wave of intense euphoria lasts 45 seconds to a few minutes, with the other effects peaking for 1 to 2 hours and most effects wearing off in 3 to 5 hours, although sedation can last for longer.
Heroin has an extremely rapid half-life of 2 to 6 minutes and is metabolized to 6-acetylmorphine and morphine. The half-life of morphine is 1.5 to 7 hours and the half-life of 6-acetylmorphine is 6 to 25 minutes.
Heroin and 6-acetylmorphine enter the brain more readily than morphine. In the brain and nervous system, these substances act on receptors involved with euphoria, pain suppression, depressing breathing, reducing gastrointestinal activity, drowsiness, dysphoria, delusions, and hallucinations.
Common effects are a surge of euphoria followed by a drowsy twilight state alternating between wake and sleep. Physical effects include constricted pupils, feelings of nausea, flushed skin, and dry mouth, and a feeling of having heavy hands and feet.
Heroin is highly addicting, and once addicted the user risks withdrawal symptoms if they don't have access to heroin. Withdrawal symptoms can begin 6 to 12 hours after the last dose and last for 5 to 12 days.
Some people who use drugs use the term “half-life” to refer to how long a drug or alcohol stays in an individual’s system, but that isn’t accurate. The half-life of a drug is simply the period of time it takes for the drug to reduce to 50 percent of its concentrated dose. How long a substance stays in your body depends on several factors, including:
Although heroin’s effects can be felt up to four to five hours after the last dose, heroin’s half-life is estimated to be about 30 minutes. A drug’s half-life is the amount of time that it takes for a drug to reduce to 50 percent of its concentrated dose.
However, there are several factors that can play a role for how long a drug stays in your system, such as:
While heroin is in the system, the user is at risk of interactions with other drugs and substances as well as overdose. Street heroin varies in purity from 11 to 72 percent, and it is often combined with ketamine, cocaine, diphenhydramine, alprazolam, and MDMA (ecstasy).
Heroin depresses the respiratory system and slows the heart rate, so there are risks of interactions that can lead to coma. Dangerous interactions might happen with barbiturates, benzodiazepines, antidepressants, MAO inhibitors, and antihistamines.
One of the main reasons to be aware of how long heroin remains in the system is the risk of overdose. If you take more heroin because the effects of the last dose have worn off, but the drug is still in your system, it could cause an accidental overdose.
Here are some of the symptoms of a heroin overdose:
The above symptoms are related to an overdose of heroin alone. Heroin sold on the street many times is mixed with other substances or drugs that can cause their own set of symptoms. Street heroin cut with the powerful painkiller fentanyl has caused a noticeable increase in overdose.
The rate that heroin leaves the body affects how long the drug can be detected through drug testing. Heroin is typically only detectable in urine for two days but depending on the test used, it can be detected for up to seven days after the last use. In blood and saliva tests, heroin can become undetectable in five to six hours, but they can be found for up to two days after the last use. Hair follicle tests can show a positive result for heroin for up to three months after the last use.
Like most drugs, the main way heroin is eliminated from the body is via the kidneys in urine, but it can also be excreted via sweat, tears, saliva, and feces.
How long heroin will show up on a standard drug test depends on several factors such as weight, body mass and personal metabolism. However, the main factor in how long heroin is detectable in a drug test is the amount of the drug taken. Heroin will stay in the body only 1 or 2 days for a light user, but for a heavy, chronic user, it can remain detectable in a urine test for almost a week.
The process of detoxing from heroin for those trying to quit occurs as the drug and its metabolites leave the body. During this period an individual will experience withdrawal symptoms. The symptoms are more severe and longer lasting for those who have been using the drug longer and more heavily. While heroin doesn’t stay in the system very long, its metabolites persist, and even after those have left, the body and brain are still trying to rebound. Withdrawal can begin anywhere between six and 24 hours after the last use of heroin.
Detox may last anywhere from a day or two to a couple of weeks, depending on the individual and the severity of the withdrawal symptoms. As heroin and morphine compounds are eliminated and the body struggles to adapt to not having the drug, a person may experience:
Even after official detox treatment is over and there are no traces of the drug or its metabolites in the body, many individuals continue to have lingering withdrawal symptoms. It is important to be aware that these can last for weeks or even a few months.
Detox should never be done unsupervised or unsupported. The way the body reacts to no longer having heroin in its system is extremely uncomfortable and can easily lead someone to relapse. Withdrawal from heroin and other opioids can be medically treated. Buprenorphine, for instance, is approved to provide some relief from withdrawal symptoms and to shorten the duration of detox.
It is important to remember that detox and getting through withdrawal are only the first few steps of managing addiction to heroin. Some withdrawal symptoms may persist for months, while triggers and cravings can lead to a relapse even years after going through detox.
A comprehensive treatment plan for heroin addiction starts with medically-supervised detox. It should then continue with behavioral therapies, medication and medical care, group support, mental health screening and care, family education and support, life skills and lifestyle changes, and ongoing support with long-term care plans and relapse prevention strategies.
If you or someone you care about is struggling with heroin use, seek professional assistance as soon as possible. The way that heroin leaving the body and no longer acting in the brain makes a person feel can be extremely challenging to overcome. Anyone going through this needs support from caring family and friends but also treatment from experienced professionals.
There’s no reason for shame or embarrassment. If you need help, we can provide that assistance. By dialing our number today, you’re making the commitment to get well, and that’s something to be proud of. Call now.