Heroin is an illegal, extremely addictive drug that has risen to “epidemic” status in the U.S. It is both the most abused and the most rapidly acting of the opiates. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), heroin use in the U.S. increased 63% between 2002 and 2013, and continues to grow.

Those addicted to heroin are often prone to relapse, and heroin addiction treatment must take a multi-faceted approach. Treatment should include medical care with evidence-based medications to ease withdrawal symptoms and cravings like Suboxone® treatment, 24/7 medical monitoring, and behavioral care that gets to the root causes of opiate addiction. Clients must learn practical recovery skills like how to replace drug use with healthy activities that fill the void left by addiction.

Learn about our medically monitored detox program and inpatient drug rehab program.

Risks of Heroin Abuse

One of the most harmful, lasting effects of heroin use is addiction. Heroin produces profound degrees of tolerance and physical dependence, which are also powerful motivators of compulsive use and abuse. As with abusers of any addictive drug, heroin users gradually spend more and more time and energy getting and using heroin.

Other risks of heroin use include:

Physical dependence – Physical dependence develops with continued use or higher doses of the drug. The body adapts to the presence of the drug and withdrawal symptoms occur if use is reduced abruptly.

Heroin withdrawal symptoms – Depending on the level of physical dependence on heroin, withdrawal symptoms that occur when it leaves the individual’s system can range from uncomfortable to extremely painful and life-threatening.

Diseases – Heroin addiction poses special problems because of the potential transmission of HIV, viral hepatitis and other diseases through sharing needles or other injection equipment.

Overdose – Because heroin users often do not know the actual strength of the drug or its true contents, they are at high risk of overdose or death. Additionally, those with substance use disorders tend to “push the limits,” taking more and more of a drug to get a stronger high.

Chronic medical complications – Prolonged heroin abuse can result in scarred and/or collapsed veins, bacterial infections of the blood vessels and heart valves, abscesses (boils) and other soft-tissue infections, liver or kidney disease, lung complications (including various types of pneumonia and tuberculosis), and immune reactions to contaminants contributing to arthritis or other rheumatologic problems.

Heroin Withdrawal Symptoms

Heroin withdrawal symptoms can be life-threatening and heroin detox should be undergone in a medically monitored detox setting where pain is eased with evidence-based medications and any emergency situations are attended to immediately.

Heroin withdrawal symptoms may include:

  • Intense cravings
  • Restlessness
  • Muscle and bone pain
  • Insomnia
  • Diarrhea
  • Vomiting
  • Cold flashes
  • Chills
  • Fever
  • Anxiety
  • Abdominal cramps
  • Hallucinations

Major heroin withdrawal symptoms typically peak between 24 and 48 hours after the last dose of heroin and subside after about a week. However, some people have shown persistent withdrawal signs for many months.

Heroin Addiction Treatment

For an effective treatment experience, individuals addicted to heroin must first eliminate the substance from their bodies through medically monitored detox. Once they are stabilized and beginning to heal from the physical effects of the drug, they are better prepared to enter the next phase of treatment and start addressing the psychological, situational and emotional issues behind addiction.

Heroin Detoxification

The main objective of heroin detox is to relieve withdrawal symptoms while individuals physically and mentally adjust to a drug-free state. Not in itself a treatment for addiction, heroin detoxification is a practical step only when it leads into long-term treatment.

During medically monitored heroin detox, scientifically backed medications can be prescribed to ease withdrawal symptoms and intense cravings. Vital signs are also continuously monitored, with support from a team of nurses and other medical professionals. Learn more about The Ranch drug detox program or call 844-876-7680.

Evidence-Based Medications

Some general examples of medically approved drugs to treat opiate addictions include:

Methadone Treatment

Methadone has been used successfully and safely to treat heroin addiction for more than 30 years. Properly prescribed methadone is not intoxicating or sedating and its effects do not interfere with ordinary activities such as driving a car. Patients are able to perceive pain and have emotional reactions. Most important, methadone relieves the craving associated with heroin addiction; craving is a major reason for relapse.

Methadone’s effects last for about 24 hours, four to six times as long as those of heroin, so people in treatment need to take it only once a day. All medications have risks; patients should learn more about methadone and alternative medications to treat opiate addiction before proceeding with a particular course of treatment.

LAAM and other Medications

Like methadone, LAAM (Levomethadyl acetate) is a synthetic opiate that can be used to treat heroin addiction. LAAM can block the effects of heroin for up to 72 hours with minimal side effects when taken orally.

Naloxone and Naltrexone are medications that also block the effects of morphine, heroin and other opiates. Naltrexone has long-lasting effects, depending on the dose. Naltrexone blocks the pleasurable effects of heroin and is useful in treating some highly motivated individuals. Vivitrol, an injectable form of naltrexone, can help ease opiate cravings and block opiates from acting on the brain. In studies, Vivitrol has proven to help opiate addicts stay in treatment longer, have fewer cravings, avoid relapse and stay abstinent more days.


Buprenorphine produces a lower level of physical dependence, so individuals who stop the medication usually have fewer withdrawal symptoms than do those who stop taking methadone. Buprenorphine comes in a variety of forms such as Zubsolv, Bunavail, Cizdol, Subutex, and Suboxone.

Behavioral Therapies

A combination of behavioral and pharmacologic treatments is ultimately the most effective heroin addiction treatment approach. There are many effective behavioral treatments available for heroin addiction, including residential drug rehab programs. Therapies that help individuals struggling with heroin addiction not only eliminate their destructive behaviors but also address underlying issues that contribute to addiction as well as co-occurring mental disorders that may be present.

Therapies such as cognitive behavioral therapy, individual and group therapy, family therapy and specialized therapies that explore underlying trauma, interpersonal issues and difficult life circumstances can be effective in the treatment of heroin addiction. Learning healthier coping skills and new ways to manage life stressors as well as practical skills like good nutrition, an active lifestyle, mindfulness and self-care practices are also critical to effective heroin treatment. Learn more about our inpatient drug rehab program or call 844-876-7680.