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Can You Die From Heroin Withdrawal?

Before I became addicted to heroin, I was terrified of the drug because of the stories of overdosing and withdrawal. As my alcoholism and other drug addictions became more severe, I began using OxyContin and promethazine, known as sizzurp and purple drank, recreationally. I wasn’t yet withdrawing from these prescription painkillers, but they were expensive.

I was introduced to heroin when I was 18 as a less expensive, more potent alternative to prescription opioids. In my addiction, I decided the stories of withdrawal were exaggerated and that I was too smart to overdose. For an addict, the ability to buy a gram of heroin for $50 was worth the risk, especially since OxyContin prices were close to $80 per pill — an amount that would last a fraction of the time a gram of heroin would.

I couldn’t have been more wrong. After becoming addicted to heroin, I struggled with countless withdrawals and a couple of overdoses. When I was withdrawing, I felt like I was dying, and participated in extremely dangerous behaviors as I became willing to do almost anything to get high and stop the pain.

I was lucky not to be one of the more than 115 who die from opiate withdrawals every day in America. I wouldn’t wish heroin addiction or withdrawal on anybody.

You cannot die from heroin withdrawal, but complications stemming from heroin detox can result in serious bodily injury and even death. Heroin relapses after withdrawal and detox are incredibly fatal.

Detoxification Dangers

It is a common misconception that alcohol withdrawals are the only drug detoxification that can result in death. Quitting alcohol cold-turkey can result in delirium tremens and seizures, which notably cause heart failure, other severe illnesses, and death.

Withdrawal from other drugs can be just as dangerous. Part of the reason why it is difficult to determine the death-rate of heroin withdrawal is due to it being illegal, and thus, more difficult to track and report detoxification problems. Heroin and other opiate withdrawal symptoms are severe and extremely uncomfortable. They include:

  • Increased muscle pain
  • Muscle fatigue
  • General fatigue
  • Cramping in the digestive tract
  • Intense dehydration
  • Diarrhea
  • Nausea and vomiting

The detox process is painful, and there is almost no way to circumvent the withdrawal period. Detox facilities can do their best to help make someone as comfortable as possible during the process.

There are instances of death in which detox facilities have used controversial methods to detox people off of heroin. In 2012, the New York City Department of Health and the CDC concluded that a recovery center’s use of AAROD (anesthesia-assisted rapid opiate detoxification) resulted in the hospitalization of three patients, and the death of one of those three.

While the actual withdrawal from heroin won’t result in death, complications from the symptoms of withdrawal can result in death. Addiction researchers in Australia have demonstrated that untreated vomiting and diarrhea from heroin withdrawal can lead to severe dehydration. In severe cases, dehydration can result in heart failure and death.

Heroin Addiction – A Deadly Cycle

In a recent article, The Atlantic tells the story of a woman addicted to heroin who chooses not to seek treatment for heroin addiction anymore because various doctors “have dismissed her. They tell her she’s choosing her ‘lifestyle.’” Many addicts can relate to the stigmatization that drug abusers and addicts choose to live this way.

The myth that heroin users choose to live this way is entirely false. It’s why many people hooked on opiates of all kinds describe their addiction as a constant battle to “feel normal” and to “get well.” Once someone is addicted to heroin, they are often using just not to feel the pain of withdrawal anymore.

The cycle of “getting well” to avoid heroin withdrawal is viscous enough. Even worse, though, is the stigma that comes along with heroin. The stigma that addicts choose this lifestyle deters addicts from seeking help and treatment.

Many heroin addicts choose to continue to quit cold-turkey or with the use of Suboxone. Both of these options have high relapse rates. In addition to the high relapse rate, Suboxone is controversial for capitalizing on addicts’ suffering and for replacing one addiction with another that is equally difficult to quit.

Heroin withdrawal is more deadly than other substances because of the extreme risks associated with it. When someone stops using heroin for a period of time, the body’s tolerance of the drug decreases as well. If he or she relapses, the user often begins using with the same amount as before.

When this perfect storm of relapse, decreased tolerance, and the same dose as before collide, a dangerous situation often becomes deadly.

Withdrawal from heroin is about more than just not using heroin for a couple of weeks. The symptoms are not only painful but can result in severe medical emergencies. The risk of relapse makes what happens after withdrawal most important.

The safest way to withdraw from heroin is under medical supervision and support. During and immediately after the withdrawal process, therapies and relapse-prevention plans are necessary to ensure you never have to withdrawal and risk relapse and overdose again.

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