How Long Does Heroin Stay in Your System?
Heroin is a drug that does not last long in the body, being quickly metabolized or broken down into metabolites and byproducts. Within an hour or less heroin may already be out of a person’s system, but the metabolites can persist for a day or more. Exactly how long they stay in the body depends on individual factors such as past use of the drug and the amount taken. This means that drug tests can detect the evidence of heroin and can be effective between several hours and three days after a person’s last drug use.
Heroin is a highly addictive, illegal drug that can quickly lead to dependence and also cause fatal overdose. The current opioid crisis in the U.S. involves misuse of both prescription opioid painkillers and illicit heroin. These drugs are very similar to each other, and as access to the prescriptions has become increasingly restricted, people dependent on them have turned to heroin for a high or to avoid withdrawal. Understanding how long heroin stays in the body is important, because misjudging the duration of its presence can lead to overdose.
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.
How Heroin Acts in the Body
Heroin is an opioid drug derived from morphine, a natural substance. Morphine has been used for many years as a pain reliever and for other medicinal and recreational purposes. What many people don’t realize is that heroin itself is not active in the brain, producing the sense of euphoria and pain relief characteristic of the drug. It is actually morphine.
Heroin doesn’t last very long in the body. It is quickly metabolized into morphine and similar substances. It is the morphine that acts in the brain, binding to opioid receptors and producing a rush of pleasure, drowsiness, and relaxation and slowing the heart rate, pulse, and breathing. The reason heroin is more potent and has a greater effect than morphine alone is due to how quickly it gets morphine to the brain. Heroin can cross the barrier into the brain much more quickly than morphine, but once there it rapidly breaks down into morphine.
It is because of this mechanism that heroin’s effects are felt so quickly and one reason the drug is extremely habit-forming. It is more addictive than morphine, though they are essentially the same substance. How quickly the effects are felt depends on the dose and method of delivery. When heroin is smoked or injected it may take just five to 20 seconds to feel the rush of euphoria. When heroin is snorted it may take a little longer, up to two minutes. The intense high doesn’t last very long as heroin breaks down rapidly, but the general effects are usually felt for a few hours.
How the Body Breaks Down Heroin
Heroin is rapidly metabolized, or broken down, in the body. It has a half-life of just a few minutes. This means it takes two to six minutes for half of the heroin taken in to be broken down into metabolites, including morphine and a variation of morphine known as 6-acetylmorphine. After another few minutes, another half of what is left is metabolized, and so on. The total amount of time heroin stays in the body depends on the amount taken.
The metabolites of heroin last much longer in the body and can be detected for a day or more after the use of the drug. Morphine and 6-acetylmorphine have half-lives of one to seven hours and six to 30 minutes, respectively. It takes much longer for the body to clear out the metabolites, which explains why, although heroin is quickly degraded, the effects of the drug last for several hours.
Testing for Heroin in the Body
Drug tests for heroin usually detect its metabolites, not heroin itself, because the actual drug clears the body so quickly. The metabolites last much longer and can be detected in the body by drug testing. Most tests use urine samples to look for the compounds, and how long after use of heroin that the metabolites can be detected depends on how much was taken, how long a person has been misusing the drug, and the sensitivity of the test. Drug test kits that use urine samples can detect heroin metabolites for one to three days after the last drug use.
Heroin, like other opioid drugs, can cause a fatal overdose. The depressant effects of the drug, which cause heart rate, brain activity, and breathing to slow, can be intense enough to cause a person to stop breathing and die. The greater the amount of the drug taken, the more likely a person is to have an overdose. Someone who has little or no tolerance to opioids is also at risk for an overdose.
Overdosing on heroin can be an easy mistake to make, especially for someone inexperienced at using the drug. Because the initial, intense effects wear off rather quickly, a person may be tempted to take another dose while there is still heroin or morphine in their system. If the body has not had a chance to clear heroin or its metabolites out, a second dose can be enough to trigger an overdose.
Duration of Detox from Heroin
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:
- Anxiety and agitation
- Runny nose
- Muscle aches
- Abdominal cramps and diarrhea
- Dilated pupils
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.
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Treatment Beyond 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.