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Opioid Abuse is Dangerous, But Heroin Withdrawal Can Kill You Too

Medically Reviewed By: Benjamin Caleb Williams RN, BA, CEN

Written By: Gary Bowers

Article Updated: 09/14/2020

Number of References: 3 Sources

People don’t always associate heroin withdrawal with death, but it is possible. Heroin is a powerful drug that quickly disrupts normal bodily functions - over time the body and brain will work less and less on their own - functions that we all take for granted no longer work without heroin. For someone whose body has become adapted to heroin, stopping the use of the drug sends the body into complete disarray. When this happens the body and brain begin to repair themselves but things don’t work as they used to for a time, and the body responds with a host of symptoms, some of which can be deadly if not treated properly.

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Some of The Dangers of Heroin Abuse

Heroin is a potent opiate, derived from morphine which is a naturally occurring substance found in certain poppy plants. Although it is derived from morphine, heroin can be thought of as a hyper strong version that enters the body and brain much more rapidly. Due to the strength and quickness with which heroin affects the body and brain, tolerance will develop very quickly. Continued use once tolerance develops will lead to physical dependence, and this is where heroin withdrawal will emerge. When someone is dependent and they stop using heroin, their body and mind will descend into chaos until normal balance can be restored.

-Digestive System

Opioid painkillers have a strong effect on the gastrointestinal tract. They naturally numb nerves in the body and can reduce intestinal function, sometimes significantly. Though rarely noticed, going to the bathroom, coughing, sneezing, and any other natural reaction is significantly depressed. This is why people tend to feel that they never get sick when they are regularly using opioids.

NBS, or narcotic bowel syndrome, is extremely common among opioid users and heroin addicts alike. Opioid use, especially heroin, causes dysfunction and blockage of the intestines and colon and can be anywhere from uncomfortable to life-threatening.


Opioids cause a rush of several different types of neurotransmitters in the brain. The most significant type is the constant rush of dopamine. Dopamine is a chemical associated with ‘reward.’ This means if you complete an important task, score a hot date, or your favorite team wins a game, then dopamine naturally flushes the brain.

When dopamine is increased to the artificially high levels that heroin use produces, the normal sensations of pleasure are unable to be properly felt. This means it becomes harder and harder to become satisfied in life. Dopamine is also associated with pleasure, motivation, and feelings of reward. This is why it is hard for those withdrawing from heroin to feel joy out of life.


Certain opioid drugs can take a significant toll on the liver, although this is mainly due to other drugs found alongside opioids in things like Percocet. The liver is responsible for clearing toxins from the body. When the liver is exposed to certain drugs like acetaminophen or impurities that are injected when using heroin, over and over again it creates great stress.

If using opioids intravenously, then the risk for liver dysfunction is significantly increased. Hepatitis C, HIV, and cirrhosis of the liver are extremely common among IV drug users. Liver dysfunction is also common among people who use opioid drugs that contain acetaminophen. Acetaminophen is extremely toxic to the liver especially when it is used in high doses.


When too many opioids are consumed, it suppresses the part of the brain that is responsible for natural breathing. Breathing becomes extremely shallow and can even stop altogether. Someone will often be semi-conscious or unconscious by this point, as the drug depresses many other functions alongside breathing. Oftentimes in the case of heroin overdoses, someone will simply “nod off” and they stop breathing in their sleep, never to wake up.

Can Heroin Withdrawal Kill You?

The short answer: yes, but this is very rare. While heroin withdrawal itself won’t kill someone, it can produce complications that may be fatal. Medical support from a professional heroin detox center can help reduce the risk of complications and turn the painful and potentially deadly experience of heroin withdrawal into a foundation for recovery. Research conducted by the Society for the Study of Addiction uncovered a number of deaths resulting from heroin withdrawal.

How can it kill you? The answer lies within the withdrawal signs and symptoms:

-Withdrawal Warning Signs

Withdrawal symptoms among heroin users are typically very uniform, however, they will vary in intensity. Common but not necessarily deadly symptoms are insomnia and muscle/joint pain. The most dangerous symptoms are:

  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Profuse Sweating
  • Increased Heart Rate & Blood Pressure
  • Blood Sugar Changes

On the surface, those may seem like innocuous symptoms, and for someone who isn’t going through heroin withdrawal they may be, but for someone in the midst of heroin detox – when their entire body is under duress – these symptoms can be dangerous. These symptoms combined with a preexisting health condition such as heart disease or diabetes can lead to a variety of health complications, sometimes even death.

The Role of Heroin Detox

The safest way to go through heroin withdrawal is by going to a detox center. Medical observation, medications, and treatment can help alleviate symptoms of opiate withdrawal and prevent deadly consequences. In addition to the physical symptoms, someone will find relief from the psychological stresses of heroin withdrawal as well. Enter a zipcode below to find a nearby heroin detox center.

Heroin Withdrawal Resources

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