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Heroin Half-Life: How Long Does it Stay in your System?

Heroin is one of the most commonly used illicit drugs in the United States. After marijuana, it may be the easiest illegal drug to find. When you take a drug like heroin, it enters your body until you can process it, break it down, and eliminate it. There are four timelines to consider when you’re thinking about how long it will last. 

How long will it take to feel the effects, how long will the effects last, how long can it be found in my system, and how long does dependence last? All of these questions are related, but the answers may be different. The length of time heroin lasts in your system has to do with half-life. What is heroin’s half-life, and how does it affect these timelines?

What Is Heroin’s Half-Life?

Half-life is a term that’s used in both chemistry and nuclear physics, but the second one isn’t as relevant to the average person. When it comes to substances like heroin, the drug’s half-life is the amount of time it takes for it to be reduced to half of its original concentration in your body. Half-life is often used to measure excretion rates, or how fast your body eliminates a drug. It’s also useful in understanding when a drug might start becoming less effective and when it might be safe to administer the next dose. 

By the time a drug reaches its half-life, it won’t have as profound an effect on you as it did when you first took it. Heroin is an opioid, which is a class of drugs that binds to opioid receptors all over the body. Opioid receptors are designed to bind with endorphins, which moderate your response to pain. Opioids can also interact with rewarding chemicals in your brain like dopamine, which can make you feel happy, euphoric, and comfortable. Altogether, opioids like heroin can cause sedation, relaxation, pain relief, elation, and physical and psychological euphoria. However, as heroin is eliminated, its effects start to dwindle. 

Heroin has a relatively short half-life, only lasting up to 30 minutes before being reduced to half of its original concentration. But anyone who uses heroin knows that you can feel the effects for hours, so how can its half-life be so short? 

How Is Heroin Processed?

Heroin is a unique opioid in that it often lasts longer than other opioids. This is partly because it has an active metabolite, which is a chemical that is made when a drug is broken down that also affects your brain and body. That active metabolite is morphine. Morphine is a naturally occurring opiate that you can find in opium poppy plants along with codeine. It has been used in medicine since the 19th century, and it’s still used to treat pain today. Another name for heroin is diacetylmorphine, which means two-acetyl-morphine. 

If you look at the chemical structure of heroin, it’s essentially morphine with two acetyl parts added to it. As heroin is broken down in the body, these two parts are knocked off first, leaving morphine behind. Morphine can also bind to your opioid receptors, and it lasts a lot longer. Morphine’s half-life can be as long as two to three hours. Since morphine lasts longer, you’ll continue to feel the drug’s effects after you take heroin, until the morphine wears off. 

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How Long Does It Take to Feel Heroin’s Effects?

You may start to feel heroin’s effects at different times depending on the way you take the drug. Heroin can be taken in several ways, but it’s usually injected intravenously or smoked. Intravenous injection is the fastest way to start feeling the effects since it introduces 100% of the drug directly into your bloodstream. You may start to feel the effects within minutes of the injections. Smoking or snorting the drug may mean waiting a little bit longer to feel the effects. 

How Long Do You Feel the Effects?

Since heroin converts to an active metabolite after you take the drug, you may feel the effects for a few hours. However, even though you’ll feel sedated, relaxed, lightheaded, nauseous, and other effects for up to five hours, the intense euphoric effects of the drug are relatively short-lived. Heroin euphoria may last between 45 seconds and a few minutes. After that, you may still feel some pleasurable effects, but the most intense euphoria will wear off. Euphoria may also give way to uncomfortable side effects like itchiness, drowsiness, constipation, disorientation, and nausea. 

This often encourages repeated use to chase that initial feeling. Chasing that euphoric high is called “chasing the dragon,” and it can lead to dependence and addiction. 

How Long Is Heroin Detectable in Your System?

The question of how long heroin will be detectable in your system is very different from the length of time it takes for the drug’s effects to wear off. Heroin can be found in your body through several different kinds of drug tests. The length of time heroin can be found in your body will depend on the specific kind of drug test you receive. There are several reasons you may need to go through a drug test. If you live in a sober living community, you might have to go through a test periodically in order to stay there. Some employers and landlords may require drug testing as well. The most common kind of drug test you’ll encounter is a urine test. These are usually performed for employers that are seeking to hire drug-free employees. 

If you are taking any prescriptions like opioids or benzodiazepines, you can disclose those to the medical professionals that administer the test so they can rule them out when looking for illicit drugs. You may also want to avoid drinking or legal drug use in the days leading up to the test. Heroin is processed and excreted through your urine for days after you take it. It can be found in your urine for up to three days after it’s consumed. Drugs can also be found by testing saliva. 

It’s less invasive than other kinds of drug testing, and it may be administered in a variety of locations. Plus, salvia tests are fairly accurate. However, saliva doesn’t detect substances like heroin for as long as urine testing can. 

Heroin being bought

Heroin may only be found in saliva for 24 hours after it’s taken. A blood test is also fairly reliable, but heroin can only be detected in the blood for up to six hours after it’s administered. Blood may be tested in specific circumstances, especially during an investigation. Since heroin can only be detected in your blood for a limited amount of time, it may be useful in establishing a specific timeline. If you’re arrested under the suspicion of driving under the influence, your blood may be tested to confirm current intoxication. 

The testing method that produces positive results after the longest period of time is hair testing. Drugs can make their way out of your system in a variety of ways. Though urine is the primary means of escape for heroin and its metabolites, it can be found exiting hair follicles, too. In fact, heroin can be detected in your hair for up to 90 days. This method of drug testing is controversial because testing is usually intended to uncover current drug use. However, you could go through a full round of addiction treatment for three months and still test positive in a hair follicle test. Still, urine is the most common type of drug testing and you’re much less likely to have to deal with a hair test.

How Long Does Heroin Dependence Last?

If you’ve become chemically dependent on heroin, you’ll likely go through some uncomfortable symptoms when you try to quit using. Heroin dependence happens after a period of consistent use. Your brain adapts to the presence of heroin by adjusting its own natural chemical balance to include heroin. When you stop using, you’ll experience uncomfortable withdrawal symptoms. Heroin withdrawal can be very uncomfortable, though it’s not usually life-threatening. However, the uncomfortable symptoms can make it so that getting through withdrawal successfully is very difficult. 

Detox is the process of getting through this phase, but the word detoxification can be misleading. Heroin withdrawal symptoms will continue long after the drug reaches its half-life and the majority of the drug leaves your system. You may stop feeling heroin’s effects after a few hours, but you can feel withdrawal symptoms for days. During withdrawal, your brain is working to readjust to life without heroin. You may experience nausea, vomiting, sweating, and other flu-like symptoms. 

Along with these withdrawal symptoms, you may experience powerful cravings to use the drug again. The length of time that you experience withdrawal symptoms and the time before you experience your first withdrawal symptoms can vary based on several factors. The length of time you used heroin, the amount you were used to, and the size of your last dose can all influence your withdrawal experience. Heroin detox can usually last between five to 10 days. But your symptoms will likely peak within three days and symptoms will dissipate from there.

Sources

Berkowitz, B. A. (1976). The relationship of pharmacokinetics to pharmacological activity: Morphine, methadone and naloxone. Retrieved February 12, 2021 from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/13957/

National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2019, November). Heroin. Retrieved from https://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/drugfacts/heroin

National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2019, November). 8: Definition of dependence. Retrieved from https://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/teaching-packets/neurobiology-drug-addiction/section-iii-action-heroin-morphine/8-definition-dependence

National Institute on Drug Abuse. (n.d.). Opioids. Retrieved from https://www.drugabuse.gov/drugs-abuse/opioids

National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2018, January). Types of Treatment Programs. Retrieved from https://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/principles-drug-addiction-treatment-research-based-guide-third-edition/drug-addiction-treatment-in-united-states/types-treatment-programs

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