While this drug actually has a history of legitimate medical use, lawmakers and doctors today acknowledge that heroin no longer has any medicinal purpose. In fact, it has no beneficial effects on the body at all. Instead, it can cause many devastating and irreversible damages.
If you or someone that you know is abusing this drug, understanding how it’s metabolized in the body is important for a couple of reasons.
It may give you a better idea of whether or not it’ll show up on a drug test. It can also be helpful in estimating just when you can expect to start going through heroin withdrawal during your detoxification.
And finally, it may help you make a more informed decision on the importance of recovery.
When injected into the bloodstream, heroin has a half-life of about 3 minutes. That means that in around 3 minutes, the body will break down about 50% of the initial dose. It has one of the shortest half-lives out of all the other opiates. This is probably why the effects start to kick in almost immediately.
The peak effects of this drug will usually last anywhere from 1 to 2 hours and will begin to subside within 3 to 5 hours. The length of the effects will be dependent on the dose. Heroin is cleared from your system quite efficiently in comparison to other opiates. Most other opiates will take anywhere from 3 to 7 days to completely leave your system.
In general, heroin should be cleared completely from your bloodstream within 8 hours or so. While heroin is easy to remove from your system, it gets broken down into compounds known as metabolites. These metabolites tend to have a much longer half-life, and will often stay in your body for a much longer period of time.
Much like other drugs like cocaine and meth, the half-life and effects of heroin will vary depending on several factors. For example, it will depend on the purity of the drug, the amount that is taken, and its strength. Out of all those factors, the quality of the drug is the most important one.
The higher the quality, the purer it tends to be. Typical street heroin contains a slew of additional compounds to make it more addictive, powerful, and profitable for dealers. Higher-quality versions of the drug tend to be purer – but that can lead to a life-threatening overdose just as easily too.
Other than the drug itself, each individual will also process and metabolize heroin differently based on a number of factors. These factors include the individual's:
Since the biological half-life of heroin is quite short (only a few minutes), it’s difficult to detect this parent drug on its own.
If tests did only look for traces of heroin, they’d come up negative all the time unless they’re administered immediately after using. And that doesn’t happen very often.
Due to this reason, most heroin drug tests actually look for heroin metabolites – what the drug is broken down into by the body.
Heroin breaks down into codeine and morphine. Codeine will further break down into another form of morphine. Due to this reason, most drug tests look for codeine, morphine, and 6-acetyl-morphine.
Blood tests are not usually used, as heroin is removed from the bloodstream in as little as 3 minutes. Out of all the heroin drug tests available, urine testing is the most popular.
NIDA approved drug tests mainly look for 5 different drugs. Heroin is one of them. These tests are often found in the workplace and used by employers. They’re difficult to beat and will detect a wide range of drugs. When testing for heroin, these tests look for the presence of codeine, morphine, and 6-acetyl-morphine.
Heroin is detectable in urine for around 1 to 4 days. The urine will only test positive for about a day for first-time users. The longer detection period of 4 days is for chronic users who have used heroin for a much longer duration of time accumulated the opioid in fatty tissues.
The cut-off concentration for heroin metabolites is 2,000ng/ml. This is the concentration level recommended by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. This cut-off level is considered to be pretty high; however, it is necessary to prevent false positives.
One benefit of the urine test is that it’s relatively accurate and can be tested using at-home kits. Worried parents and spouses of potential drug users, then, may find this to be the best way to test their loved ones for heroin abuse.
Saliva testing, or oral fluid testing, is actually quite new. It's quick and easy, as all that's needed is a small swab of the inside of the mouth. This makes it much more accessible, noninvasive, and easier to use than most other testing methods.
However, the problem is saliva testing doesn’t have the largest of windows for detection. One study found that while smoked heroin could be detected in the saliva for up to 24 hours, injected heroin was outside of detection within just an hour.
And this makes sense – if a drug is smoked, there’s bound to be more of it left over in the saliva. However, for it to be a truly valid method of testing that’s better than others, you should make sure heroin has been used orally rather than intravenously.
Another common test used to detect heroin is hair testing. To screen for heroin in a hair sample, the most recent 1.5 inches of growth is needed. Testers usually take a small snip of hair from patients (around the width of a shoelace tip). They usually have to be collected following proper protocols (i.e., you can’t just bring in hair from a brush).
Testing is not as instantaneous as urine testing. The portion of the hair containing the drug usually takes about a week to grow above the scalp. The sample also usually needs to be analyzed at professional laboratories too.
And as a result, testing can end up being quite expensive. That’s why most businesses tend to opt for other testing methods instead.
However, the extra price isn’t for nothing. Hair testing for the presence of heroin can actually detect the drug as far back as 90 days. A hair test can determine the amount of heroin that was used, as well as when it was used. Determining the exact day of use is usually outside the scope of the test.
Another benefit is that most hair tests aren’t as easily corruptible as other testing methods. Trying to flush your system with detox pills or juices typically won’t work when it comes to a hair test.
And for that reason, high profile firms may rely on this heroin testing method rather than urine or saliva testing.
Since heroin has such a rapid breakdown in the body, the majority of tests used today look for traces of this drug’s metabolites – namely codeine and morphine. The problem, however, comes from the fact that many other drugs contain these compounds as well.
According to MedlinePlus, just a few of the non-brand names that contain either of these compounds include:
There are literally hundreds of other off-brand medications that contain these compounds and countless more that may break down into codeine or morphine just like heroin.
And unfortunately, this can cause tests to falsely detect the presence of heroin. This can have some devastating consequences for people who haven’t used this dangerous drug at all.
Some people may end up losing their jobs while others don’t get hired when they should have. Some people may get kicked out of rehab programs or be booted from sober living communities. And others still may end up getting in trouble with the law or even losing custody of their own children.
And while most tests are more likely to give a fair indication of whether or not someone has been using, it’s helpful to know just what types of things can skew your results unfairly.
In addition to the many other prescription pain relievers that can cause a false positive on a heroin drug test, there are many other substances that can also falsely indicate recent opioid usage.
And one of the scariest things about this is the fact that you may actually be using some of these drugs on a daily basis. As we mentioned before, most heroin drug testing guidelines are set so that these medications won’t impact the results. That goes double for if you disclose taking these drugs before the test.
But even still, you might be surprised by what kinds of medications can cause some tests to falsely indicate that you’ve been using heroin.
Some common substances that can lead to this kind of false positive include:
Certain types of antibiotics called quinones have also been known to lead to false positives when it comes to testing for opioids. The molecules of these compounds can end up cross-reacting with the drug tests, leading to what looks like a positive result.
There are 9 different quinolones that can cross-react with heroin drug tests. The most common quinolones that can lead to false positives are levofloxacin, perfloxacin, oflaxacin, and moxifloxacin.
And finally, some medical conditions on their own can also result in false positives as well. People who, for instance, have a kidney infection, kidney disease, diabetes, or liver disease may also test positive for heroin when, in fact, they’ve never even touched the drug.
If you’re like most people, you’ve probably heard the old rumor that eating poppy seeds before a drug test can end up causing you to fail. After all, who hasn’t seen the classic Seinfeld episode where Elaine tests positive for opium because of her morning bagels?
And while you might be tempted to believe that this urban myth just makes for good T.V. and nothing more, the fact is that there’s definitely some truth to this iconic episode. That’s right – eating poppy seeds can trigger a false positive.
As Snopes reports, there have actually been quite a few wrongful termination cases brought about thanks to the misleading nature of the poppy seed.
One Florida woman was awarded almost $1 million from a wrongful discrimination lawsuit on the grounds of a bungled drug test. The culprit – poppy seeds.
A New Jersey prison guard was fired from his position thanks to a poppy-fueled false positive and had to wait seven months before being reinstated.
And one woman even had her daughter taken away from her by the county’s child welfare agency due to a failed drug test thanks to poppy seeds. The child was returned 5 days later, and the hospital and agency have paid out a settlement of $143,500. But still, the incident was terrifying for both the mother and the child.
As little as just one poppy seed bagel can be enough to produce an effect on some tests. That’s why federal guidelines for such tests have increased the cut-off level for positives to 2,000 ng/mL – a level which most morning meals won’t end up triggering.
However, these standards are not in place everywhere. And that means it’s important to always disclose any medications you may be taking as well as any meals that may trigger the testing.
Once heroin enters your system, it is quickly broken down into codeine, morphine, and 6-acetyl-morphine. Each substance is an opiate in and of itself, which means that it will still have a lingering effect on your body.
Some of these metabolites are also quite addictive. The long half-life of these metabolites makes it easy for your body to develop dependence. Soon, your body will start craving these drugs. On top of that, the neurotransmitter levels in your body will be thrown out of whack as well.
If you think that codeine sounds familiar, it's probably because you’ve heard about it in the media. While codeine can be prescribed as a prescription opiate used to treat mild to moderate pain, it’s also often used illicitly to create a special kind of drink. The drink is made by mixing sprite and hard candies, like Jolly Ranchers.
It’s more popularly known as:
This concoction was popularized by rappers, like Lil Wayne, 2 Chains, and Lil' Boosie. Fortunately, many of these rappers have sworn off lean, and have decided to get sober. They’ve made their journey to sobriety a public spectacle to draw attention to the dangers of addictions.
The codeine in the drink makes it quite dangerous. Just like other opioids, taking too much codeine can cause respiratory distress and heart failure. It can also cause an array of unsavory symptoms, like dizziness, impaired vision, and nausea.
And when this drink is combined with other drugs like alcohol, these dangerous symptoms can become even more life-threatening.
In comparison to heroin, codeine has a much longer half-life of about 3 hours. The drug reaches peak levels in about 30 minutes and will take anywhere from 1 to 3 days to be cleared from your body. The higher the dosage, the longer it takes.
Of course, different tests will be able to detect codeine for a different amount of time. Here’s a quick breakdown to give you a better idea.
Morphine is a powerful opioid, just like codeine. It’s derived from the poppy plant and is actually the root compound that most other opioids like Fentanyl and heroin are derived from.
And in fact, heroin was developed as a safer, less-addictive pain reliever compared to morphine. But as with many drugs with a legitimate medical history, doctors didn't realize how dangerous the drug was until long after people became addicted.
In any case, morphine is one of the main metabolites that heroin actually breaks down into soon after it enters the bloodstream.
Morphine has a half-life that's between 1.5 to 7 hours. As a result, it can take several days for morphine to be completely cleared from your system. That being said, the range of detectability depends on the testing method.
As with any other drug, how long morphine remains detectable depends on the amount of heroin taken and the duration of abuse.
While you’ve more than likely heard of morphine before, you’re probably wondering what the heck is 6-acetyl-morphine?
In the simplest terms, this compound is an intermediary between heroin and morphine. It usually sticks around in your blood for a short amount of time after using (just a few hours) and consequently, is hard to detect. In fact, some studies have found that 6-acetyl-morphine (or 6 -AM) has a half-life of only 6-25 minutes.
However, unlike codeine and morphine, finding 6-acetyl-morphine in a drug test points specifically to heroin use. No case of mistaken identity here. That’s because this compound appears exclusively when heroin breaks down into morphine.
It is believed that the euphoric effects that heroin has on the body are due to 6-acetyl-morphine. This metabolite attaches to opioid receptors in the body to create a whole range of effects including euphoria, tranquility, and sedation.
However, others believe that this rush of euphoria is actually caused by the incredibly fast onset of the drug’s effects which, depending on the route of administration, can be within seconds of using. In fact, some studies have shown that equivalent doses and onset times of both heroin and morphine (which doesn’t create 6-AM) are equally desirable to former addicts.
In any case, the sense of euphoria associated with heroin – no matter what causes it – is largely responsible for the addictive nature of heroin.
Due to the exceptionally fast breakdown of this metabolite, it can be quite hard to detect. However, below are the general detection windows for this compound using various testing methods.
The exact duration of a heroin high differs from person to person. Just as there are a variety of factors that affect how quickly this drug is metabolized, these same factors come into play when it comes to how long the effects will last.
That being said, most heroin highs will end up lasting for several hours at a time – around 3 to 5 hours. It’s worth mentioning, however, that the full duration of this time isn’t just pure euphoria.
Instead, a heroin high goes through a few phases, each of which has their own side effects and symptoms associated with them. Most will follow three distinct phases: rush, sedation, and withdrawal.
Rush – The rush of using heroin is what keeps most users coming back to this dangerous drug. According to NIDA, this phase is characterized by a warm flushing of the skin, dry mouth, a heavy feeling in the extremities, and an intense wave of euphoria.
This rush will usually come on within a few seconds to several minutes (depending on the route of administration). And once it does, it typically lasts for around half an hour to an hour.
Sedation – After the rush from heroin has subsided, the next phase is when the sedation kicks in. Like other opioids, this drug stimulated the opioid receptors to an enormous degree. And that can end up impeding your body’s natural systems and severely slowing you down.
During this phase, you may drift in and out of consciousness – what many users call “going on the nod.” You’ll be unable to perform even the simplest of tasks, carry on conversations, or make good decisions. This phase can last anywhere from 2 to 4 hours.
Withdrawal – Once the sedation has subsided, you’ll start coming down from your high quite quickly. You may feel depressed, irritated, unmotivated, and exhausted for quite some time after using.
Most users will begin feeling what are known as withdrawals 6 to 12 hours after using. These unpleasant symptoms develop as a result of your body being physically dependent on the drug. And when it comes to heroin, you can become dependent in just a few uses.
Like any other drug, getting high on heroin comes with the potentially fatal risk of overdose. And whether you’re here because you’re worried about a loved one or have developed an abuse problem yourself, knowing the signs of an overdose can end up saving a life.
The signs and symptoms below (provided by MedlinePlus) are some of the major ones you should look out for. If you suspect an overdose, contact medical help immediately. Every second you wait can reduce their chances of survival.
Airways & Lungs
Eyes, Ears, Nose, & Throat
Heart & Blood
Stomach & Intestines
Heroin can be administered in several different ways. It can be injected into the bloodstream using a needle, smoked, snorted or consumed orally. Each administration method will deliver the heroin to the brain. There, it will affect the levels of neurotransmitters that are present to create a sense of euphoria.
Different administration efforts will yield varying effects. While all methods affect the same opioid receptors, the length of time for detecting the heroin will vary. The potency of the heroin will also differ, as well as when the high from the heroin kicks in.
This difference is due in large part to what’s known as “bioavailability.” This term is used in pharmacology to describe how much of the drug is absorbed into the body’s bloodstream, and how much is filtered out. Bioavailability is an important concept when it comes to drug use because different methods of administration come with varying degrees of bioavailability.
And with higher degrees of bioavailability, the effect of the drug is stronger. Let’s take a look at some of the most common ways heroin is administered and how each has a different bioavailability.
Injecting heroin into the bloodstream is by far one of the most popular methods. This is because this method of administration will yield a more potent high. When injected, the full amount of the heroin enters the bloodstream directly, giving injection a bioavailability of 100%.
This means that the high will kick in almost immediately (usually within about 10 to 20 seconds). The high will then progress from a rush to sedation and will last anywhere from 4 to 5 hours.
If heroin is injected, its metabolites will also be in the body for a much longer period of time. There will be more morphine and 6-acetyl-morphine metabolites in the system. These metabolites can be easily detected using a variety of drug tests. Users will also test positive for a much longer period of time in comparison to those who smoke the heroin (depending on the testing method).
In short, addicts who inject heroin are more likely to fail a heroin drug test. The metabolites remain in the body for a much longer period of time. This administration method is more potent and will have a stronger effect on your body.
Added to that, injection itself is often considered to be the most dangerous form of heroin use. Hepatitis, human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), and other bloodborne pathogens can all be spread quite easily via injection. Plus, it can also cause serious bacterial infections of the skin and tissues as well.
If the heroin enters the body through inhalation, the lungs absorb the particles. This yields a quick high that lasts anywhere from 3 to 5 hours. In most cases, the high will start to kick in within 10 seconds, and the effects will peak within 1 to 2 minutes.
In contrast to injection bioavailability of 100%, researchers estimate that smoking heroin only has a bioavailability of around 44-61%. Part of this is due to the fact that in order for the drug to reach the bloodstream, it first has to go through the lungs which can filter some of the drug out.
Most addicts only reserve the purest heroin for smoking. It's not a good idea to smoke impure heroin, as the impurities can enter your lungs and cause significant respiratory damage. Added to that, these impurities can make the smoking experience particularly unpleasant too.
When heroin is snorted, users will get high within 2 minutes. Much like with injecting the drug, this method of administration delivers the heroin into the bloodstream via the intranasal tissues. The high will last 3 to 5 hours, much like with other administration methods.
Most users will snort heroin that is not pure enough to be injected or smoked. When snorted, only 16% to 50% of the heroin gets absorbed into the body. This is a much lower dosage to enter the body than if the heroin was injected. Due to this reason, it’s not a very popular method.
Similar to snorting other drugs or abusing inhalants, using heroin this way can eventually lead to severe damage of the nasal cavity as well as the mucous membranes.
Not many users will abuse heroin orally; however, it is a possible administration method.
Part of the reason is that the bioavailability of orally ingested heroin is quite low. If this method is used, only about 35% of the heroin will ever enter the body. Added to that, this method isn't that popular because it takes quite a while for the high to kick in.
In general, the only times when heroin is ingested is when it is of especially low quality.
If heroin is consumed orally, only a few metabolites will circulate in the body. This makes it much more difficult to detect the heroin through drug tests.
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When you’re addicted to heroin, your brain is fundamentally changed on a physical level.
In fact, NIDA points out that “brain imaging studies of people with addiction show physical changes in areas of the brain that are critical to judgment, decision making, learning and memory, and behavior control.”
And as a result, it can be hard to recognize whether or not you’re truly addicted to a drug. In fact, of the 6 million Americans that needed professional help for their addiction, a whopping 5.6 million couldn’t even admit to themselves that they had a problem at all.
That’s why it’s important that you know where to look to help you find out if you truly are addicted. And thankfully, there are a few tools you can use to make the process even easier.
Heroin is one of the most addictive drugs out there. You can get addicted from a single use. In addition, the withdrawal symptoms kick in much more quickly for heroin than other opiates. In fact, some users may experience withdrawal symptoms as early as 6 hours after their last fix.
With the intense high and often short-lived high that comes with this drug, many users will shoot up multiple times a day. And each time they do, they’re taking one step closer to becoming addicted.
And when you do end up becoming addicted to heroin, you have little to no chance of kicking your dependency on your own. In fact, some studies have shown that the relapse rate for this devastating drug can end up being as high as 91%.
That’s why you need professional help. Only by partnering with a professional detox and rehabilitation program will you be able to push through the unbearable withdrawals and learn effective methods of coping with cravings and maintaining sobriety.
So, if you even suspect that you’re addicted to heroin, the next step is clear: get professional help today.
If you or someone you know is addicted to heroin, it's important to seek professional help to get sober. And in fact, it’s one of the only ways to ensure you’ll be able to kick your heroin problem for good.
And here at Ashwood Recovery at Northpoint, we take great pride in being one of the absolute best facilities for helping patients take back control from heroin. Whether you’re in need of outpatient services after getting out of an inpatient program or you need an intensive outpatient treatment program tailored to meet your needs, Ashwood Recovery is the best choice in the area.
At Ashwood Recovery, we know that heroin is a devastating drug. It can put your health in jeopardy, compromise relationships with loved ones, and even sabotage your career and your life goals. But with the right help, you truly can attain sobriety.