FACT CHECK: How long does heroin stay in a person’s system?

Lisa Juris
May 30, 2019

Fact check: How long does heroin stay in a person’s system?

The question of how long heroin stays in a person’s system has a much wider application than simply landing a job that requires a clean drug test or staying on the Probation Officer’s good side.  Such havoc is wreaked upon the body and brain of a heroin user that the drug’s effects can have lasting consequences — for weeks or months after the last dose.

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The half life of heroin, which is the amount of time it takes for the body to eliminate half of the drug, is only around 30 minutes, though both the feelings of euphoria and withdrawal may be felt by a user after the drug has been metabolized. Heroin use is detected through urinalysis and blood, saliva, and hair follicle testing.

  • An immunoassay is the most commonly used form of urinalysis due to its ease of use, rapid results, and cost-effectiveness. The immunoassay does not detect the level of heroin in a person’s body.  Rather, it detects the body’s ability to form antigen-antibody complexes and will pick up usage markers for 3-4 days.
  • Saliva testing has a limited window of only 48 hours, can be done quickly and affordably, and unlike a urinalysis, requires no privacy precautions.
  • While a blood test may intuitively seem like the most accurate method for detecting heroin in a user’s system, it has the shortest window of viability and will not pick up the drug in as little as 12 hours after use. It is useful, however, for determining if a person is under the influence at the time of the test and still has the drug in his or her system.
  • The most effective method for spotting drug use is hair testing. It is more expensive than other tests but is non-invasive and can detect many types of drugs and their metabolites for up to 3 months.

Heroin, originally developed in the late 1800’s as a cough suppressant, is derived from the opium poppy, placing it in class of drugs called opiates.  Opiates have several beneficial properties and have been used for centuries for their unmatched analgesic effectiveness.  The positive reinforcing qualities of opiates (pain relief and euphoria), particularly heroin, create the potential for chemical dependence or addiction.  In fact, more than half of the people who try heroin even one time become dependent on the drug.

The long-term consequences of heroin use go far beyond the implications of an impending drug test.  Heroin is extremely addictive, and repeated use changes the physiology of the brain, creating severe hormonal imbalances.  Heroin also causes progressive tolerance, a phenomenon that occurs when more and more of the drug is required to achieve the same effects. Over time, the body adapts to the presence of an increasing level of the drug, and withdrawal symptoms occur when its use is suddenly reduced.  It is this cycle that keeps a user locked in addiction’s grip.

Heroin withdrawal, while not as physically dangerous as alcohol withdrawal, is a painful and mentally taxing process, and it is the temporary discomfort that often reignites a relapse.  The physical symptoms of withdrawal do subside in a relatively short period of time, giving the user the opportunity to address the underlying triggers for drug use and begin the healing process.

Participating in a recovery program that includes detoxification, medication management, and intensive, clinically proven methods of treatment is often the first step in breaking the cycle of addiction.

Contact the Avenues drug rehab center closest to you today, and one of our caring program Ambassadors will walk you through a judgment-free evaluation.

Lisa is a Certified Recovery Specialist and Case Manager/Alumni Coordinator in our Bucks County location. Prior to joining Avenues, Lisa enjoyed a long career as a Corporate Event Planner and graphic designer. Her battle with alcoholism led her into treatment in 2014 where she surrendered to the process and was inspired to help others achieve their recovery goals. In 2018 she returned to school at Purdue University for a degree in psychology with a concentration in addiction counseling. Lisa runs a weekly art and recreation group at Avenues where she brings her passion for art, writing, acting, and singing to her clients to nudge them out of their comfort zone and help them experience fun in sobriety. She can be counted on for daily smiles, hugs, encouragement, notebooks, and safety pins. Lisa has a wonderfully supportive husband, 3 beautiful grown daughters, a few pets, and in her spare time, is a master level cake decorator.

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