Which is Worse, Alcohol Withdrawal or Heroin Withdrawal?

Which is Worse, Alcohol or Heroin Withdrawal?

Substance use disorder is rampant in America. Almost 15 million people in the United States struggle with alcohol use disorder. More than 140,000 Americans die a year from alcohol abuse. Additionally, in 2020 13,000 Americans died of a heroin overdose. With the disadvantages of substance abuse so apparent, why do people struggle to recover from their addictions?

Many elements contribute to the trouble people face while getting clean. The first hurdle is one of the hardest: detox. Detox is the process of riding the body from harmful substances to which they’ve become dependent. 

During this process, individuals experience uncomfortable to potentially unbearable symptoms, particularly without medical intervention. These symptoms range from mild to deadly and can be daunting for even the most determined patients.

When it comes to alcohol and heroin withdrawal, which is worse? Read on to learn about the withdrawal symptoms from both of these substances and what to do about it.

What Impact Does Heroin Have on the Body

Heroin is an opiate. It attaches to the opioid receptors in the brain to create a sedating, euphoric effect on the body. Heroin activates the reward center in the brain.

Heroin addicts chase the high that comes from the stimulation of that reward center. However, over time, they build a tolerance to the drug. This tolerance requires a higher dosage to experience the same effect.

Once heroin is no longer in someone’s system, they’ll start to feel uncomfortable. Depending on the degree of addiction, the discomfort can begin within hours of abstaining from the drug.

That discomfort, even when mild, is the first stage of heroin withdrawal.

Heroin Withdrawal Symptoms

Heroin withdrawal can be divided into short and long-term symptoms.

Long-term symptoms can continue well into someone’s recovery journey. Although uncommon, some of these symptoms can last for months.

The timeline of heroin withdrawal is typically up to three months. Below we will dive into what symptoms can be expected.

Short-Term Withdrawal Symptoms

Symptoms will begin within the first 24 hours, sometimes as quickly as an hour or two. The first three days of withdrawal are the hardest to get through. These severe symptoms will be short-lived but will increase in severity until around day three. The third day of withdrawal will typically have the most intense symptoms.

Withdrawal will start with an increase in heart rate and breathing. Blood pressure will go up, and a person may feel feverish. Feeling jittery, anxious, and generally uncomfortable during this period is expected. Sweating and goosebumps are common, as is the feeling of a “cold sweat.”

Throughout those initial first days, symptoms will get more severe. They will progress to muscle spasms, body aches, and nausea. Over time, the nausea will likely progress to vomiting and diarrhea.

Insomnia, confusion, and in rare cases, hallucination are all possible when someone withdraws from heroin. In the later stages of withdrawal, staying sober can be more challenging. Deeply uncomfortable feelings are more often what causes someone to relapse than the more acute physical withdrawal symptoms.

Remember that the extreme physical withdrawal symptoms will fade around day three for most people. 

Long-Term Withdrawal Symptoms

Long-term symptoms of heroin withdrawal can last for up to several months, but they are not nearly as severe as short-term symptoms.

These symptoms are largely mental. People may experience some depression or anxiety during the months following their initial withdrawal period. They may continue to deal with minor sleep disturbances (either insomnia or extreme fatigue, if not both).

Irritability and mood swings are common during this time.

People dealing with long-term withdrawal symptoms may struggle with concentration and short-term memory loss, as well as the loss of other executive functions.

Cravings will likely continue for several months but will get less severe over time.

Is Heroin Withdrawal Deadly?

In most cases, withdrawing from heroin is not deadly. It is an uncomfortable process but manageable. The risk comes from severe dehydration resulting from vomiting or diarrhea. It is advised that you seek medical intervention for withdrawal, but if you do not, make sure to stay hydrated and consume plenty of electrolytes.

What Impact Does Alcohol Have on the Body

Alcohol is a depressant. Its use can reduce inhibition and give a calming effect to users. Instead of impacting the opioid receptors in the brain like heroin, alcohol works on the excitatory and inhibitory neurotransmitters. Alcohol affects the entire nervous system.

In reserved amounts, alcohol is mostly harmless. However, with overconsumption, the tolerance to the drug increases, and an individual will need to consume more to get the same effect. First, you build a tolerance, and then, a dependence. This dependency unbalances the entire nervous system.

Alcohol Withdrawal Symptoms

Like heroin withdrawal, alcohol withdrawal symptoms start mild and worsen over the first few days. The severity of withdrawal symptoms varies on the severity of the alcohol addiction.

During the first six hours after the last drink, symptoms will begin. Anxiety, nausea, and jitters are common during this stage. You will feel uncomfortable but not in pain or ill.

During the first 24 hours, more serious symptoms begin. This can include vomiting, severe sweating, and gastrointestinal distress.

During the first 48 hours, more serious symptoms can begin. This includes hallucinations, severe gastrointestinal issues, and the possibility of seizures. Medical supervision is highly recommended at this stage as these symptoms are dangerous.

Between 48 and 72 hours, people may experience delirium tremens. Delirium tremens is the most fatal form of alcohol withdrawal. The symptoms include vivid hallucinations, confusion, body spasms/shaking, high blood pressure, and fever. Medical intervention with prescribed sedatives can alleviate some of these symptoms and reduce the risk of death. If you or someone you love is experiencing delirium tremens, get medical assistance immediately.

Is Alcohol Withdrawal Deadly

While it’s rare, alcohol withdrawal can be deadly. Aspiration from vomiting, seizures, and the steep increase in blood pressure can all lead to death without proper medical attention. Due to this, alcohol withdrawal is “worse” than heroin withdrawal, although neither is ideal.

Another factor that makes alcohol withdrawal “worse” is that it’s more common. The pervasive acceptance of alcohol in western society means that many people don’t understand the dangers of overconsumption until it’s too late.

How to Detox Safely

Safely detoxing from alcohol or heroin is essential. If possible, visit a medical detox facility. There, medical professionals can observe and medicate your detox when needed. Access to clinical care will make the detox process safe and more comfortable.

If you don’t have access to a detox center, make sure you have a friend nearby to support the process and who can call for medical intervention if symptoms become too severe. Having someone there as a distraction and a motivator is also helpful to keep you on track.

Make sure to have plenty of water and electrolytes to avoid dehydration. Do not hesitate to call 911 if you have a medical emergency. You will not be penalized for using drugs at a medical facility if you are going through withdrawal. The medical professionals are there to help, not to turn you over to the police.

Transitioning to a Drug and Alcohol Rehab Center

After the dangerous stages of detox are over, it’s best to start treatment to recover from your addiction.

There are many programs available to best suit your needs. Inpatient and outpatient care are great options for people recovering from drug and alcohol abuse.

That being said, an outpatient program is the most accessible option for most. The outpatient program is more affordable than inpatient, and you can stay active in your personal and professional life. Since you are housed off-site, you’ll have full access to your friends and family. 

Intensive outpatient programs and partial-hospitalization programs are incredibly effective for people in recovery. They provide intensive therapy, support from other people managing their addictions, and resources for when you transition out of the programs.

After the detox period, going to an outpatient drug addiction program makes the most sense. It eases the transition back into the “real world” and gives structure and accountability for those crucial next steps.

Detox is Scary, but Achievable

So is heroin or alcohol detox worse?

Both forms of detox are uncomfortable and even dangerous, but alcohol detox is more likely to be deadly. Someone detoxing from alcohol should seek medical attention to ensure their safety.

Detox is never easy, whether from drugs or alcohol, but a good treatment center can make all the difference. At Sunshine Care Centers, we work hard to provide a clean and secure environment. We understand that addiction looks different for everyone. We are dedicated to safely guiding patients through detox and establishing a treatment plan to strengthen and heal their lives.


Don’t wait to receive the help you deserve. 

Speak to a specialist at Sunshine Care Centers by calling 883-597-CARE or message us today! 


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