How Long Does Heroin Stay in your System?

How Long Does Heroin Stay in your System?

Heroin, or diacetylmorphine, can be difficult to test for due to its relatively short half-life.  Within ten minutes of heroin entering the body, it is broken down into the compound 6-monoacetylmorphine (6-MAM), which has approximately six times the potency of morphine.  Over the subsequent eight to twenty-four hours 6-MAM is further broken by the body into morphine.

It is important to note that while morphine of detectable levels is subsequently present in urine for up to 3 days, a conclusive positive test for heroin must detect 6-MAM within the first 24-hour window to be considered definitive.  This is due to the fact that codeine, a commonly prescribed opiate analgesic, is also metabolized into morphine.  Therefore, morphine in a urine test can indicate recent use of codeine, heroin, or morphine.

Because of the unique manner in which it is metabolized by the body, heroin itself is very infrequently detected in a laboratory or similar testing setting.  However, because heroin has the unique metabolite 6-MAM as a precursor to morphine, indications of heroin use typically persist through the first twenty-four hours.  That is not to say that the abuse of heroin cannot be detected over longer periods of time.

As will be discussed in the subsequent section, different testing methods, such as tests utilizing hair follicles, can indicate heroin use up to three months prior. In addition, many other factors may affect the length of time heroin and its subsequent metabolites linger within the body.


Factors that Determine the Persistence of Heroin in Your System

Heroin can be metabolized relatively quickly within the average human body. However, there are a number of factors that can both extend and minimize the length of time that heroin and its metabolites can be detected.  Many of the following topics are still areas of research, and as such, no one factor has been determined to significantly affect the length of time heroin remains in the human body.


Method of Consumption:

  • Snorting: Snorting heroin, or inhaling it through the nasal passages, is thought to be increasingly common among new users. Snorted heroin bypasses the liver, resulting in an increased amount of metabolites delivered into the bloodstream via the mucous membranes located in the nasal passages.  The user typically experiences a “high” within two to five minutes, which is significantly slower than smoking and intravenous use.  The increased presence of metabolites in the bloodstream, and subsequently urine, is believed to increase the chances of detection using standard methods.
  • Smoking: Heroin that is combusted and inhaled enters the blood stream through the lungs. The bioavailability of inhaled heroin is roughly one-half of that injected intravenously.  The onset of a “high” is relatively rapid and generally less than ten seconds.  Because smoked heroin bypasses initial metabolic activity in the liver and rapidly delivers metabolites into the bloodstream, it is believed to be more susceptible to standard detection methods. 
  • Injection: Heroin injected intravenously enters the bloodstream with no degradation of bioavailability. Upon entering the brain heroin is immediately hydrolyzed into 6-MAM and subsequently morphine.  Intravenous injection results in the highest and fastest concentrations of both metabolites within the bloodstream of the user.  Higher concentrations of metabolites in the bloodstream and urine are believed to increase the chances of detection and length of detection period of heroin.  These higher concentrations take longer for the body to further break down and excrete, widening the window during which positive identification of heroin use can occur.  Individuals who frequently use an intravenous method of administration are believed to have the highest detectable levels of metabolites for the longest periods of time.


Variation Among Individuals

The window within which heroin use can be detected is also thought to be influenced by individual variations such as age, weight or body-mass index (BMI), metabolism, and liver function.  It is also thought that other factors may influence these categories such as diet, exercise, hydration, and overall health. These may affect how quickly heroin is broken down and removed from the individual’s body.

  • Age: Younger users typically have a faster metabolism than older users. Since metabolic processes have a significant effect on how quickly or slowly heroin is broken down and removed from the body, variations in age are thought to play a role in the length of the detection window.  Heroin and its metabolites are believed to have a longer detection window in older users.
  • Weight or BMI: Weight or BMI in relation to the size of the dose is believed to influence how quickly or slowly heroin is cleared from the body. If a smaller user takes a larger dose, it is believed that it will take longer for their body to break down and remove heroin.  Conversely, if a large user takes a small dose, their detection window is believed to be more narrow.
  • Liver function: A healthy functioning liver will more quickly break down and clear heroin from the user’s bloodstream. Liver function plays a vital role in the metabolic breakdown and subsequent cleansing of heroin from the system.

Users who are younger, have a healthier liver, and take dosages that are relatively small in comparison to their BMI are considered to have a narrower detection window.  In addition, lifestyle differences such as eating healthy, staying well hydrated, and exercising regularly can all increase an individual’s metabolism.  Since metabolic activity greatly increases the speed with which heroin is broken down and expelled from the body, these individual variations are thought to have an impact on successful testing for heroin.


Dosage, Frequency of Use, and Purity

  • Dosage: The relative dosage of heroin used can affect how long heroin and its metabolites linger in the system. Although there are no agreed upon rules regarding dosage and length of detection, it is generally believed that higher dosages last in an individual’s system longer than lower dosages, due to inhibited metabolic activity at higher dosages.
  • Frequency of use: People that frequently use heroin are more likely to have a longer detection period than those that infrequently use heroin. This is due to a number of factors.  First among these is a higher tolerance in frequent users.  Individuals that frequently use high doses of heroin will have much higher levels of heroin metabolites in their bloodstream for longer periods of time.  Heroin dosages are generally linked to frequency of use.  High-frequency users must take higher doses over time to achieve a “high” similar to that experienced by infrequent users at smaller doses. 
  • Purity: Heroin can be sold in differing levels of purity. Although pure or “un-cut” heroin is relatively rare at a street level, it is believed that the higher the purity of heroin the more metabolites will be present in the bloodstream, and consequently the higher the chances of detection and length of the detection window.

As is evidenced by the preceding examples, detection of heroin is highly dependent upon variations between individuals and usage habits.  Although the metabolic pathway of heroin is the same for all individuals, methods of administration, the size of dosage, purity, and overall health can all affect the window within which heroin use can be detected.

It should be taken into account that guidelines for heroin detection are based on the average individual.  While most individuals will have detectable levels of 6-MAM for up to 24 hours, and morphine for up to 3 days after taking heroin, some individuals will break down and excrete heroin much faster or much slower.


Testing for Heroin

Testing for heroin can be an effective way to determine heroin abuse by an individual.  Testing can also be an important means of diagnosis, determining the effectiveness of treatment in individuals suffering from heroin addiction, or determining suitability for employment.  The effectiveness of testing relies on understanding the methodology and limits of the tests themselves. Tests for heroin abuse typically seek to detect the presence of either 6-MAM or morphine in blood, urine, saliva, or hair follicles.


Urine Tests

Urine testing is by far the most common method to determine heroin usage.  A urine sample is taken and analyzed for the presence of diacetylmorphine, 6-MAM, morphine and other metabolites. Urine tests can detect heroin metabolites in the average individual for up to 3 days after consumption, however, some users report testing positive for opiates up to a week after consumption. Most testing facilities indicate that a typical testing window is from 1 to 3 days after consumption, with detection outside of the 3-day window unlikely unless the individual is a heavy or frequent user.


Blood Tests

Blood testing is considered significantly less reliable than urine tests.  Blood tests have a much narrower detection window, with a limit of detection of 2 to 12 hours after heroin use.  This is largely due to the speed with which heroin is broken down and excreted from the bloodstream.  Furthermore, blood tests are more invasive and more difficult to administer than urine tests.


Hair Tests

With a wider detection window of up to 3 months, hair tests are a more reliable and accurate way to determine if an individual has recently used heroin.  Hair follicle tests are noninvasive, requiring just a small sample of head or body hair, and can indicate heroin or opiate use.  However, a hair test cannot determine a specific date of consumption, but rather can reveal a prolonged pattern of use.  Hair tests tend to be the most expensive type of test conducted.


Saliva Tests

Saliva tests are conducted by taking a swab from an individual’s cheek or mouth.  Saliva tests have many of the same limitations of blood tests.  The detection window tends to be very limited compared to urine and hair tests and is typically less than 12 hours.  Additionally, because heroin and its metabolites take the time to enter an individual’s saliva, saliva tests are typically not recommended to determine if an individual used heroin just prior to administering the test.


Signs of Heroin Addiction

Signs of heroin addiction can be as varied as the individuals who abuse this dangerous drug.  Often these signs can be hard to spot in someone that is just beginning to use heroin.  However, family members and loved ones should be aware of the following indications that an individual is addicted to heroin.

You may notice these changes to the appearance of the individual:

  • Extremely small pupils
  • Slow breathing
  • Nodding off
  • Sleepy eyes
  • Drowsy
  • Runny nose

In addition, individuals using heroin may exhibit the following physiological symptoms:

  • Slow speech, thought, or movements
  • Marks on the skin at injection sites (“track marks”)
  • Constipation
  • Nausea
  • Loss of appetite
  • Slurred speech
  • Vomiting

Also, family members should be aware if they see the following paraphernalia:

  • Syringes
  • Burnt foil or gum wrappers
  • Tiny baggies
  • Burnt straws
  • Rubber tubing
  • Tan or white powdery residue or dark, sticky residue


Treatment for Heroin Abuse

There are a wide variety of treatment options for individuals suffering from heroin addiction, depending on the needs of the individual and family and the severity of the disease.

Inpatient treatment options offer a way for individuals to completely break from their unhealthy lifestyle in a safe and supervised manner.  Inpatient addiction treatment offers the security of monitoring by medical professionals in a controlled setting for a period of time from 30 to 90 days. This treatment plan can help individuals who have relapsed in the past or have found little success with other treatment plans.  Inpatient treatment also allows individuals to adjust to a sober lifestyle over time while incorporating healthy changes to their lifestyle in a community setting.

Outpatient treatment options offer a means for individuals to continue monitored care outside of a sober living environment.   This treatment option can help transition individuals to incorporate healthy life skills into their independent path to sobriety.  Outpatient treatment plans typically offer patients the access to counseling, coaches to help with healthy life skills and extended support systems.  This treatment plan can help ease the transition into a healthy, independent, and long lasting lifestyle free from addiction.

As with any medical treatment, family members or those suffering from heroin addiction should consult with professional medical staff in order to find the appropriate treatment plan.

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