Psychoactive drugs offer a variety of effects from therapeutic medical uses to less legitimate recreational uses. But anything with euphoric effects also comes with a period that’s referred to as a comedown. When you’re talking about the caffeine in your morning coffee, you may call it a crash. In most drugs, the comedown can be unpleasant and even painful. Heroin is no exception. Plus, when a person becomes dependent on heroin, comedowns can lead to extremely uncomfortable withdrawal symptoms. 

Learn more about heroin comedowns, how long they last, and how you can get through them.

What is a Comedown?

A drug comedown, also called the drug’s offset, is the time between the drug’s peak effects and when a person returns to normal. The experience of a drug comedown can be extremely unpleasant in some cases, depending on the type of drug that’s used and how long it’s been used. The comedown is also the time when the drug’s positive effects will start to fade, leaving only its aftereffects. Users who come down from drugs that offer euphoric effects often experience a level of anxiety or depression when the positive feelings start to wear off. 

Comedowns occur when the body starts to process the drug and begins to purge it from the body’s system. This has to do 

woman contemplating heroin comedown

with the drug’s chemical half-life, the time it takes for the drug to be reduced to half of its original concentration. A long half-life means the drug will remain in your system for a long time, and you may feel its effects for that time. Heroin is a fast-acting drug; when you take it intravenously, it will begin to work within seconds. Once it’s in your system, your body will go to work eliminating it, reducing it to half of its concentration after about three minutes. However, that doesn’t mean the drug stops working after just a few minutes. 

Once heroin binds to your opioid receptors, it can cause analgesic effects for up to five hours. However, its recreational effects like deep relaxation and euphoria only last a little more than an hour before the offset begins.

How Long Does a Heroin Comedown Last?

When you first start using heroin, you may not have a chemical dependence on the drug. As the drug wears off, your body will soon return to normal. However, when you become chemically dependent, the lines between your comedown and withdrawal symptoms may be blurred. The offset of heroin in a person with no dependency will start after about 90 minutes and lasts for up to three hours. 

However, when you start to become dependent on heroin, the comedown may lead to feelings of withdrawal. Typically, there is some time between heroin’s aftereffects and the beginning of withdrawal. The comedown lasts for up to three hours, and the first withdrawal symptoms begin after six to 12 hours without the drug. However, you may feel general discomfort, anxiety, and depression between the comedown and your next dose. Early withdrawal symptoms include discomfort, runny nose, nausea, body aches, chills, and other flu-like symptoms. After a day, these symptoms will become more intense with diarrhea, vomiting, and excessive sweating.

What Does a Heroin Comedown Feel Like?

During a heroin comedown, you may start to feel some of the drug’s immediate aftereffects. As pleasurable euphoria wears off, you’ll start to feel nausea, itchiness, flushing of the skin, dry mouth, and heaviness in the limbs. It’s common to feel drowsy for hours until the drug wears off completely. You may also feel like your mental functions are clouded as the drug slows down cognition. 

You may have trouble working things out or making quick decisions. Heroin also slows down some autonomic functions of the nervous system like heart rate and breathing. High doses can be dangerous when overdose causes your breathing to slow to the point of leading to brain and tissue damage, coma, and death. 

A heroin comedown can also have some psychological effects as well. As the euphoric effects wear off, you may start to feel depressed or even anxious. Opioids have a psychological effect that helps suppress your likelihood of experiencing trauma after an accident or injury. It lifts your mood and makes you feel secure. As heroin wears off, those positive feelings will wear off, too, and your mood will come back down.

As you start to become dependent or addicted to heroin, the comedown effects may start to cause more severe psychological effects. People who are caught in a pattern of heroin addiction often spend most of their days either high or seeking drugs. A comedown marks the beginning of the search for the next hit.

What Does ‘Chasing the Dragon’ Mean?

“Chasing the dragon,” a slang phrase that originated in China, references a specific phenomenon that occurs when heroin or other opiates are smoked. However, the phrase has taken on a new meaning since the United States has fallen into an epidemic of opioid abuse and overdose, particularly after an FBI documentary of the same name was released. When a person first takes heroin, the euphoric feeling offers a unique novel experience that is often unparalleled by any other feeling they have ever experienced. However, as soon as the high reaches its peak, your body starts to eliminate the opioid in your system, and you start to come down. That novel euphoric feeling begins to slip away, giving way to unpleasant symptoms such as anxiety, depression, and nausea. 

“No matter,” many users think. “Those euphoric feelings are just one more hit away, right?” 

While it’s true that you can achieve a euphoric high with your next hit, it’s never the same feeling the second, third, or 50th time. Humans experience the feeling of novelty wearing off all the time. For instance, it’s like when you have an amazing meal at a restaurant and return only to find that it wasn’t as good as you remember. Our brains are wired to respond to novelties and positive experiences in an impactful way. The reward center of the brain notices things that cause a release of “feel-good chemicals” like dopamine, serotonin, and endorphins (which are naturally occurring opioids). A good meal, a comfortable bed, and a warm hug can all release these chemicals, and your reward center takes notice and encourages you to repeat those things. 

But heroin’s effects on the reward center are a lot more intense. It floods the brain with endorphin-like chemicals. The first time is overwhelmingly pleasant. It’s so pleasant that the second time can’t measure up. But that doesn’t stop your reward center from encouraging you to use heroin repeatedly. Your brain keeps telling you, “remember that first time, we have to experience it again.” But it’s never quite the same, which is where the phrase “chasing the dragon” takes on new meaning. Each dose ends in a disappointing comedown, and the cycle continues.

Until you break out of active addiction.

How to Get Past a Heroin Comedown and Withdrawal

Heroin addiction can be a vicious cycle. The drug is notoriously difficult to overcome on your own. Comedown and withdrawal symptoms can be so uncomfortable that, when it’s combined with powerful cravings, it can make quitting on your own nearly impossible. However, there is help available to get you through heroin comedown and addiction. Medical detox is designed to get you through uncomfortable withdrawal symptoms safely and as comfortably as possible. 

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