Heroin is a powerful illicit opioid derived from morphine, a natural opiate found in the seeds of various poppy plants. Also known as “smack,” heroin can cause health problems that include depression and heroin addiction.
Drug testing for heroin can be difficult. The opioid has a short half-life, which is the time it takes for 50 percent of the drug’s dose to be eliminated from the body.
With a half-life of just three minutes, heroin is rarely detectable in body fluids. Instead, most drug tests for heroin look for substances that heroin breaks down to, including 6-MAM and morphine. Heroin breaks down into morphine after the euphoric effects of the drug fade, usually within minutes of use.
A toxicology exam can detect heroin in urine for one to three days after last use. Upon administration, the opioid is quickly converted into 6-MAM, which can be detected in urine for about eight hours after ingestion.
The presence of 6-MAM in urine confirms heroin use. Heroin also contains traces of acetylcodeine, which the body converts into codeine. Morphine and codeine in urine could indicate heroin use, and the ratio of morphine to codeine can help lab technicians confirm whether a person used heroin or codeine.
Evidence of heroin can be detected in oral fluid for 24 to 36 hours. According to a report by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, researchers have found high levels of 6-MAM in saliva samples that have tested positive for morphine. The report also stated that choosing saliva as the test sample increases the chances of detecting heroin use.
Some hair tests can detect drugs for a much longer period of time than saliva or urine, in some cases up to several years after last use. Traces of heroin use can usually be detected in your hair for up to 90 days depending on hair length. The longer detection window of hair tests can reveal long-term heroin use.
Opioids remain in the body of some people for longer periods of time than they do in others. The length of time heroin stays in your system depends on a host of variables.
Factors affecting how long heroin remains in the body include:
Physical factors also play a role in how long heroin stays in the body, including height, weight, age, body fat percentage and overall health. Levels of stress and physical activity also affect the duration that heroin remains in the system.
Heroin produces a potent high followed by physical effects that last for several hours. When people shoot heroin, the most intense euphoric effects begin within seven or eight seconds. Injecting the drug directly into muscle creates a high within about five to eight minutes. Smoking heroin causes a surge of euphoria within 10 to 15 minutes.
Alongside the euphoric effects, heroin users experience numerous physical sensations, including a warm flushing of the skin, dry mouth and a heavy feeling in the arms and legs. Ingesting too much of the drug can lead to heroin overdose.
People who are addicted to heroin need to take increasingly higher doses to achieve the desired euphoric effects. However, many people who are dependent on the drug take it to avoid uncomfortable heroin withdrawal symptoms rather than to get high.
Those with a heroin use disorder should seek professional help at a rehab facility, where they can receive evidence-based heroin treatment to overcome their substance abuse problems. A combination of medication-assisted detox, therapy and ongoing support can assist people in quitting heroin and committing to a life of sobriety.