What is Heroin Addiction?
In 2016, over 15,446 Americans died of a heroin overdose, and this death rate is continuing to rise year by year. What used to be seen as an addiction that only took the lives of low-income, inner-city people can now be found across all demographics and income levels, including the white, suburban communities that once considered themselves immune to the problem. Heroin addiction can affect anyone, so it’s important for everyone to understand the facts about this drug.
Heroin is a dangerous narcotic that is highly addictive and is typically injected, snorted or smoked to produce a euphoric state. Regardless of the method of ingestion, repeated use of heroin can lead to extreme physical and psychological dependence. Fortunately, although the road to recovery may be long and painful, there is help for heroin addiction.
Heroin addiction is the inability to stop using heroin despite suffering a range of negative consequences from using the drug. This compulsion to use heroin leads to chaos in life, financial and social problems, physical and psychological dangers, and a world of other consequences. Faster acting than morphine and highly addictive, heroin can result in physical dependence after a single use for some people. As the drug begins to wear off, the user immediately feels a range of uncomfortable withdrawal symptoms that typically lead to subsequent use.
Risks of Heroin Addiction
Between 2010 and 2015, heroin overdose deaths more than tripled in the United States. Current overdose rates continue to skyrocket, due to heroin being laced with fentanyl.
Individuals who use heroin for a prolonged period are at risk of many long-term effects on their physical appearance and health, including bad teeth and skin, a weakened immune system, an increased risk of miscarriage, and some chemical and structural changes in the brain, many of which can be permanent. The tolerance created by ongoing heroin use can lead the user to take dangerously high doses of the drug, which can cause overdose, brain and organ damage, coma, and death.
There are some long-term effects of heroin addiction that occur when heroin is used intravenously, such as:
- High risk of contracting blood-borne diseases such as Hepatitis C or HIV due to sharing needles
- Collapsed veins
- Track marks
- Infection that leads to loss of a limb
- Infections of the blood vessels and heart valves
The following complications are possible with heroin use:
- Breathing stomach contents into the lungs which can cause infection, choking or death
- Vomiting and diarrhea can cause dehydration and imbalanced chemical makeup
- Depression which can lead to suicidal thoughts
- Overdose which can lead to death
Side Effects of Heroin Addiction
Heroin is a powerful opiate painkiller that is derived from morphine. It quickly enters the brain where it disrupts the reception of communication signals, particularly in the areas of the brain associated with pain, pleasure, heart rate, breathing, and sleeping. Long-term use of heroin can cause permanent changes in brain function.
The first time a person uses heroin, they may feel nauseous or sleepy. Subsequent uses result in less nausea and increase the level of withdrawal symptoms experienced when the heroin wears off. These withdrawal symptoms cause the user to turn to heroin to find relief.
The effects of heroin take place very shortly after use and tend to persist for a period of a few hours. Heroin has the following effects on the user:
- Labored breathing
- Lowered ability to a cough
- Dry mouth
- Reduced anxiety
- Heaviness in the limbs
- Constricted pupils
After continued use of heroin, tolerance begins to develop, and physical dependence sets in. The result is that if a user tries to reduce their dosage or stop using altogether, withdrawal symptoms set in, making them more likely to use again to remove the symptoms.
If you or a loved one are the point of withdrawal, and cannot or will not stop using, you are likely suffering from a heroin addiction.
Users may feel the following symptoms of heroin withdrawal hours or days after their last use:
- Muscle aches and pain
- Bone pain
- Tearing of the eyes
- A runny nose
- Abdominal cramps
- Dilated pupils
If you suspect that a friend or family member may be using heroin, there are some physical and emotional signs of addiction. Individuals who are addicted to heroin are likely to show some or even all of the following signs:
- Fatigue followed by patterns of alertness
- Shallow or labored breathing
- Injection wounds, track marks, needle marks
- Infections on the skin from injections, boils
- Small, constricted pupils
- The appearance of “distant” gazing eyes (some say heroin steals the soul)
- Lack of motivation
- Placing distance from friends and family members or hanging out with a new group of people
- Disorientation or poor motor function
- Communication flaws, difficulty speaking, slurring speech
- Lack of memory, forgetting things or not remembering important events or matters
- Long, droopy, heavy extremities
- Unexplained Weight loss
In addition to the many signs of heroin addiction listed above, there can also be behavioral changes, such as social isolation, neglected responsibilities, unkempt appearance, poor hygiene, and disinterest in the hobbies and activities the user once enjoyed.
What to do if Someone You Love is Abusing Heroin?
Heroin addiction is a destructive disease that takes over the lives of those addicted as well as everyone in that person’s life. Families are destroyed, careers are ended, and if left untreated, lives are lost. Fortunately, there are treatment options available for those who are currently suffering from this addiction.
If someone is addicted to heroin, (especially if they are a long-term user), you need to get them into a treatment facility as soon as possible. Most people who are addicted to heroin will require a combination of medical care, counseling, behavioral therapy, and social support to achieve lasting recovery from their addiction.
Effective heroin addiction treatment consists of detox, medications, therapy, and support groups. Each of these methods comes together to provide the recovering addict with a foundation for staying sober, saying no to heroin and other drugs, and taking back control of his or her life. Treatment should also involve social and behavioral counseling that will guide the individual through the process of building a stronger, happier, more stable lifestyle that they will want to protect through their continued recovery.
The first step to any heroin addiction treatment plan is to detox. This process can be quite dangerous if the user attempts to stop using heroin and overcome physical dependence on their own. Without professional treatment, individuals often to turn back to drug use to stop the pain, cravings, and other withdrawal symptoms that they are feeling from not using the drug.
A quality addiction treatment facility will have the tools and expertise to avoid or address these symptoms through medical detox. Rather than quit “cold turkey,” patients are given medication therapy, which relieves symptoms and stabilizes brain chemistry so they can benefit from other forms of therapy like group and individual counseling. Recovery from heroin addiction should always be comprehensive, including an inpatient and/or outpatient treatment program following detox. Detox alone is not a treatment for addiction, but simply the first step in an ongoing recovery journey.
Medication Assisted Treatment
Recovery from heroin addiction may begin with around-the-clock monitoring to ensure the safety of the patient while they undergo detox.
- Medication Assisted Treatment is not a short-term solution for heroin addiction. In some cases, the patient will require years of maintenance therapy to reach their recovery goals.
- Patients will typically require daily monitoring at first, which may taper off to weekly or even monthly interactions with a doctor or registered nurse.
- When used appropriately at the correct dosage, medications like methadone and buprenorphine relieve withdrawal, ease cravings, and block the effects of opiate drugs like heroin, all without the euphoria or sedation induced by heroin.
Counseling & Therapy for Heroin Addiction
Generally, counseling is provided by a therapist or licensed counselor who works with the patient to help them learn more about themselves and what they need to do to stay sober. Group counseling can allow the patient to connect with other people in a similar situation, learn from the experiences of their peers, and benefit from a sense of community and acceptance.
The purpose of counseling is to help the patient:
- Heal from any previous trauma or pain that may have led to their drug addiction
- Diagnose and treat any co-occurring mental or behavioral health disorders
- Recognize the triggers that cause them to use heroin
- Learn to avoid situations that would cause heroin triggers to occur
- Gain tools, knowledge, and coping techniques that will help prevent relapse
Although heroin addiction recovery can be a long and difficult journey, many people who receive treatment for their heroin addiction will recover and live a fulfilling life, as long as they remember that recovery has no precise endpoint. To stay off heroin, you must continue to maintain your physical and mental health after leaving a treatment program. Neglecting recovery can put you at risk of relapse.
If relapse does occur, it is important to view it as a temporary state. Admitting to yourself and to others that you’ve used heroin again but you want to return to abstinence is the first step to getting back on track. Then you need to figure out what went wrong—maybe you left treatment too soon, or became overconfident and put yourself in too many trigger situations. You will not be starting from scratch as you address these issues and resume treatment; all the tools and knowledge you previously acquired are still there to help your recovery.
Heroin addiction recovery allows you to take back control of your life. The destructive and deadly path of heroin addiction can be left in your past as you move on towards a brighter future. If you are willing to accept professional help and social support, and fully engage in the treatment process, you will discover that you have all the strength you need to rebuild your life and achieve lifelong sobriety.