Heroin Addiction

Ariella Belote
Calendar icon Last Updated: 01/25/2024

Reading Time: 7 minutes

What is Heroin Addiction?

In 2016, over 15,446 Americans died from a heroin overdose, and the 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 white, suburban communities that were once considered immune to this 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 through the nose, 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 available.

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 may lead 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 may immediately feel a range of uncomfortable withdrawal symptoms that typically lead to subsequent use.

What are the Risks of Heroin Addiction?

Individuals who use heroin for a prolonged period of time are at risk for many long-term effects on their physical appearance and health, including loss of teeth, skin abnormalities, a weakened immune system, and some chemical and structural changes in the brain, many of which can be permanent.

Between 2010 and 2015, heroin overdose deaths more than tripled in the United States. Current overdose rates continue to skyrocket, due to heroin being unknowingly laced with fentanyl. 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 possibly death.

There are some long-term effects of heroin addiction that can occur when heroin is used intravenously, such as:

  • Collapsed veins
  • Track marks
  • Infection, which if untreated can lead to the loss of a limb
  • Infections of the blood vessels and heart valves
    • Intravenous heroin use also carries a high risk of contracting blood-borne diseases such as Hepatitis C or HIV, especially when sharing needles between users

The following psychological complications are possible with heroin use:

  • Vomiting and diarrhea, which can cause dehydration and a chemical imbalance in the blood
  • Depression and suicidal thoughts
  • Overdose, which can lead to death

What are the Symptoms of Heroin Addiction?

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 can cause the user to continue to turn to heroin for relief.

Heroin is a powerful opiate derived from morphine. It quickly enters the brain where it disrupts 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 effects of heroin take place very shortly after use and tend to persist for a period of a few hours. Heroin may have the following effects on the user:

  • Labored breathing
  • Lowered ability to cough
  • Drowsiness
  • Dry mouth
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Reduced anxiety
  • Fatigue
  • Heaviness in the limbs
  • Itching
  • Constricted pupils
  • Euphoria

What are the Signs of Heroin Addiction?

After continued use of heroin, a tolerance may begin to develop, causing physical dependence to set in. If a user tries to reduce their dosage or stop using heroin altogether, uncomfortable, and sometimes dangerous withdrawal symptoms will set in, making the user more likely to use the drug again to prevent experiencing the symptoms.

If you or a loved one are at the point of withdrawal, and cannot or will not stop using heroin, you may be suffering from a heroin addiction.

Users may feel the following symptoms of heroin withdrawal hours or days after their last use:

  • Agitation
  • Anxiety
  • Muscle aches and pain
  • Bone pain
  • Tearing of the eyes
  • Insomnia
  • A runny nose
  • Sweating
  • Yawning
  • Abdominal cramps
  • Diarrhea
  • Dilated pupils
  • Goosebumps
  • Chills
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting

If you suspect that a friend or family member may be using heroin and are addicted, 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
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Small, constricted pupils
  • The appearance of “distant” gazing eyes
  • Lack of motivation
  • Distancing 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
  • Memory loss or forgetfulness, even important events or matters
  • Heavy extremities
  • Itching
  • Constipation
  • Unexplained Weight loss

In addition to the many signs of heroin addiction listed above, there may 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 Misusing Heroin?

Heroin addiction is a destructive disease that may take over the lives of those addicted, as well as everyone in that person’s life. Families can be destroyed, careers may end, and if left untreated, lives can be 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 should try to get them into a treatment facility as soon as possible. Most people with a heroin addiction will require a combination of medical care, counseling, behavioral therapy, and social support to achieve lasting recovery from their addiction.

Which Treatment Options are Available for Heroin Addiction?

Effective heroin addiction treatment consists of detox, medications, therapy, and support groups. Each of these methods comes together to provide a 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 is recommended to also incorporate social and behavioral counseling that will guide the individual through the process of building a stronger, sober, more stable lifestyle that they will want to protect through their continued recovery.

Heroin Detox

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, and should therefore be done with professional help. Without professional treatment, individuals often turn back to drug use to stop the pain, cravings, and other withdrawal symptoms that they are feeling.

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 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 typically 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 monitoring with a medical professional.
  • When used appropriately at the correct dosage, medications like methadone and buprenorphine relieve withdrawal symptoms, ease cravings, and block the effects of opiate drugs like heroin, 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
  • Possibly diagnose and treat any co-occurring mental or behavioral health disorders
  • Recognize the triggers that may 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 can recover and live a fulfilling life, as long as they remember that recovery is lifelong. To stay off heroin, you must be vigilant in maintaining 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 want to return to abstinence may be a helpful first step to getting back on track. You then 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; 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 toward a brighter future. If you are willing to accept professional help and social support, and fully engage in the treatment process, you can discover that you have all the strength you need to rebuild your life and achieve lifelong sobriety.

Medical Reviewer
Ariella Belote, BSN, RN
Acute Care Registered Nurse
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Ariella Belote, BSN, RN, has experience working as a nurse in outpatient alcohol and drug addiction treatment, where she worked with clients experiencing various dependencies. She also works to connect clients with local resources designed to support recovery on a daily basis. In addition, she works in acute care and is familiar with short and long term treatment for withdrawal and addiction.