Heroin addiction takes thousands of lives every year. It is a scary and widespread disease. What often starts as a prescription painkiller addiction can quickly grow to a dependence on heroin.

What is Heroin?

Heroin is an opiate that can be snorted, injected, or smoked by users. It is made from morphine, a natural substance derived from seed pods of opium poppies that grow in Southeast and Southwest Asia, Mexico, Colombia, and parts of the Middle East. It comes in a white or brown powder or black tar heroin, a black sticky substance.

Heroin is commonly called dope. When heroin is used, it binds with opioid receptors in the brain and it is highly addictive and dangerous. These receptors control the feelings of pain and pleasure and heart rate, sleeping, and breathing. Individuals who use this drug say they feel a “rush” or a stage of euphoria and pleasure. As individuals continue using use the drug, they can develop a tolerance, which means a person will increase their dosage to have the same effect as when they began using heroin.

Short-term effects of heroin include dry mouth, flushed feeling, arms and legs feeling heavy, nausea or vomiting, extreme itching, and clouded mental functioning. People often “nod,” which means going back and forth from states of consciousness to semi-consciousness. Long-term effects can include insomnia, depression, antisocial personality disorder, sexual dysfunction in men, irregular menstruation cycles in women, lung complications like pneumonia, liver and kidney disease, and constipation, stomach cramping, and abscesses. It can also cause infection of the heart lining and valves, which is called infective endocarditis and can be deadly.

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Individuals who inject heroin may have collapsed veins, and individuals who snort or sniff heroin may have damaged tissue within the nose. This drug comes with numerous additives like sugar, powdered milk, starch, and fentanyl. These additives can clog blood vessels connected to the lungs, brain, liver, and kidneys, causing permanent damage. The risk of contracting infectious diseases like Hepatitis C and HIV increases due to impaired judgment and sharing of injecting equipment.

Heroin overdoses have been on the rise in the last several years. The increase in overdoses is also to fentanyl, which is added without a user’s knowledge. When an overdose occurs, breathing slows down or stops and can cause a decrease of oxygen reaching the brain, known as hypoxia. There can be long- or short-term effects on the nervous system as a result of hypoxia. Heroin overdose can also lead to coma or permanent brain damage.

Important Statistics on Heroin Use

  • According to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, since 2015, 5.1 million people have used heroin.
  • Individuals between the ages of 18- 29 and ages 30-44 choose heroin as their drug of choice.
  • 80% of those who misused prescribed opioid switch to heroin.
  • Two-thirds of individuals who have undergone treatment, relapse.

Heroin Addiction and Heroin Withdrawal

If you believe someone is using heroin, it is important to note their physical characteristics and lifestyle habits. Heroin users may have paraphernalia, which can include needles, pipes, or spoons. Users often suffer from memory loss, confused thinking, and feelings of heaviness. They can also suffer from disorientation and have trouble making decisions.

Physical signs of heroin addiction can include the following:

  • Flushed skin
  • Constricted pupils
  • Falling asleep suddenly
  • Slow breathing
  • Loss of self-control
  • Itching
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Constipation

Individuals who quit using heroin abruptly may suffer from severe withdrawal symptoms. These symptoms can occur within just a few hours of when use was stopped. Below are several heroin withdrawal symptoms.

  • Cravings
  • Uncontrollable leg movements
  • Restlessness
  • Cold flashes with goosebumps
  • Problems with sleeping
  • Muscle pain
  • Bone pain
  • Diarrhea
  • Vomiting

Heroin Addiction Treatment Options and Recovery

There is a range of treatment options available through medical and behavioral therapies. It’s important to match the right therapy with the individual seeking treatment to meet their individual needs as they walk towards recovery.

Several medications may be used to ease the symptoms of heroin withdrawals during detox such as Suboxone, Methadone, Subutex, and others. These medicines target the same receptors as heroin and bind with them and help with cravings and withdrawal symptoms. Naltrexone has also been effective. It blocks opioid receptors, which makes opioid drugs ineffective. There is also a non-opioid medication for withdrawal symptoms called Lucemyra (lofexidine) that may be used for symptom management.

Behavioral therapies used for heroin addiction include cognitive-behavioral therapy and contingency management. These methods help individuals learn different behaviors and ways to remain drug-free by managing stress and triggers. With contingency management, a small reward is offered for staying drug-free, which can come in the form of a voucher. When combined with medicine, these treatments are known to be effective.

Are you or a loved one struggling with heroin addiction? You are not alone. We are here for you, and we are here to help.