Heroin is an opioid made from morphine which, in turn, comes from the opium poppy flower. Heroin can be a white or brown powder, or a black sticky substance known as black tar heroin. It’s highly addictive and has been illegal in the United States since 1924. Heroin can be smoked or snorted; however, for the fastest high, users will inject it into their veins.
Symptoms of Heroin Abuse
Symptoms of heroin abuse include:
- Agitation or drowsiness
- Slurred speech
- Constricted (smaller) pupils
- Needle marks
- Reduced sense of pain
- Money issues
- Problems at school or work
- Risky or dangerous behavior
Short-term heroin use may result in:
- Dry mouth
- Warm flushing of skin
- Heavy feeling in arms and legs
- Nausea and vomiting
- Severe itching
- Impaired mental functioning
- Going “on the nod,” or going back and forth from conscious to semi-conscious
Long-term heroin use may result in:
- Collapsed veins for those who inject it
- Tissue damage in the nose for people who sniff it
- Infection of the heart lining and valves
- Abscesses (swollen tissue filled with pus)
- Stomach cramps and constipation
- Liver and kidney disease
- Lung issues, pneumonia
- Depression and antisocial personality disorder
- Sexual dysfunction for men
- Irregular menstrual cycles for women
Because heroin often contains added ingredients such as sugar, starch or powdered milk, there are other potential harmful effects such as:
- Clogged blood vessels leading to lungs liver, kidneys, or brain
- Contracting HIV, hepatitis C, and other infectious diseases from sharing needles and having impaired judgment regarding sexual activities
Who is At Risk of Becoming a Heroin Addict?
Any person who uses heroin or opioids is at risk for developing an opioid use disorder. But, according to the Mayo Clinic, there are some factors that may increase the risk. Factors include:
- Personal or family history of substance addiction
- Heavy tobacco use
- History of severe depression or anxiety
- Contact with high-risk people and situations
These factors don’t mean that you do or that you will have an opioid use disorder. They’re just factors of which to be aware.
The Prescription Problem
One factor that plays a part in the rise of heroin abuse is the growing abuse of prescription painkillers like oxycodone and hydrocodone, which are also made from the poppy plant and chemically related to heroin. Therefore, OxyContin, Vicodin, and other prescription opioid pain medications have effects similar to heroin.
Research tells us that misusing these drugs may lead to heroin use. People who misuse prescription opioid drugs often start looking for cheaper, stronger high. Heroin is both and it’s more dangerous. About 4% to 6% of people who misuse prescription opioids eventually switch to heroin. On top of that, about 80% of people who use heroin first misused prescription opioids.
Among individuals entering treatment for opioid use disorder, about one-third said that heroin was the first opioid they used regularly to get high. This tells us that prescription opioid misuse is just one factor that leads to heroin use.
A heroin overdose happens when an individual uses enough of the drug to produce a life-threatening reaction or death. When people overdose on heroin, their breathing usually slows or stops. This decreases the amount of oxygen that reaches the brain. This is a condition called hypoxia. Ultimately, hypoxia can have short- or long-term mental effects on the nervous system. This includes coma and permanent brain damage.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that overdose deaths involving heroin increased by almost five times between 2010 and 2018. However, from 2017 to 2018, heroin-involved overdose deaths decreased by 4%. What may account for the decrease? It could be these factors:
- Fewer people starting heroin use
- Shifts from a heroin-based market to a fentanyl-based market
- Increased treatment for people using heroin
- Expansion of access to naloxone
Treatment for Heroin Overdose
A medication called naloxone can treat a heroin overdose when it’s given right away. Naloxone works by quickly binding to opioid receptors and blocking the effects of heroin and other opioids. At times, more than one dose may be needed to help the person start breathing again. This is why it’s so important to get help immediately.
The rising number of deaths due to opioid overdose has led to an increase in efforts by public health departments to make naloxone available to at-risk persons and their families as well as first responders. Some states have passed laws that allow pharmacists to furnish naloxone without a prescription.
Heroin Addiction Withdrawal Symptoms
When using heroin, people tend to not want to stop using due to their fear of possible withdrawal symptoms. When you suddenly stop using the drug, these symptoms can begin as early as a few hours after the last dose. These may include:
- Severe muscle and bone pain
- Sleep problems
- Cold flashes
- Uncontrollable leg movements
- Severe heroin cravings
- Nausea and vomiting
- Profuse Sweating
Heroin Rehab Centers
There is a range of treatments and behavioral therapies that are effective in helping people stop heroin use. It’s important to match the best treatment plan to meet the needs of each individual patient.
Your recovery will most likely begin with the detoxification process. This is the withdrawal period when your body will eliminate the drug from your body. As previously mentioned, withdrawal is very uncomfortable and disabling. It is best to go through withdrawal with medical supervision. The length of time in detox can be a few days to a week. It depends on:
- the severity of your addiction, and
- the length of time you’ve been addicted
When you leave the detox center, you will begin to address the underlying issues that might have caused your addiction. Frequently, people who have an addiction also have a mental health condition that is at the root of their problems. A case like that is called a dual diagnosis, and you will need to treat both problems at the same time for treatment to be effective. Your treatment may consist of:
- Behavioral Therapy: This is talk therapy conducted one-on-one with your therapist or in groups with other people in recovery.
- Group Therapy: This offers you the opportunity to develop support relationships that help you build coping skills and learn strategies to avoid relapse.
- Individual Therapy: This allows you to identify the reasons why you began using heroin and other emotional issues that contribute to your drug use. This helps you and your therapist to set goals and find ways to achieve them.
- Family Therapy: Frequently, addicts have burned the bridges with their family. Family therapy is a way for family members to learn about addiction and how both parties can mend the relationships.
Levels of Care
Treatment programs offer different levels of care. Determining which level you need will depend on your need and your personal situation.
- Inpatient: In an inpatient (or residential) program, you live at the treatment center in a safe, structured environment. There is medical supervision in case your withdrawal symptoms linger, which is a possibility. This is the highest level of care.
- Partial Hospitalization Program (PHP): In a PHP, you’ll spend your days at the treatment facility in a safe, structured environment. However, you will go home at night and begin to practice what you learned in your therapy sessions during the day.
- Intensive Outpatient Program (IOP): This is the second level of care. In this program, you will spend several days at the treatment center but for fewer hours than the PHP. This program is intended for people who have completed a higher level or who have a mild addiction of a short duration. It’s especially good for people who have a dual diagnosis and need continuing therapy for their underlying conditions.
- Outpatient Program (OP): The OP is usually a step-down program from a higher level. You will have more freedom and be getting ready to transition out of treatment. You’ll still see your therapist at least once a week and attend some group sessions.
- Sober Living: If you need a safe, drug-free place to live after rehab (and many people do) a sober living house is a safe residence with other people in recovery. There are house rules and consequences if not followed. It’s an excellent place to continue recovery and get back on your feet.