Heroin gets a lot of negative press, and for good reason. Using heroin even once can be very dangerous, and when addiction goes untreated it will almost certainly lead to a worsening quality of life and often – death. Treatment for heroin addiction is very difficult for the addicted person, but it will allow them to live a healthy, happy, and normal life.
Heroin is a highly addictive substance known in medical terms as diamorphine. It is classed as an opiate, a group of substances which includes codeine, morphine, fentanyl, oxycodone, and hydrocodone. Each of these substances can be used by doctors to ease severe pain but are also commonly misused (when prescribed) and abused (when obtained illicitly).
Heroin is manufactured from the poppy plant and is commonly known by names including dope, smack, and junk. It comes in either powdered or “black tar” form and is usually injected, though it is sometimes sniffed, smoked, or snorted. Heroin can often be “cut” with other powdered substances to either increase the volume sold or enhance the effects.
Heroin use has become an epidemic in the USA, with both use of and deaths from heroin increasing significantly over the past two decades.
How Addictive is Heroin?
Heroin is classed as a Schedule I substance by the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) in the USA, meaning it has a high potential for abuse. It is commonly accepted as one of most addictive substances available and the most harmful to its users.
When used, heroin quickly travels to your brain and acts on the opioid receptors. It gives the user a sense of euphoria for a few minutes followed by drowsiness, calmness, and feeling detached from the world for between 1-5 hours. The first “hit” of heroin only requires a small dose, and often causes new users to vomit.
As each use of heroin targets the brains “pleasure centers”, it is often followed by repeated use. Each time you use heroin your body becomes used to it and you begin to develop a tolerance – meaning that with each use you must take a greater amount to get the same effect.
Heroin rapidly becomes addictive as repeated use changes your brain’s chemistry – meaning you begin to crave heroin and become preoccupied by it. The longer this goes on, the stronger the cravings, to the point where you can steadily lose interest in anything other than using heroin. Substance addiction can be defined as the compulsion to use a substance, despite negative consequences to the addict’s health and lifestyle.
Heroin addiction can drive the addicted person to great lengths to get their next hit of heroin, including lying, stealing, and other illicit activities. This isn’t always the case – heroin addiction can affect anyone who begins to misuse it, from successful millionaires to the most disadvantaged in our society.
Once the body has built up tolerance to heroin, the addicted person begins to feel withdrawal symptoms when they haven’t used heroin for six to twelve hours.
Withdrawal symptoms include:
- Diarrhea and vomiting
- Body pains
- Feeling cold and shivery
These withdrawal symptoms are often very severe and can sometimes become life-threatening. There are a few signs and symptoms to watch out for if you are concerned that someone is becoming addicted to heroin.
Symptoms of heroin addiction include:
- A compulsion to use heroin
- Feeling unable to stop
- Significant weight loss
- Tiredness and low energy
- Skin scabs, bruises, or needle marks
- Watery eyes and a runny nose
- Spending less time on their interests, or with loved ones
- Secrecy and shame around their drug use
- Money problems
Short Term Dangers of Heroin
Using heroin even just once can be a serious risk to your health. Heroin is sometimes cut with dangerous substances such as fentanyl, and the body’s tolerance to heroin is very low if you have never used it before. Both scenarios can lead to death from overdose, which is always a risk even when you have been using heroin for a long time.
An overdose occurs when your body’s opioid receptors are overwhelmed. The breathing receptors in your brain are affected and you start breathing slowly, sometimes stopping altogether. As your body becomes starved of oxygen, your lips and fingers go blue and your skin pale and damp. You may suffer from permanent brain damage if your oxygen levels remain low, and ultimately you can die from lack of oxygen.
Because overdose is so common in heroin addicts, in many areas you can get a naloxone self-injector (known as Narcan) for a friend or loved one to use if you are overdosing. This works immediately to reverse the effects on your opioid receptors, helping you to start breathing again. However, once used an ambulance must be called immediately. Narcan’s effect can last for less than an hour, and when it wears off you will begin to overdose again.
Heroin is particularly dangerous when combined with other drugs, such as cocaine, alcohol, benzodiazepines, and methadone.
Long Term Effects of Heroin Use
In the long term, heroin use can be devastating to your body.
The direct effects of long-term heroin use include:
- Heart and lung disease
- Collapsed veins
- Infections and abscesses at injection sites
- Endocarditis (a difficult to treat infection of your heart valve)
- Blood borne infection such as HIV and Hepatitis C from needle sharing
- Brain, liver, and kidney damage
- Chronic bleeding from “pseudoaneurysms” at injection sites
Not only does heroin cause direct damage to your body, but it can also cause indirect effects due to the effects of addiction and withdrawals. Heroin is so addictive that it can make you prioritize using heroin over everything else in your life.
Indirect effects can include:
- Ignoring pre-existing or new medical conditions
- Refusing hospital admissions as you will lose access to heroin
- Poor diet leading to severe vitamin deficiencies
- Poor dental health and personal hygiene
- Mental health conditions
- Becoming detached from family and friends
- Losing all your hobbies and interests
- Losing your job, you home, and your identity
Treatment for Heroin Addiction
Heroin addiction can be incredibly overwhelming. The cravings are intense, the withdrawals intolerable, and it might feel like you will never recover. You might be watching a friend or loved one slowly losing their life to heroin or be feeling despair as your life is taken over.
The good news is that heroin addiction can be treated, and an addict can go on to live a healthy and happy life. The treatment of choice depends on how severe the heroin addiction is, and how severe withdrawal symptoms are. The first step for most is to acknowledge that they have a problem and ask someone – a loved one, health professional, or rehabilitation center – for help.
For most people, going “cold turkey” from heroin is a dangerous and incredibly uncomfortable, and in some cases can be life-threatening. Heroin treatment usually starts with a medication-assisted withdrawal detoxification at a rehabilitation center (rehab). Some facilities also offer medically assisted rapid detox.
Medications such as buprenorphine (Suboxone), methadone, and naltrexone are administered over a period of 5-10 days, reducing each day. These medications act similarly to heroin and remove withdrawal symptoms, but are easier to taper off and have less dangerous effects. Medication-assisted treatment is undertaken at a rehabilitation center to allow for medical supervision.
During a stay at a rehabilitation center, you may also be offered:
12 step programs such as Narcotics Anonymous are very helpful to a recovering addict. These fellowship groups provide peer support from people who have been through a similar journey in their life and can provide a judgement-free space for you to tell your story or ask for advice.
Heroin addiction is a highly addictive and dangerous substance. It can become seriously detrimental to your health and your life in general if you become addicted. The first step to recovery from heroin addiction is to ask for help. Rehabilitation centers such as Boca Recovery offer detoxification through medication assisted treatment of withdrawal, as well as providing you with everything you need to start and maintain your recovery from heroin addiction.
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