Heroin is an extremely addictive and dangerous drug that many people abuse in order to experience a euphoric high. Those who become addicted often need immediate and professional treatment in a rehab center.
According to the Center for Substance Abuse Research, heroin is a Schedule I, semi-synthetic opioid that is derived from morphine. While many other opioid drugs are used to treat pain and for other medicinal purposes, heroin is considered too dangerous and addictive for this purpose. However, this doesn’t stop people from abusing the drug in order to experience its intense effects.
Heroin abuse can cause a number of physical and psychological side effects, many of which can be irreversible and even deadly. One should seek professional help immediately for this substance use disorder, as the drug causes such dangerous effects and a severe addiction syndrome that won’t let most individuals stop abusing it, even if they want to.
Signs and Symptoms of Heroin Abuse
Heroin abuse causes many of the same symptoms that prescription opioid abuse causes, except they are often more intense. A person on this drug will usually become relaxed and sleepy as well as experience a kind of euphoria, and these effects will last for several hours.
Someone high on heroin will often experience
- Nausea and vomiting
- Severe itching
- Dry mouth
- An absence of pain
- Smaller pupils
- An inability to concentrate
- A decreased breathing rate
- A decreased heart rate
- Nodding, or a state where the individual alternates between sleep and wakefulness for several hours
Those who abuse the drug frequently will also exhibit additional signs, such as
- Track marks (including bruising and needle marks) on their arms and legs
- A disinterest in the things that used to matter to them
- Problems at school, home, and work
- A decreased interest in personal hygiene and appearance
- An increase in secretive behavior
Often, heroin abusers will do anything to obtain more of the drug, which is known as drug-seeking behavior. They may also try to obtain prescription opioids when the drug itself is not available through doctor shopping (visiting multiple doctors complaining of pain) or stealing prescription pads.
Dangers of Heroin Abuse
Heroin is one of the most dangerous drugs available for abuse. According to the National Library of Medicine, users can smoke, inject or snort the drug, and all of these methods of abuse “send it to the brain very quickly.” Some of the most serious risks involved with heroin use include
- Overdose and respiratory depression
- Individuals who abuse the drug, especially in large doses, can start to breathe very shallowly or stop breathing altogether. This can lead to brain damage, coma, and death, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse.
- Collapsed veins
- Infection of the heart lining and valves
- Liver disease
- Clogging of the blood vessels caused by additives in the drug that a user may not be aware of
- Many individuals who abuse opioids experience issues with depression, especially as a result of long-term abuse. This can be just as dangerous as other depressive syndromes, potentially even leading to suicidal thoughts and actions.
Heroin abuse quickly leads to tolerance and dependence as well. The individual who abuses heroin consistently will need more and more of the drug to experience the same effects. When they are not able to obtain it, extreme withdrawal symptoms can be triggered that are similar to a severe case of the flu (NLM). Many people keep abusing heroin long after they stop experiencing the euphoric effects of the drug simply to stave off the unpleasant and often highly painful withdrawal symptoms.
Heroin users also put themselves at a high risk for crime and prison time, relationship problems, and contracting diseases like HIV and hepatitis B and C. These diseases can be easily passed from person to person by sharing needles or practicing unsafe sex.
So many of the dangers associated with heroin abuse are likely to occur with long-term use of the drug, but even one large dose can cause severe respiratory depression, overdose, and death. And because the effects of heroin can be very strong, someone with significant risk factors could become addicted extremely quickly.
Who Abuses Heroin?
Contrary to popular belief, heroin abuse and addiction are actually on the rise “across the US among men and women, most age groups, and all income levels,” according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. This has occurred, in large part, because of the issue of prescription opioid abuse, which is very prevalent in our society today. Many people start out misusing their prescription drugs and move on to heroin because it is cheaper and easier to acquire.
- 2.1 million people in the US had substance use disorder related to prescription opioids in 2012, and 467,000 were addicted to heroin (NIDA).
- The number of opioids prescribed in the US has increased astronomically over the past 25 years, which has caused an increase in prescription narcotic abuse and heroin addiction.
- “Among people between the ages of 12 and 49, the average age of first [heroin] use was 28” (Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration).
Heroin addiction occurs because the abuse of the drug cause changes to the way the brain works. What starts out as voluntary use becomes involuntary when the brain literally craves the drug and its effects because it can no longer gain positive rewards from other activities.
Most addicts struggle for years to put a stop to their substance abuse. Unfortunately, heroin––as well as prescription opioids––is highly available, and those who become addicted can no longer choose to say no, even when they really don’t want to use the drug. As a result, heroin addiction can lead to many severe side effects and create a cycle of abuse that most users cannot pull themselves out of without help.
Am I a Heroin Addict?
If you have been using heroin often or for a long period of time, it is likely that you have become addicted. Ask yourself the questions below, though, to find out if you really are suffering from the signs and symptoms of this severe substance use disorder.
- Do I think about heroin even when I am not using?
- Has my performance in work, school, etc. diminished because of my substance abuse?
- Do I make excuses for myself to use?
- Do I try to hide my substance abuse from others, or have other people in my life expressed concern about it?
- Do I use heroin and other drugs together?
- Do I feel numb or unhappy unless I am high?
- Have I ever overdosed on heroin or other narcotics?
- Have I experienced other severe psychological or physical issues as a result of my opioid abuse?
- Do I feel I am unable to stop using, even though I want to?
If you answered yes to any of these questions, it is time to seek help. Those who become addicted to heroin should not try to stop using on their own, as it isn’t safe, and the results associated with treatment are much better.
Heroin Addiction Treatment
According to the NIDA, heroin addiction is usually treated with the combination of medications and behavioral therapies.
- Methadone: A synthetic opioid that minimizes withdrawal symptoms, reduces cravings, blocks the brain’s opioid receptors, and maintains patients on the drug so they can live their lives without opioid abuse
- Buprenorphine: A partial opioid agonist that works similarly to methadone, except it is more protected from abuse by its ceiling effect and more suitable for individuals with less severe dependencies
- Naltrexone: An opioid antagonist that must be used after withdrawal ends and is best for highly motivated individuals who will take their medication faithfully
- Cognitive-behavioral therapy: A program that helps patients relearn positive behaviors for a life in recovery and understand why they began using drugs in the first place
- Contingency management: A program that asks patients to take drug tests and gives them vouchers, prizes, and other rewards for every test they pass
- Family therapy: A program that helps change problematic family dynamics and heal relationships
- 12-step facilitation therapy: A program that prepares patients for 12-step support groups and stresses the concepts of acceptance, surrender, and community involvement
With the help of these treatments and professional caregivers, you can truly change your life for the better and put an end to your abuse of narcotics and other dangerous drugs.