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Heroin Addiction: Signs and Effects of Heroin Abuse

Addict at the table with a syringe heroin addiction

Published: August 2, 2023

Heroin addiction happens when a person takes the opioid drug regularly and can’t function without it. Over six million people report using heroin every year, and there are 14,000 heroin overdose deaths every year — in short, heroin addiction is a public health crisis.

While recovering from heroin addiction isn’t easy, it is possible. Medication-assisted treatment and other first-line treatments help people cope with heroin withdrawal symptoms and cravings so their bodies can adjust to life without the opiate.

Studies have found strong ties between drug abuse and mental illness, especially in young adults. Health care providers treat these co-occurring disorders together to maximize treatment success.

If you’re looking to learn more about heroin drug addiction and treatments, read on for a comprehensive guide to heroin use, signs of heroin addiction, treatment options, and more.

Heroin Addiction vs. Heroin Abuse

Heroin is derived from the poppy plant and can be a white or brown powder or a black, sticky substance (black tar). It’s often cut with other substances like fentanyl, a synthetic opioid.

Heroin is one of the most highly addictive drugs on the market. Some people can use heroin without becoming addicted, but that is rare.

Four in five new heroin users are people who were addicted to opioid painkillers and turned to heroin when they could no longer get a prescription, according to the American Society of Addiction Medicine.

Any use of heroin is considered abuse because it’s an illicit drug. Heroin use disorder is another term for heroin abuse.

Heroin Addiction vs. Heroin Dependence

Heroin addiction is a mental reliance on the drug, meaning your brain tells you you need more to feel good.

This happens because on first use, heroin impacts your brain by attaching to opioid brain receptors and affecting how you deal with and experience pain.

In turn, heroin affects the brain’s reward system, so over time you rely on heroin to produce the feel-good chemicals you need to function and feel normal.

Heroin dependence is a physical reliance, which means you end up needing the drug for brain function.

Your daily dose of the drug compromises your ability to feel like yourself. You begin to feel withdrawal symptoms from a lack of the drug, and your body systems don’t know how to operate without it.

Signs of Heroin Addiction

You can spot the signs of heroin addiction if you know what to look for but be aware that they can vary by person.

Signs of heroin addiction may include:

  • Irregular pupil size
  • Bloodshot eyes
  • Unexplained weight changes
  • Unexplained behavioral changes
  • Changes in friend groups
  • Suspicious behaviors
  • Defensiveness about drug use
  • Unexplained sleep changes
  • Needle marks on arms
  • Wearing long sleeves constantly

Heroin Withdrawal Symptoms

When a body becomes physically dependent on heroin, any reduction in drug use causes a person to experience withdrawal symptoms.

The severity of these symptoms depends on:

  • Genetics
  • Physical health
  • Age
  • Weight
  • Frequency of use
  • Normal amount used
  • Level of addiction
  • Level of dependency

The above factors determine what kind and how much of each symptom you feel.

Withdrawal symptoms can include:

  • Cravings
  • Irritability
  • Changes in heart rate
  • Changes in blood pressure
  • Changes in appetite
  • Diarrhea
  • Restlessness
  • Nausea/vomiting
  • Body aches and pain

Side Effects of Heroin Use

Heroin strongly affects the body and mind, and it’s easy to become addicted to the opiate.

Short-Term Effects of Heroin

Even if it’s only a few times, using heroin can lead to serious health problems.

Heroin can have these short-term effects:

  • Increased or decreased heart rate
  • Increased or decreased blood pressure
  • Feelings of euphoria
  • Dryness of the mouth
  • Nausea

Long-Term Health Complications Linked to Heroin

Using heroin over a longer period of time has more dire consequences. The risk of an opioid overdose increases each time you use heroin.

Long-term effects of heroin use may include:

  • Cramps
  • Severe constipation
  • Dysfunctional nervous system
  • Cancer
  • Liver disease
  • Kidney disease
  • Heart infection
  • Abscesses
  • Hepatitis B and C
  • HIV (from sharing syringes)
  • STDs (from unprotected sex)

Risk Factors for Heroin Drug Addiction

Notable risk factors for heroin addiction are prescription drug misuse and addiction. Prescription drugs can be expensive but are often cheaper with insurance.

Once the refills run out, it’s common for people who misuse or are addicted to them to look to illicit drugs like heroin to fill a need. Opioids like heroin are less expensive than prescription opioids on the street and are usually easier to get.

Risk factors for heroin addiction include genetics, environment, and whether you are taking prescription opioids.

If your relatives have used heroin, it’s more likely that you will. Additionally, if you have housing insecurity or spend a lot of time with others who use the drug, that can make it more likely that you will try heroin.

Diagnosing Heroin Use Disorder

Heroin use disorder is commonly diagnosed through medical evaluation, which usually consists of questions. While urine and blood samples may be taken, they don’t offer as full of a picture of your history of drug use.

Answering questions about your habits gives health care providers a much better idea of how often you use and in what dosages and situations when determining your diagnosis.

Heroin Addiction Treatment Options

Being addicted to heroin is a situation that can be changed with help. Programs can help you detoxify, manage withdrawal symptoms, and work through the stressors and trauma that may have led you to begin using.

Support groups help you to maintain treatment once you’ve completed that initial program. A healthcare provider can help you determine which treatment program will be best for your specific needs.

Heroin Detox Programs

Detox programs help your body get rid of heroin. Medication and behavioral therapy are often combined to treat all components of heroin addiction and detoxification.

Because withdrawal symptoms can be so severe, trying to conduct your own detoxification program is strongly discouraged.

Without professional help, you are more likely to give into the discomfort of the withdrawal and use a dosage of heroin that you were previously accustomed to. But because you’ve stopped taking the drug, your body will be unused to that amount, often leading to an overdose.

Medication-Assisted Treatment

Medication-assisted treatment (MAT) uses meds like buprenorphine, naltrexone, and methadone to treat heroin addiction. In monitored doses, these medicines mimic heroin, allowing your body to detox more safely.

Behavioral therapy helps with your mental wellness, while the medication improves your physical wellness. In all aspects, from medications to nutrition, health care providers keep an eye on you and how you respond to treatment.

Heroin Rehab Programs

Rehab programs can be intensive, because the goal is to treat your addiction as fully as possible. Some are inpatient and may last several months.

Others are outpatient but require you to attend multiple hours a day. You may be required to undergo counseling in a group or one-on-one setting.

Heroin rehab may involve a number of types of behavioral therapy, alternative therapies like yoga, tai chi, and music therapy, and much more.

Aftercare & Heroin Anonymous Groups

Once you’ve finished an inpatient or outpatient treatment program, you should continue caring for your well-being. Support groups like Heroin Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous can help you to stay on the path of healing from your addiction.

Sober Living

On the other side of taking those first steps toward regaining your life without drugs is living sober. While working through the process can be tricky, the reward can be significant.

One thing that helps is to ensure you’re in an environment with people who can support you rather than cause you to relapse.

Sober living houses provide that support, though there are different types. You’ll want to discuss with your health care team to decide the best option for you.

Reach Out for Help With a Heroin Addiction

Heroin addiction is treatable. You don’t need to go through it alone or tell yourself that you can’t beat it because it’s incurable — help is available at high-quality treatment centers nationwide.

Reach out through our helpline to get connected to your options for improving your well-being and starting your recovery from heroin addiction.

Heroin Addiction FAQs

What is the main reason people give for using heroin?

A startling 80% of people who use heroin transitioned from an addiction to prescription opioid drugs. When the prescription or supplier runs out or becomes too expensive, many switch to the more accessible and cheaper heroin.

Is heroin use a felony?

Felony drug charges vary by state and federal and usually have more to do with the amount in your possession, whether you’ve crossed state lines, and how many offenses you already have on record. Any use of heroin is illegal.

Is it possible to cure heroin addiction?

There’s currently no cure for heroin addiction. However, as with most diseases, it can be treated and managed with medical and professional help.

Can you quit heroin cold turkey?

While you can quit heroin cold turkey, it is far more dangerous than seeking professional help. Withdrawal symptoms can endanger your health as your systems are shocked with a lack of the drug they’ve come to depend on.

Those who attempt to go it alone and full stop on heroin may end up overdosing in an attempt to fight withdrawal symptoms, not realizing that their bodies can no longer handle such a high dose of the opioid.

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