Heroin is a very dangerous opiate-based drug that is highly addictive, and can cause significant damage to the health of users.
Heroin is a narcotic street drug with no medical uses making it truly illicit in nature. When the drug is smoked, snorted, injected or otherwise consumed, heroin produces euphoria and sedation that can last up to 8 hours depending on the dose, potency and method of consumption. Using heroin is both dangerous and illegal—repeat use can lead to drug dependence, withdrawal and a heightened risk of overdose.
According to the Center for Substance Abuse Research, heroin is a Schedule I drug which means that is carries a very strong potential for abuse and misuse. Processed naturally from morphine which is derived from the opium poppy, heroin in its pure form is almost never seen on the streets. Instead, mixtures of heroin and other substances or “cuts” are usually seen on the streets. Additives such as powdered milk, other drugs such as cocaine or methamphetamine, and even vitamins or over-the-counter medications are generally added to the white, bitter-tasting powder to bulk the amount up while lowering the overall potency of the drug.
Methods of Heroin Abuse
Heroin is most commonly injected, as this method of use increases the high providing an almost immediate euphoria to the user. Additional methods of heroin abuse include:
- Smoking the drug
- Eating the drug (though not common)
- Snorting the drug nasally
Each method of use has inherent risks and dangers that accommodate the transmission of the drug. For instance, injecting heroin is characterized by serious side effects such as disease contraction through shared needles and skin abscesses or infections at the point of injection. Likewise, snorting heroin can cause damage to the nasal passages. Smoking the drug heightens the risk for serious lung damage including cancer of the esophagus, throat or lungs.
According to Methamphetamine and Other Illicit Drug Education, “the blood brain permeability of heroin is about 10 times that of morphine.” This means that heroin is likely to cross contaminate the brain more quickly and potently than morphine or other opiates. The result is an almost immediate “rush” that can lead to respiratory depression, feelings of pleasure and a lack of pain signals being sent to the spinal cord.
The immediate rush that a heroin user feels only lasts a few minutes at best. This rush is followed by a high that can last for a few hours or more. Users report feeling relaxed, comfortable and completely pain free – the overall high is described by some as warm, pleasurable and orgasmic.
Unfortunately, repeat use of heroin is potentially deadly. Users increase their risk of deadly overdose as tolerance to heroin develops and more of the illicit substance is abused in an effort to produce similar euphoric effects.
Signs of Heroin Abuse
Early recognition of the potential signs of heroin abuse is key to getting the right help and to preventing harmful side effects which include the heightened risk of overdose or death. You may notice the following signs of heroin abuse in a loved one or friend who is abusing this dangerous substance:
- Nodding off
- Constantly trying to stay busy, and nodding off in the process
- Alternating between periods of extreme energy and lack of energy
- Wearing long sleeve clothing during summer months in an effort to cover track / needle marks on the arms
- Skin abscesses or infections at the site of injection
- Acting lethargic, as if the limbs are very heavy and weighed down
- Possessing needles, spoons or other instruments used in the administration of heroin
Signs of Heroin Addiction
According to California State University, “addiction is the only mental disorder that convinces the afflicted that its everyone else who is ill, not himself.” As such, addictive denial causes heroin addicts, as well as other drug addicts, to mistakenly believe that they do not have a problem. Heroin addiction is characterized by chronic relapse, failure to quit despite the known problems caused by the drug, and an inability to control drug use even when such control is desired.
Additional signs of heroin addiction may include:
- Drug-seeking behavior or a preoccupation with heroin.
- Spending excessive amounts of time getting high or seeking heroin.
- Attempting to acquire heroin through illicit or otherwise dangerous means.
- Using heroin despite known consequences.
- Attempting to quit and failing.
- Suffering dire consequences as a result of heroin use, but continuing to abuse the drug.
- Feeling sick or suffering from symptoms of withdrawal when heroin is not used.
One of the greatest tribulations that comes from using heroin is the withdrawal that results following the development of physical dependence on the drug. The University of Maryland Medical Center describes heroin withdrawal as, “the wide range of symptoms that occur after stopping or dramatically reducing opiate drugs after heavy and prolonged use (several weeks or more). Repeat use of heroin leads to physical dependence which causes symptoms of withdrawal if the user reduces the dose or abruptly stops using heroin all together.
Symptoms of withdrawal from heroin can include:
- Irritability and agitation
- Runny nose and watery eyes similar to that experienced when allergies are to blame
- Nausea and vomiting similar to flu
- Sweating and hot / cold flashes
- Abdominal pain and cramping
- Diarrhea and gastrointestinal upset
Although most symptoms of opiate withdrawal are non-life-threatening, those experiencing the symptoms of withdrawal may believe that they are dying. Symptoms can be very painful and difficult to cope with; most users will relapse during the early days of withdrawal as a result of their nagging desire to stop symptoms and “feel” better.
Dangers of Heroin Use
Using heroin can lead to a number of serious side effects and potential dangers including overdose or death. In addition to the complications associated with overdosing on heroin as a result of taking an excessive dose or mixing the substance with other drugs, the National Library of Medicine reports that long-term heroin abuse alters the physical makeup of the genes and areas of the brain which are responsible for behavioral.
The following dangers come as a result of using heroin repeatedly or for a long period of time:
- Hepatitis C
- Limb loss due to infection
- Lung damage
- Liver or kidney disease
- Organ failure
- Track marks
- Permanent scarring
- Brain damage
Treatment Options for Heroin Addicts
According to Harvard Medical School, “in recent years new drug treatments and refinements of older psychological and social therapies are offering some hope of relief,” from heroin addiction. Various forms of treatment do exist to help those who are addicted to heroin but they aren’t always equally effective for every individual. As such, users often must try multiple different methods of treatment, such as CBT, behavioral therapy, counseling, medications and educational opportunities in order to find a mixture of treatment modalities that are effective in:
- Reducing cravings
- Limiting or stopping drug abuse
- Changing behaviors
- Changing attitudes toward drug use
- Improving recovery rates
- Reducing relapse
Detoxification is generally the first step for a user who has become physically dependent on heroin. This process can take just a few days or, if medications are used for maintenance such as methadone or Suboxone, the process can take weeks or even months. During detox, the user is medically supervised and intervention in the form of medication, support and therapeutic care is provided to help ward off symptoms of withdrawal and to ease cravings. For most, heroin detox takes about 7 days to complete upon which time the individual is no longer physically dependent and can begin to receive counseling and therapy to help them heal from any psychological elements or remnants of the addiction.
Various medications can be used in the treatment of heroin addiction. Such include:
In addition to medication, the following methods of therapy may also be provided to help those who are addicted to get their lives back on track:
- 12-step treatment
- SMART Recovery
- Support Groups including NA
- Behavioral therapy
- Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy
- Motivational Interviewing
- Incentive / Rewards Therapy
If you or someone you know is addicted to heroin, consider seeking professional help right away. The sooner you seek help, the greater your chances will be for a complete, symptom free, recovery. Call (800) 407-7195 to learn about available treatment options.