Heroin’s reputation as a dangerous and highly addictive drug is well-deserved, and heroin addiction is serious. Learn more here.
What is Heroin?
It is difficult to find an illicit drug with a longer and more notorious history than heroin. Heroin’s reputation as a dangerous and highly addictive drug is well-deserved. In 2019 alone, four deaths for every 100,000 Americans were heroin-related.1 Tragically, one-third of all opioid-related deaths involved heroin. Heroin deaths have increased seven-fold In the past two decades, making heroin addiction a serious concern.
Heroin is an opiate, a class of drugs that come from the opium poppy plant. Within the pods of this plant is a milky-white substance, from which many potent painkillers — both legal and illegal — are made today. Opiates and drugs that have similar properties to opiates are all called opioids.
How Addictive is Heroin?
The current opioid epidemic has made heroin both more tempting and less attractive to people with an opioid substance abuse problem.3 For example, the rise in oxycodone addiction may have lured past and potential heroin users. However, current prescriptive restrictions on opioid painkillers may also push those addicted to those painkillers toward heroin use.
How is Heroin Used?
Because of the negative social stigma associated with intravenous (IV) drug use, most first-time users start by smoking heroin or snorting heroin. Their high becomes less intense the more a person smokes or snorts heroin.
Repeated use reduces the euphoric feeling, creating the need for more of the drug. People who use heroin may resort to increasing their dose or injecting heroin to achieve the same feeling they did before, resulting in addiction or a heroin overdose.
Signs of Heroin Addiction
Heroin is a depressant that impacts the central nervous system (CNS), which accounts for much of the signs of heroin use. The CNS is the “central control” of the body’s functions, which is why heroin has both a psychological and physical effect. For example, “heroin eyes” are pinpoint and constricted due to heroin’s influence on the CNS. The following are the most common signs of heroin use:
Heroin Addiction’s Effects
Heroin addiction can have both short-term and long-term adverse effects on the body.
The short-term effects can include the physical effects listed above, like dry mouth, nausea, and vomiting. Long-term use of heroin can result in serious health complications like:4
Chronic heroin use may blunt the euphoric effects of the drug, creating the desire for a higher dose. Due to heroin’s effect on the nervous system, higher doses can result in a heroin overdose. The nerve centers that control breathing and heartbeat are impacted by heroin, causing breathing and heart rate to slow down. Excessive heroin use can reduce breathing and heart rate, causing oxygen deprivation to the point of death.
The most significant barrier to stopping the addiction to heroin is withdrawal. Chronic or heavy heroin use creates a physical dependency, and uncomfortable heroin withdrawal symptoms occur when use stops. Until the drug is sufficiently flushed from the body, heroin withdrawal symptoms can make the process difficult and distressing.
In the first twenty-four hours of withdrawal, the following heroin withdrawal symptoms may occur:5
How Long Does Heroin Stay in Your System?
Heroin is a drug with a short half-life. A half-life determines how long a drug remains in the body. For example, it takes fifteen to thirty minutes for half of a heroin dose to be eliminated from the body. Heroin is detectable in hair, blood, and urine. The drug remains in the body for varying amounts of time, depending on how it’s taken into the body.6
Risks of Heroin Addiction
A heroin overdose is the most significant risk that can stem from heroin addiction because without an intervention it can result in death. Other risks include exposure to infected body fluids through intravenous drug use. Sharing drug paraphernalia like needles increases the risk of HIV and hepatitis. Additionally, heroin addiction makes individuals more proven to risky behaviors like unprotected sex.
Treatment for Heroin Addiction
Despite the addictive nature of opiates like heroin, there are a variety of approaches available for drug treatment. Addiction interventions may include behavioral and pharmacological therapies.
Treatment for heroin addiction starts with withdrawing through drug detox. The process of drug detox can be challenging due to heroin withdrawal symptoms, but medical attention can make the process less challenging. Detox alone is not enough to help an individual recover from heroin addiction. Typically, drug rehabilitation is the next step after detoxification.7
Rehabilitation for heroin addiction may occur through inpatient or outpatient services, depending on an individual’s needs. To help curb cravings and improve the chances for a successful recovery, some individuals choose medication-assisted therapy (MAT) to help in the rehabilitation process. MAT utilizes pharmacological options to reduce cravings and manage heroin withdrawal symptoms.
Behavioral therapy can be initiated in conjunction with MAT, to help modify negative behaviors that result in continued drug use. A licensed therapist works with the individual using evidence-based treatments like cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). CBT seeks to change harmful thought patterns and behaviors that lead to heroin use.