Signs and Symptoms of Heroin Use, Abuse, and Addiction

What Is Heroin?

Heroin is a potent opiate drug made from morphine, a substance derived from the seeds of the opium poppy plant. You can inject, snort, sniff, or smoke heroin. Heroin causes a powerful high in the user that may include feelings of euphoria and pain relief.

How Does Heroin Affect the Brain?

Heroin acts on our natural opioid system, a part of the body involved in regulating many essential functions including pain and mood. The opioid system consists of different types of opioid receptors and natural “endogenous” opioids that bind to them. Depending on the type of receptor, this binding may relieve pain, regulate our metabolisms, regulate our cardiovascular systems, and cause euphoric responses.

When you take heroin, it quickly crosses the blood-brain barrier. The body metabolizes it into morphine and it binds to opioid receptors. Due to the potency of heroin, it produces effects that are much stronger than our natural opioid responses. Drugs like heroin and morphine also affect brain cells differently than natural opioids, binding to receptors inside nerve cells as well as outside.

Understanding Heroin Addiction

Heroin’s addictive properties lie in the way the substance affects the reward systems in the brain.

One of the natural functions of the opioid system is to reward and reinforce behaviors that enable our survival. For example, when you eat, your body releases endogenous opioids to produce feelings of pleasure, making you want to eat again.

When you take heroin, it hijacks this system, producing strong urges to seek and use heroin. These urges can be difficult to resist, despite any negative consequences of heroin use.

The potency of heroin means that you can develop an addiction very quickly. Moreover, the effects of heroin addiction are characterized by long-lasting or even permanent physical changes to the brain’s reward systems that usually require professional treatment to overcome.

What is the Difference Between Heroin Abuse and Addiction?

Drug abuse is when you use substances in a way that you shouldn’t. With prescription drugs, this may involve taking higher doses than your doctor prescribes or using a prescription drug for its recreational effects.

However, as a Schedule 1 controlled substance with no currently accepted medical use, any kind of heroin use is heroin abuse. Heroin abuse refers to any instance or pattern of heroin use, regardless of the severity or nature of the problem.

Heroin addiction, on the other hand, is a medical condition where you compulsively seek and ingest heroin, despite any negative consequences. Heroin addiction is a severe form of a heroin use disorder, a medical diagnosis set out in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. While anyone who has a heroin addiction also abuses heroin, not everyone who abuses heroin lives with addiction.

What Are the Symptoms, Signs, and Warning Flags of Heroin Addiction and Abuse?

Symptoms of heroin addiction and abuse may be physical, behavioral, and psychological. If you’re worried that a loved one may be abusing heroin or you are concerned that you have developed an addiction, it may be helpful to read through these signs. You may also want to contact a mental health professional or addiction specialist for expert advice.

Signs of Heroin Use

  • Needle tracks on the body
  • Evidence of drug paraphernalia such as syringes or glass pipes
  • Sleepiness
  • Clouded mental functioning
  • Pinpoint pupils
  • Itching
  • Nausea and/or vomiting
  • Constipation
  • Skin infections
  • Lower immunity to illness

Physical, Psychological, and Behavioral Symptoms of Heroin Addiction

  • Dominating your thoughts and your daily routines – heroin becomes the priority in your life
  • Neglecting responsibilities, duties, and obligations due to heroin use
  • Lying to friends and family members or acting secretively to hide heroin use
  • Undergoing financial difficulties
  • Experiencing heroin withdrawal symptoms (usually flu-like symptoms) if you stop taking heroin
  • Continuing to take heroin despite negative consequences for your physical and mental health

What Are the Causes and Risk Factors for Addiction?

While there is no one cause for heroin addiction, there are several risk factors that can make developing an addiction more likely.

However, experiencing these factors does not mean you will necessarily develop an addiction, and you can become addicted without experiencing any of them. Moreover, positive social and psychological interventions can help prevent those most at risk from developing addictions.

Risk factors of heroin addiction include:

  • Genetics
  • Family history of addiction
  • Exposure to trauma
  • Mental health concerns
  • Environmental factors such as substance use among peers
  • Age of first use

What Are the Dangers of Heroin Use?

Heroin is a potent substance that can seriously damage your mental and physical health. Heroin users may experience a range of short-term and long-term health problems, including:

  • insomnia
  • infection of the heart
  • abscesses
  • constipation and stomach cramping
  • kidney and liver disease
  • lung conditions
  • mental illnesses such as depression
  • sexual dysfunction
  • irregular menstrual cycles
  • heroin overdose
  • effects of heroin addiction

Heroin Overdose

Overdose is probably the most serious danger of heroin use. Overdose can happen to anybody and may be fatal without immediate medical support. In 2019, 14000 people in the United States died from a heroin overdose.

When you overdose on an opioid, your cardiovascular system and breathing slow down or even stop. It decreases the amount of oxygen in the brain, potentially causing brain damage or death.

It’s important to know heroin overdose effects so you know when to seek medical support. Doctors can administer the life-saving drug Naloxone which binds to opioid receptors and reverses the overdose. Signs of overdose include:

  • shallow breathing
  • pale skin
  • blue lips or fingertips
  • confusion
  • unresponsiveness

What Is the Scope of Heroin Use in the United States?

Despite its risks, heroin use is not uncommon in the United States. In 2020, about 900,000 adults over 12 in the United States reported using heroin in the past year. Around 2/3 of them also had a heroin use disorder.

The number of deaths by heroin overdose has decreased in recent years, from over 15,000 in 2016 to just over 13,000 in 2020. However, the rates of overdose by opioids in general (including other types of opioid drugs) continue to increase, reaching 68,830 in 2020.

Heroin Addiction Treatment

If you or someone you know is using heroin, you are not alone. There is effective support available to help people overcome drug addiction and live fulfilling healthy lives.

In recent decades, scientific research has uncovered a range of evidence-based addiction treatment methods proven to support long-lasting recovery.

Substance abuse treatment programs usually combine a variety of treatment options in individualized programs to suit each client. These may include:

  • cognitive-behavioral therapy
  • other talk therapies
  • group programming
  • support groups
  • complementary therapies like yoga and mindfulness
  • experiential therapies

Addiction recovery is a life-long process that requires commitment and dedication. Most people benefit from joining local self-organized support groups for continued inspiration and support after they have left treatment. The journey isn’t easy – but it is possible, and sober life is well worth the effort.

Alina Lodge Rehabilitation Center

Alina Lodge Rehabilitation Center has a superb addiction treatment center that offers some of the best substance abuse treatment services in the country. We have 60 years of experience delivering evidence-based, expert-led recovery programs that support clients to long-lasting recovery.

Our programs offer a holistic approach, focusing on underlying issues that may drive addictive behavior as well as external support systems like the family unit. Our team includes specialists across the field, delivering a number of personalized modules such as mindfulness and grief therapy. We act with integrity and discretion at all times, treating clients with compassion and dignity.

If you want to overcome addiction and leave drug use behind, contact us today. We’re here for you.

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