Heroin is an extremely potent opioid that was derived from morphine. Over 200 years ago, Bayer was trying to create codeine, a less powerful and addictive alternative to morphine. At that time, morphine was used in over-the-counter cough suppressants, and abuse and addiction had become widespread problems.
Instead, they created heroin, which was being marketed as a “non-addictive morphine substitute,” despite being significantly more addictive than morphine. Users rapidly became addicted and overdosed, which led to heroin manufacturing being banned in the U.S. in 1924.
Even so, heroin abuse and addiction continue to be a major issue in the U.S. In fact, they’re a significant part of the ongoing opioid epidemic, which has contributed to tens of thousands of overdose deaths in the past few years.
One tactic for getting the opioid crisis under control has involved limiting and restricting the availability of prescription opioids. While this tactic has proven successful, opioid abuse is already showing a decline. But it’s had the unfortunate side effect of driving those already addicted to prescription opioids to heroin, which has now become cheaper and easier to obtain.
One of the reasons why heroin is so cheap is that manufacturers have been more frequently cutting it with fentanyl. This synthetic opioid is much stronger than heroin, and it can cause unknowing users to quickly have a fatal overdose.
Like other opioids, heroin is a central nervous system (CNS) depressant. It works by slowing down activity within the CNS to keep pain signals from reaching the brain, so it induces intense feelings of sedation and intoxication. Since the body naturally produces its own opioids, they help regulate pain and stress by inhibiting the previously mentioned nerve signals, although the effect isn’t as strong as the ones provided by heroin.
By increasing the levels of a neurotransmitter called gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), your brain can regulate feelings of anxiety, stress, and fear by inhibiting the nerve impulses that carry these feelings to the brain. Heroin mimics this natural GABA flow, so it binds with receptors in the brain, activates them over and over, and creates an excess flood of GABA.
The signs of heroin addiction may become easy to spot once they’ve become too severe to miss. However, the ability to identify the more subtle signs of the early stages of abuse and addiction can make all the difference in saving someone’s life.
Unfortunately, this ability is more difficult than people think, as the symptoms of addiction don’t all appear at the same time. Furthermore, you can easily dismiss isolated signs of abnormal behavior if you don’t know what to look for.
Nonetheless, some common side effects of regular heroin abuse can serve as signals of a growing number of substance use problems. They include:
Addiction is a progressive disease, which means it worsens over time. Specifically, heroin abuse can progress to dependence and eventually addiction. One of the most significant markers of addiction is a loss of control over their use.
At this point, heroin will become the driving force in a user’s life. It will basically outweigh other priorities in their lives, which will become increasingly apparent. During this time, the signs of heroin addiction will usually include at least some of the following:
Medical detoxification is usually the first recommended step in the treatment of almost any addictive substance. The goal of detox is to help treat acute intoxication and prevent further damage caused by having the substance in a user’s body.
Despite the potency of heroin, its withdrawal symptoms are on the milder end of the spectrum, compared to benzodiazepines or alcohol. However, heroin detox should still never be attempted alone, as there is a high risk of relapse. Certain symptoms can be dangerous without some kind of medical supervision.
In a professional detox, withdrawal symptoms and potential complications can be managed through the administration of detox medications. Some treatment centers may also utilize medical maintenance therapy, which involves replacing heroin with weaker, safer opioid alternatives, including Suboxone and buprenorphine.
Once someone has completed detox, the next stage in heroin treatment should be ongoing care in an inpatient or outpatient recovery program. But detox alone isn’t enough to treat addiction. Instead, it’s necessary for users to address all aspects of their heroin addiction and the underlying issues that have contributed to it.
The next phase may be an inpatient or outpatient program, depending on the needs of the individual in treatment. If they have a history of relapse or a co-occurring disorder, they will most likely benefit from the more intensive care provided by inpatient treatment, which involves 24/7 access to medical professionals.
Conversely, someone in the earlier stages of addiction may be in good health and have a strong support network. If so, an outpatient program will allow them to commute to treatment.
Whichever choice a patient makes, they will work with doctors, clinicians, and staff members to learn how to manage their heroin addiction in a more effective and positive way. Here are some of the common therapies and treatment elements users can expect to receive:
Chronic heroin abuse can lead to a wide range of potentially fatal health problems, including:
If someone has been intravenously abusing heroin, they open themselves up to even more severe health consequences, which could include:
As the country continues struggling with the ongoing opioid crisis, you could risk becoming another statistic if you waiti to get help for heroin abuse.
At California Highlands Vistas Addiction Treatment, we know that quitting is never easy, and it can sometimes feel impossible. But we also know we can work together to achieve a lasting recovery from heroin addiction and a brighter tomorrow.
Legg, T. J., PhD. (2016, June). Signs of Heroin Addiction. Retrieved from https://www.healthline.com/health/signs-heroin-addiction
National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2018, August 09). Overdose Death Rates. Retrieved from https://www.drugabuse.gov/related-topics/trends-statistics/overdose-death-rates
Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. (2018, September). 2017 NSDUH Annual National Report. Retrieved from https://www.samhsa.gov/data/report/2017-nsduh-annual-national-report