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.

How Does Heroin Work?

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.

What are the Signs of Heroin Addiction?

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:

  • Depression
  • Memory issues
  • Confusion
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Insomnia
  • Constant itching
  • Chronic constipation
  • Sexual dysfunction
  • Irregular menstrual cycles
  • Track marks

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:

  • Increasing tolerance to heroin’s effects
  • Constant cravings for heroin
  • Withdrawal symptoms when not using heroin
  • Social isolation
  • Lying about heroin use
  • A noticeable decline in performances at work or school
  • Relationship problems resulting from heroin use
  • Using savings or valuables to pay for heroin
  • Legal problems
  • The inability to stop using heroin, even after repeated attempts

What’s Involved in Heroin Addiction Treatment?

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:

  • Behavioral therapy
  • Group counseling
  • Dual diagnosis treatment
  • Holistic therapy
  • EMDR therapy
  • Addiction education
  • Medication-assisted treatment
  • Relapse prevention planning

How Dangerous is Heroin?

Chronic heroin abuse can lead to a wide range of potentially fatal health problems, including:

  • Heart disease
  • Kidney and liver damage
  • Increased risk of heart attack and stroke
  • Increased risk of miscarriages
  • Frequent infections resulting from a damaged immune system

If someone has been intravenously abusing heroin, they open themselves up to even more severe health consequences, which could include:

  • Collapsed veins
  • Heart infections
  • Pneumonia
  • Infections and abscesses
  • Hepatitis and HIV

The Signs of a Heroin Overdose Include:

  • Extremely weak pulse
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Pinprick pupils
  • Dizziness
  • Convulsions
  • Dangerously slow and shallow breathing
  • Blue skin around the lips and fingernails
  • Drifting in and out of consciousness
  • Comas

Heroin Abuse Statistics

  •     In 2017, more than 30 percent of all opioid-related overdose deaths in the U.S. involved heroin, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA).
  •     In the U.S., approximately 115 people per day die of an overdose due to heroin and other opioids.
  •     In 2017, an average of 220 people per day used heroin for the first time in 2017, according to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH)
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