The opioid epidemic is one of the most significant public health issues that the United States is facing, and each year, it seems to get worse. For that reason, doctors, scientists, and researchers have been working on new, effective ways to treat opioid addiction. As one of the leading causes of opioid addiction and overdose, heroin addiction is the focus of a lot of research.

In addition to evidence-based addiction therapy methods, there are a variety of pharmacological options.

Learn more about the medications that are used to treat opioid addiction and the possibility for heroin addiction vaccines in the future.

Heroin Overdose Vaccine

Naloxone is an opioid antagonist that’s used to reverse opioid overdoses. The drug, which is sold under the name Narcan, is sometimes called an opioid overdose vaccine, but the word “antidote” is probably more accurate.

Naloxone binds to opioid receptors and kicks off any existing opioids. Once it’s on its binding site, the fact that it’s an antagonist means that it doesn’t activate the receptor. In other words, it stops the effects of an opioid immediately.

During an overdose, the opioid is causing opioid receptors to work overtime, which produces dangerous effects like respiratory depression. Naloxone stops those effects in their tracks. However, it may need to be readministered more than once if the drug in your system is particularly potent or if it has a longer half-life than naloxone.

Naloxone is a life-saving overdose treatment, but what about addiction?

What About Heroin Addiction?

There are no currently accepted vaccines for heroin addiction, but there are several medications that are used in treating opioid use disorders. However, the opioid epidemic has spurred researchers to look for new ways to treat opioid addiction more effectively. Here are some of the currently used medications and some that are on the horizon:

Medication-assisted Treatment

Medication-assisted treatment (MAT) is a method of treating addiction that combines traditional addiction therapies with medications used to help curb withdrawal symptoms.

Heroin addiction is dangerous and difficult to overcome. In traditional treatment, you will go through a detox phase that can include uncomfortable flu-like withdrawal symptoms. It’s ideal for ridding your body of chemical dependence and then to go through an addiction treatment program.

However, some people find the withdrawal process unbearable, which leads to relapse.

Others relapse after detox because of powerful drug cravings. Chronic relapse occurs when people go through treatment and relapse multiple times.

In these cases, it can help to augment traditional treatment methods with medications that are intended to diminish cravings and withdrawal symptoms. In MAT, you skip the withdrawal phase and go straight into addiction treatment, where you address underlying issues and learn to deal with triggers.

After you’ve gone through addiction and separate yourself from the lifestyle of active addiction, you will slowly wean off of the medication.


Buprenorphine is a partial agonist of opioid receptors in the brain and body. That means that it’s in the opioid category of drugs, but it only partially activates the receptors it attaches to. The medication is used to treat opioid addiction and dependence.

Buprenorphine can bind to opioid receptors in addicted people and prevent them from having serious cravings or opioid withdrawal symptoms. At the same time, the opioid is weak enough that it doesn’t cause intoxication or mind-altering effects.

People going through buprenorphine treatment are able to live, work, and attend treatment without having to go through uncomfortable cravings first. However, buprenorphine can be abused if the drug is injected, but with close daily monitoring, people going through this treatment have plenty of accountability.

Still, there is another medication that can help people avoid buprenorphine abuse.


Suboxone is a combination of buprenorphine and naloxone, the overdose antidote. But if naloxone blocks opioids from binding to receptors, won’t it cancel out the effects of buprenorphine? Not exactly.

Suboxone is taken sublingually. That means a small strip is placed under the tongue and the medicine is absorbed into your bloodstream through your mouth. Buprenorphine can make it through your tissue and into your bloodstream, but naloxone can’t. Only small amounts of the opioid antagonist will reach your bloodstream, leaving it almost completely inactive.

However, if the drug is abused by taking it in other ways (like intravenously) or if it’s used in very high amounts, naloxone kicks in. When this happens, the naloxone will kick the buprenorphine and any other opioid off of their receptors and block opioid receptor activity. The result is often immediate withdrawal symptoms. Suboxone provides a safety net that presents a strong barrier between you and relapse.


Recently, another medication has taken buprenorphine to the next level. Buprenorphine and Suboxone are both taken daily and dispensed in outpatient facilities.

Because addiction can compel people to take extreme measures to get high, opioid medications that are used to treat addiction are given out very carefully. People going through this type of treatment will have to visit a center each day.

The FDA approved a once-a-month buprenorphine medication in 2017. Normally, taking enough buprenorphine to last a month would cause intoxicating symptoms and could even be life-threatening. However, Sublocade involves a fairly ingenious method of delivery that provides a steady dose of the medication over the month.

Sublocade involves a subcutaneous injection that’s given once a month. That means it’s injected just under the skin, typically on the abdomen. The medicine involves a semipermeable pocket that encircles the buprenorphine dose.

Over the month, this pocket will leak, supplying you with a steady, appropriate dose of the drug. The fact that it’s once per month means more med compliance, less time in outpatient facilities, and less time worrying about taking medications each day.

Also, it’s impossible to taper off of Sublocade, because it involves a fixed dose. Instead, you would need to switch to something like Suboxone to taper.

Heroin Addiction Vaccines

A vaccine is a medication that essentially teaches your immune system to fight off an intruding disease. So far, when people use the term “addiction vaccine,” it’s just a phrase that means an effective addiction medication, not a true vaccine.

However, there may be one on the horizon. In the past decade, scientists have been working on a vaccine that can limit the rewarding effects of specific opioids like heroin, morphine, fentanyl, and fentanyl analogs. The vaccine uses your body’s antibodies to fight incoming heroin and blocks it from reaching the pleasure centers of your brain.

Addiction is caused by a drug’s rewarding effects altering the way the reward center of your brain reacts to drug use. This part of your brain is designed to encourage you to do healthy, rewarding things like eating, drinking, and forming social bonds.

But heroin causes some of the same chemical releases as those activities, causing your brain to compel you to get more heroin. If the vaccine can block the rewarding effects, it can limit the addictive quality of the drug. The vaccine would be administered once every few months.

Seeking Addiction Treatment

Heroin addiction is a serious disease that needs to be addressed as soon as possible. Each hit of an illicit drug is unpredictable and can lead to overdose, infectious diseases, and other issues.

To learn more about how heroin addiction can be treated, speak to an addiction treatment specialist at California Highlands Vistas. Call at any time to hear about the addiction therapy options that might be available to you. Start your journey to lasting freedom from active heroin addiction today.

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