Heroin is derived from morphine and is considered an opiate, which is a type of drug derived from poppies. As a class A drug, heroin is considered to be one of the most harmful and dangerous drugs that a person can use. Heroin addiction is incredibly intense and dangerous, with individuals becoming addicted to it after even just one use.
Heroin consumption, despite the euphoric feelings it creates, comes with a large variety of dangerous and potentially deadly risks. It is also more addictive than many other drugs, as a smaller number of uses will create dependency. As soon as the addiction develops, the risk of the adverse effects increases significantly. These are the reasons that heroin is considered one of the most dangerous illicit substances that people abuse.
Because of the danger, when someone becomes addicted to heroin, treatment guided by a medical professional is essential to achieve safe and long-lasting recovery.
Why is Heroin so Addictive?
Heroin causes an incredibly euphoric feeling when it is consumed, and as the effects ware off, a user often feels a strong urge to replicate the euphoria. Repeated use (even just a couple times) can lead to a psychological dependency to both feel the euphoria and then avoid the depression and cravings that will start to occur when they do not use the substance.
As psychological dependence grows, the body builds physical dependency. If the user then stops taking the drug, they will feel not only negative psychological symptoms but also negative physical withdrawal symptoms. What starts as a choice that feels good quickly becomes a dependency where the person may find themselves unable to stop.
How Does Heroin Addiction Happen?
The exact reason heroin addiction develops has not been agreed upon by all medical professionals because while addiction develops very fast in some users, others never seem to develop a full dependency or addiction.
It is assumed that a combination of genetic and environmental factors (as explained above) plays a part in whether or not a person will develop dependency or addiction. Either way, heroin is considered to be a highly addictive substance due to the powerful psychological and physical effects.
How is Heroin Used?
There are three common ways that people use heroin: smoking, snorting, and injecting. Injecting is considered to be the most dangerous of the three as it has the added risk of infection due to dirty needles.
All three ways are highly addictive, and after one or two times partaking in any method, a person may find it hard to avoid retaking it. With all three methods, the drug very quickly gets to the brain and blocks pain messages and slows down the heart rate and breathing.
Listed below are the many ways users take heroin:
- Intravenous: One of the most common and most dangerous forms of heroin use, intravenous use is incredibly potent and fast-acting. There are dangers of infection, using the wrong needle, veins collapsing, etc. that are not present with other routes
- Inhalation: This type of administration has an effect on a person within five minutes, which is still considered fast-acting. This is a common way that people first use drugs due to beliefs that it is safe or less addicting
- Transmucosal: This is when the drug enters the body through mucus membranes in the nose, mouth, eyes, rectum, or vagina
- Orally: When taken orally, the drug is processed by the liver and turns into morphine before entering the brain
- Intranasal: Ingestion bypasses the liver and goes directly into the circulatory system. This can be done by snorting the powder or spraying liquid into the nasal cavity
- Rectal: Is done by inserting the drug into the anus. It is then absorbed by the membranes and enters directly into the bloodstream
- Intramuscular: This is when the drug is injected into muscle rather than the vein and is most often done due to error. It is slower acting and likely to cause muscle or nerve damage
- Subcutaneous: Means the drug is injected into the skin and is often accidental. It is likely to lead to skin infections or abscesses
- Intrathecal: This is when the drug is injected directly into the spinal cord and should only be done by medical professionals
Heroin Smoking Versus Injecting
Smoking is done with tin foil, in a pipe, in a hollowed-out object, or rolled with tobacco. It is often where people start when they use heroin. As they develop a tolerance for smoking, they may turn to injection, which has a more potent and fast-acting effect. There are also different paraphernalia associated with injection, such as needles, bent spoons, citric acid packets, cotton balls, and tourniquets.
What Causes Heroin Addiction?
As with any addiction, there is no direct cause. But multiple factors can contribute to the development of substance addiction, such as:
There are genetic links that can be passed down that are associated with a higher risk level for heroin addiction. For example, if someone has less dopamine D2 receptors, they are more likely to develop a dependency on substances like heroin.
There are also genetic traits linked to increased impulsivity, which may cause a person to pay less attention to the risks of trying heroin in the first place.
There are a few different personality traits that make a person more likely to try and develop an addiction to drugs like heroin. If a person is known to be a sensation-seeker, they may purposefully seek out the drug, especially if they have used a prescription opiate in the past.
Someone who is highly impulsive is also more likely to try the drug and develop an addiction. Finally, someone that shows an inherent lack of self-control is more likely to develop a psychological dependency after just one or two uses.
There are two main ways a person's social life can play a part in the development of addiction. First of all, peer pressure. If someone is in a social setting or group that all uses the substance, they may feel increased pressure to do so themselves. Second, a person may turn to the substance to cope with abuse, loneliness, etc.
People who grow up around family members who use substances are substantially more likely to use and develop an addiction. This is because they learn that drug use can be a coping mechanism at a young age, and the person may also have easier access to it.
A person may use heroin to self-medicate for various mental health conditions such as depression and anxiety. If this is the case, during treatment, all of the co-occurring disorders must be treated along with the addiction so that the person can achieve long-lasting sobriety after they leave the treatment centre.
Heroin Physical Dependence and Tolerance
It is important to distinguish between heroin addiction and heroin tolerance. Below we have outlined the main contrasts between the two:
Developing a tolerance goes hand in hand with dependency. Tolerance is when the original dosage that a person took no longer creates the desired response, so they have to take a higher and higher amount. Tolerance creates an increased risk for overdose as a person may take more than their body can handle in search of the high that they like.
Psychological addiction describes the cravings that a person feels to use a drug even when the harmful effects of doing so are apparent to the user. Psychological addiction is one of the reasons that people cannot stop using even if they want to. After detox, while physical symptoms disappear, psychological symptoms take longer to treat.
What Are the Effects of Heroin Abuse?
There are many effects to heroin consumption, all of which are negative and dangerous. These include:
Short Term Effects
- Dry mouth
- Warm or flushed skin
- Heavy feeling appendages
- Upset stomach
Long Term Effects
- Collapsed veins
- Infections of your heart lining valves
- Skin infections
- Liver and kidney disease
- Mental disorders
- Lung diseases
- Menstrual problems
Why Can’t Heroin Users Just Stop Using?
There are two main reasons that a person may find themselves unable to stop using heroin. First of all, the adverse physical and psychological effects that the person may feel when they stop using heroin may be too great to stand without medical help.
In fact, some of the symptoms when a person is going through withdrawal can even be dangerous or deadly. The second reason a person may be unable to stop is that they may not even be aware that their heroin use is the problem. They may feel like it is the only way they can cope with life.
Consequences of Heroin Addiction
Heroin use is detrimental to individuals, their loved ones, and to society. It only results in negative and unwanted repercussions such as:
- People with addiction to heroin often spend upwards of £20 every day or up to three figures for heavy users
- May deal with unemployment and therefore not make money to fund their addiction
- May burn through savings
- May resort to theft, fraud, or prostitution
- Low self-esteem
- Abandon life goals and ambitions
- Despair or hopelessness due to an inability to stop
- Depression or suicidal ideation commonly develop
- Risk of deadly overdose
- Heroin abuse takes a toll on the human body
- Blood poisoning, gangrene, and necrosis may lead to required amputation
- Malnutrition, skin, and dental problems tend to develop
- Families may fall apart due to an addict’s deceitfulness, aggression, or other dangerous behaviour
- The entire family may deal with the financial burden
Signs and Symptoms of Heroin Addiction
Heroin abuse and addiction is one of the easiest substances to spot due to the strength of the drug. Physical changes can happen rapidly, but there are also some behavioural and psychological symptoms to look out for:
What Are the Effects of Heroin Overdose?
There are various signs that a person may be overdosing before it turns fatal. If a heroin user displays any of the following symptoms, it may be an indication that they require immediate medical attention.
- Abnormally small pupils
- Extremely shallow breathing
- A significant drop in blood pressure
- Extremely reduced heart rate
- Bluish tint around mouth or fingertips
- Twitches, spasms, and tremors
Signs You need a Heroin Detox
- Use of heroin of any quantity
- Persistent flu-like symptoms
- Track marks
- Damage to kidney
- Liver damage
- Aching muscles
- Significant weight loss
- Sleep problems
- Respiratory diseases
Intervention for Heroin Treatment
If someone addicted to heroin is reluctant to seek treatment, an intervention by loved ones (both family and friends) could be the push they need to go and get help. This can help someone who is still in the early stages of their addiction and does not yet realize they have a problem or someone that has tried multiple times to stop and failed.
Understanding Heroin Withdrawal: Heroin Detox Symptoms
Heroin withdrawal can be a serious and dangerous medical experience. You will need the assistance of doctors at a detox facility, as well as 24-hour medical care. You will also benefit from medications that can be administered by a team of physicians, when you need.
This is the period where the body empties itself of all remnants of the substance. During this period, the worst physical withdrawal symptoms will occur. Unlike other substances, such as cannabis, heroin has a short half-life, which makes detox a quicker process.
This is the period directly after detox when a person receives the most intensive care to treat psychological addiction and any other co-occurring disorders. During this period, a person will learn valuable coping skills that will help them deal with life and temptation without using the substance again. Post-detox care is essential to long-term sobriety.
Below we have listed some of the most common side-effects of heroin withdrawal that you can expect during detox:
1. Psychological Withdrawal Symptoms
- Vivid dreams
- Mood swings
- Inability to concentrate
2. Physical Withdrawal Symptoms
- Abdominal cramps
- Muscle pain
- Bone pain
- High temperature
- Rapid heart rate
- Excessive sweating
- Reduced appetite
Living with Heroin Dependence
Some medications have been developed to help a person slowly break their addiction without trying to move directly into living drug-free, which can be extremely difficult. While these substances can come with their own set of problems, they can be extremely helpful in aiding someone who struggles with an addiction to live with their heroin dependency.
Is It Possible to Beat a Heroin Addiction?
Yes, it is possible to beat heroin addiction, though the process can be long and difficult. Medical supervision during detox and then intense treatment and therapy afterward are vital tools in helping a person beat their heroin addiction. Even if relapse does occur, going back to treatment and achieving sobriety a second (or more) time is entirely possible.