Heroin is an opioid first manufactured in 1874 made from morphine. Morphine is a naturally occurring compound present in the seeds of the opium poppy. Developed by Alder Wright, heroin was thought to be a less addictive opioid than morphine. Unfortunately, this was not the case. With heroin being just as addictive as morphine, the US government made the substance illegal.
Users snort, smoke, or inject heroin. Once the drug has entered the bloodstream, it quickly passes the blood-brain barrier and interacts with receptors that regulate the sensations of pain and pleasure. Heroin also affects heart rate, sleep, and breathing.
It Doesn’t Take Long to Become Addicted to Heroin
While addiction can develop relatively quickly, heroin addiction typically develops over time with repeated use and the development of a regular habit.
After a few times using heroin, individuals may find that the same dose doesn’t give them the same high experience. This is known as developing tolerance and is the first step toward developing dependence and addiction.
The exact mechanisms in the brain responsible for heroin addiction are still unknown. Experts know that heroin disrupts how certain natural chemicals in the brain behave. Certain pathways that are reliant on these chemicals instead become reliant on heroin for normal function. When this occurs, the individual can no longer control their heroin use and may be unable to stop using heroin without severe physical consequences. These are the hallmark symptoms of addiction.
Heroin Addiction is Dangerous
The longer an individual is addicted to heroin, the more likely they are to develop side effects. Even after one use of heroin, adverse effects may appear.
The short-term risks of heroin use and abuse include low blood pressure, anxiety, depression, heart rhythm abnormalities, and unconsciousness. Long-term risks of heroin use include permanent heart damage, cognitive deterioration, liver disease, kidney disease, and circulatory problems.
Individuals who inject heroin are at risk of developing infections and abscesses. If they reuse or share needles, individuals are at risk of contracting HIV or hepatitis C.
There is always the risk of an overdose with heroin that could lead to slowed or stopped breathing unconsciousness, and death.
How to Identify and Treat a Heroin Overdose
Heroin has powerful effects on the brain. An individual who has overdosed on heroin will show certain symptoms as a result of the drug flooding their central nervous system. If you notice anyone with these symptoms, they may have overdosed on heroin.
- Pinpoint pupils
- Shallow, slow, or stopped breathing
- Weak or no pulse
- Blue tint on lips and fingernails
- Inability to stay awake or inability to be roused from sleep
Fortunately, there is a treatment that can reverse the effects of heroin. Naloxone is a potentially life-saving medication in the treatment of opioid overdose. It works by binding to opioid receptors in the brain, preventing heroin from interacting with these receptors.
Naloxone is given into the nose or can be injected into the bloodstream to treat heroin overdose. Depending on the amount of heroin in an individual’s system, more than one dose of naloxone may be necessary to reduce overdose symptoms.
Unfortunately, naloxone is quickly metabolized by the body while heroin is not. An addict will need continuing medical care after naloxone administration to survive a heroin overdose.
Anyone Can Become Addicted to Heroin
Heroin addiction affects individuals of all ages, ethnicities, and economic status. The CDC has classified heroin abuse as an epidemic, with the death rate from heroin overdoses increasing by 6% from 2018 to 2019.
Heroin use is increasing among young adults, women, and individuals with private health insurance. Data collected on heroin use between 2001 and 2013 showed that the greatest increase in heroin use was among Caucasian Americans.
Heroin Users May Have Other Mental Health Disorders
It’s not uncommon for individuals addicted to heroin to have another mental health disorder like PTSD, anxiety, or depression. These individuals may turn to heroin as a way to self-medicate or control their underlying mental health condition.
It’s also common for individuals to develop one of these mental health disorders because of heroin use. Heroin affects brain chemistry. This can result in the temporary development of one or more symptoms of a different mental health disorder. Over time, these symptoms may become permanent.
Withdrawal from Heroin is Complicated
Withdrawal symptoms depend on an individual’s use frequency, dose, and duration. Not everyone with the same use history will experience withdrawal the same way.
The most common withdrawal symptoms are restlessness, diarrhea, vomiting, cold flashes, and severe heroin cravings. These symptoms, known as acute withdrawal symptoms, start within 12 hours and last for up to 72 hours. Since withdrawal symptoms can be severe, many individuals should consider a medically monitored withdrawal.
Withdrawal doesn’t end once the physical symptoms have subsided. Heroin withdrawal has three phases, the last of which can last for years when not treated appropriately. Chronic withdrawal symptoms include insomnia, constipation, drug cravings, and depression.
Heroin Addiction Can Be Treated
Addiction treatment can help individuals break the cycle to stop using heroin and stay sober. There are many philosophies for addiction management. The most successful treatment programs use research-based treatment, medically supported withdrawal, and behavioral therapy.
The potential for relapse is high with heroin addiction. Some research shows that about two-thirds of individuals who complete a treatment program relapse. Treatment programs that teach abstinence-only have the highest relapse rate. Addiction is a chronic disease that requires dedication and continued treatment throughout the individual’s life.
It’s possible to reclaim your life from heroin addiction. The recovery process is long and challenging, making it essential to select the right treatment center for you. Learn more about the holistic approach to addiction recovery at Right Path Treatment Centers.
Native of Moldova, Dr. Zhitar is Board Certified in Addiction Medicine as well as Internal Medicine and completed his training at UPMC Shadyside, Pittsburgh, PA in 2000.