Heroin has earned its reputation as one of the most alluring, addictive and lethal drugs available. Derived from morphine, a substance that comes from the opium poppy, heroin is a powerful narcotic that causes sensations ranging from serenity and drowsiness to ecstasy and euphoria. By sedating the central nervous system, heroin has a direct impact on your body’s most critical functions, including your heartbeat and your breathing. An overdose of heroin can quickly lead to unconsciousness, coma and death.
The fear of addiction and the risk of overdose haven’t stopped millions of people from abusing heroin. The National Survey on Drug Use and Health, an important measure of drug abuse in the U.S., showed that the number of Americans over the age of 11 who had used heroin in the past 12 months increased by almost 300,000 between 2011 and 2012. Fortunately, a comprehensive opiate rehab program can help even long-term addicts recover from addiction and lead fulfilling, drug-free lives. The sooner you seek treatment for yourself or a loved one, the greater your chances of avoiding the physical and emotional devastation of heroin abuse.
What Makes Heroin So Seductive?
Heroin exerts its effects by activating receptor cells in the brain that respond to opiates, substances that regulate our experiences of pain and pleasure. Whether the drug is injected intravenously, snorted in powder form or smoked, heroin acts quickly. Within minutes after you take the drug, it is broken down by the body into morphine – a substance that easily crosses the blood-brain barrier. Once it enters the blood stream, morphine binds to the opiate receptor cells, triggering a release of dopamine, a neurotransmitter that creates feelings of pleasure and happiness. In short, heroin holds the power to make you feel good — fast.
The intensity and immediacy of these reactions make heroin the most addictive of the drugs in the opiate family, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse. Chemical dependence occurs very rapidly as the brain develops a tolerance to the drug. The more you use heroin, the stronger your physical and psychological need for this narcotic becomes. Withdrawal from heroin can be extremely uncomfortable, which makes addiction even harder to overcome.
An Equal Opportunity Drug
Heroin abuse was once considered to be a vice limited to hardcore drug users and people who lead a rough life on the streets. Today, the problem has spread to touch every segment of society, from poor single parents to movie stars and suburbanites. A recent rise in the abuse of prescription opiates, such as oxycodone and hydrocodone, has contributed to a spike in heroin abuse among middleclass teens and young adults. Suburban teens who abuse prescription narcotics may turn to heroin and other street drugs if their drugs of choice are unavailable or overpriced.
The National Criminal Justice Reference Service estimates that over 600,000 people in the United States are addicted to heroin. Out of this number, an increasing percentage is young people. In the past, the majority of heroin users were mature adults who were already struggling with long-term drug addiction. In the 21st century, a growing number of young people are trying heroin for the first time — and progressing quickly from experimentation to abuse and addiction.
Dangers and Health Consequences
The seductive rush of a heroin high comes with a very steep price. Soon after the drug enters your system, it has a host of destructive short-term effects:
- Respiratory depression
- Slow heart rate
- Low blood pressure
- Mental confusion
- Risk of miscarriage and premature delivery
- Nausea and vomiting
Overdose is the most serious short-term side effect of heroin abuse. An overdose occurs when you take a larger dose of heroin than your body can handle. Because heroin is a street drug that varies in purity, many overdoses are caused by a lack of awareness of a drug’s strength. The news of a dangerously potent version of heroin can create a demand among users in search of a more powerful rush.
An overdose is a medical emergency that requires immediate attention. Unfortunately, because heroin use is illegal, many users avoid seeking help until it’s too late.
Over time, the continued use of heroin can cause a number of chronic, life-threatening health problems. Many of these are associated with intravenous drug use and unprotected sex with other IV drug users:
- Blood-borne diseases, such as HIV/AIDS and hepatitis B and C
- Damage to the heart and blood vessels
- Systemic bacterial infections
- Arthritis and other complications with the musculoskeletal system
- Complications with pregnancy
- Birth defects in the children of heroin users
- An increased risk of sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS)
Chemical dependence and addiction are two of the most dangerous long-term effects of heroin abuse. Heroin is notoriously addictive, and it doesn’t take long to develop a strong physical need for the drug. Heroin withdrawal is not fatal, in most cases, but it can be so painful that it feels life-threatening. Symptoms of heroin withdrawal include nausea, vomiting, sweats, chills, muscle aches, bone pain, diarrhea, goosebumps, and intense, overwhelming cravings for the drug.
Although it’s possible to get through the withdrawal phase and detoxify from heroin on your own, you’re much more likely to move successfully from detox to recovery if you seek support from addiction treatment specialists.
From Abuse to Addiction
For many heroin users, the journey from casual, recreational use to abuse, dependence and addiction is alarmingly short.
Soon after you begin using heroin, your brain adjusts to the new level of dopamine, a naturally produced chemical that creates the distinctive euphoria of opiate use. Before long, a tolerance to heroin develops, which means that you’ll need larger doses or stronger forms of the drug to achieve the same high.
After you’ve been using heroin for a certain period of time, you may rely on the drug not only to feel good, but also to feel physically and psychologically normal. This condition, known as dependence, can lead rapidly to addiction, a chronic disease characterized by compulsive drug seeking and drug abuse, in spite of the obvious damage that heroin is doing to your mind and body.
The effects of heroin can numb sensations of pain — both physical and emotional. The more you use this drug, the more heavily you will come to rely on its effects to deal with difficult memories, painful emotions and personal stress. Once you enter the realm of heroin addiction, your daily life will revolve around obtaining and using the drug. For many users, the cost of a heroin habit leads to poverty, unemployment and homelessness. They may turn to selling drugs, prostitution or panhandling to support their habit, giving up their families, homes and careers in the pursuit of a fleeting high.
When Someone You Love Is Using
It’s impossible to know which is more painful: living through the consequences of heroin abuse as a user or as the loved one of a user. Watching someone you care about give her life to drug abuse can be one of the hardest trials you’ve ever faced, especially if that person absolutely refuses to acknowledge the problem. But if you’re concerned that a friend or family member might be using, early intervention is the best way to help them avoid the tragic consequences of heroin abuse.
Be alert to the following clues that someone you love is using heroin:
- A change in sleeping habits
- Giving up favorite activities
- Abandoning close friends for a “new crowd”
- Missing work or school
- Unexplained weight loss or gain
- Wearing clothes that conceal the arms or legs
- A persistent cough or hoarseness
- Frequent requests for financial help
- Bruises, lesions or track marks on the arms
- Constant, unexplained fatigue
- Mood swings
Heroin abuse manifests itself in physical, emotional and behavioral ways. The more you know about heroin abuse and its side effects, the more likely you are to detect the signs before a dangerous overdose occurs.
Rehab and Recovery
Heroin abuse is not a death sentence; it’s a clear signal that you or someone you love needs help. Recovering from heroin dependence can be extremely difficult, but with a range of treatment services at your disposal, it’s possible to regain your hope and health.
A successful treatment plan for heroin abuse involves:
- A period of detoxification, in which the drug is cleared from your system under medical supervision for maximum safety and effectiveness
- An opiate replacement program using a drug like methadone, buprenorphine or naltrexone to help you manage your cravings
- Intensive, personalized psychotherapy to help you learn new coping strategies and change destructive thought patterns
- Peer group therapy to help you build a support network of recovering addicts
- Counseling and education for spouses, partners and children
- Long-term recovery support to help you stay clean and sober after you graduate from rehab
Longitudinal research studies suggest that there is always hope for healing, even among long-term addicts. A 33-year follow-up study published in the Journal of Addictive Diseases showed that addicts who participated in recovery programs that boosted their sense of competence and addressed underlying psychological issues had the highest rates of long-term recovery.
The integrated treatment programs at Futures are founded on therapeutic strategies that get to the heart of your addiction. We address every aspect of the rehabilitation process, from the medical demands of detox to the need for behavioral modification and stress management skills. Our approach to treatment emphasizes motivation, inner strength and personal empowerment. Call our admissions team to find out how we can help you start the recovery process today.