Heroin Drug Abuse Guide
This article will help you understand more about heroin drug abuse and the dangers of heroin, as well as how to spot addiction to heroin and how to seek help if you or a loved one has a heroin addiction.
What is Heroin?
Heroin is an illegal opioid drug that is derived from morphine, a naturally occurring substance found in certain strains of a poppy plant that is grown mainly in Southeast Asia, Southwest Asia, Mexico, and Columbia. Heroin is sold as a white or brown powder that can be snorted, smoked, or mixed with water and injected. The purer form of powdered heroin is usually smoked or snorted. Much of the heroin found on the street is cut with other substances, such as baby powder, cornstarch, sugar, or quinine. Heroin is also made into a sticky, tar-like substance called “black tar.” Other street names for heroin include Horse, Smack, Big H, Thunder, and Hell Dust. Heroin is classified as a Schedule I drug by the Drug Enforcement Administration, which means it is highly addictive, dangerous, and has no legitimate medical uses.1
Heroin use has shown a resurgence in the past 20 years in the United States. Between 2002 and 2012, the rate of heroin overdose in the United States quadrupled and the overall rate of heroin misuse and dependence increased 150% from 2007 to 2012. In addition, the demographics of those who use heroin has radically changed in the last decade. Heroin use has grown significantly among women and people with higher income levels.2
Nevada has seen a rapid increase in the number of heroin overdose deaths as well, with these deaths doubling from 2011 to 2016.3 Part of the reason for the resurgence of heroin use is due to the implementation of prescription drug monitoring programs designed to combat the abuse of prescription opioids. Before the prescription monitoring programs, people would obtain multiple prescription opioids from several different doctors at one time. The prescription monitoring programs made that practice exceedingly difficult. Consequently, many people who were addicted to using prescription opioids then turned to heroin as it was easier to obtain on the street than trying to obtain prescription opioids from a physician.3 In fact, 86% of young heroin abusers reported first using a prescription opioid medication before turning to heroin.4
Effects of Heroin Use
Oftentimes, people might wonder, “why do people abuse heroin?” While heroin is dangerous and has serious harmful side effects associated with using it, heroin does create an enormous euphoric rush in those who use it. In the short-term, when you use heroin, in addition to the risk of overdose and death, the side effects typically include:5
- Slowed breathing.
If you continue to take heroin, you will experience numerous long-term side effects, including:5
- Dry mouth and nose.
- Sexual dysfunction in men.
- Irregular menstrual cycles in women.
- Visual disorders, mainly from constricted blood vessels in the eye.
- Increased overdose risks.
- Increased risk of accidents.
- Increases risk for crime victimization, either due to being intoxicated or going to high-crime areas to purchase heroin.
These side effects can be harmful, but the seriousness of side effects from heroin increases dramatically if you inject it. People who inject drugs risk:5
- Skin abscesses.
- Increased rates of HIV and Hepatitis C.
- Severe damage to your veins.
- Heart infections.
Signs of Heroin Abuse
When you have a heroin use disorder, you will show some or all of the behavioral signs and physical symptoms discussed below. Physically, you may:5
- Have cravings to use heroin.
- Take more heroin than you originally intended to use.
- Develop tolerance, which means your body adapts to heroin, and you take more heroin to get the same effects it used to give you.
- Have signs of physical withdrawal if you try to stop using heroin.
The behavioral signs of heroin addiction include:5
- Being unable to fulfill your responsibilities as a parent or at work due to heroin use.
- Unsuccessful attempts to cut back or stop using heroin.
- Having more frequent arguments with your family over your heroin use.
- Giving up things you used to enjoy, like hobbies, to use heroin.
- Spending a lot of time trying to find heroin, using heroin, and getting over your use of heroin.
- Using heroin under risky conditions, such as when driving.
- Continuing to take heroin, even while knowing it is hurting you.
Heroin Dependence & Addiction
When you take heroin, you eventually become physically dependent on it. Dependence on any substance, including heroin, essentially means that, if you stop taking it, you will go into withdrawal. Dependence does not necessarily mean that you are addicted, but the two often go hand in hand. When you have an addiction, you use heroin compulsively, take serious chances with your safety, and are often reckless in pursuing another dose of heroin.6
When you take heroin and become physically dependent on it, your body will not be able to function normally without regular doses of heroin. The opioid receptors in the brain are used to having heroin in order to perform normally, and when the effect of heroin is abruptly stopped, your body reacts strongly. Symptoms of withdrawal include:7(66-67)
- Nausea and/or vomiting.
- Stomach pain.
- High blood pressure.
- Irregular or rapid heartbeat.
- Frequent yawning.
- Runny nose.
How to Treat Heroin Addiction
There are several approaches to treating heroin addiction. One of the biggest issues with stopping heroin use is the severity of the withdrawal symptoms. Many people who try to stop on their own will quickly relapse due to the intense cravings and the need to manage the highly uncomfortable withdrawal symptoms. Heroin addiction can be treated on an inpatient or outpatient basis. If you attend inpatient treatment, you will be in a 24/7 supervised setting where your withdrawal symptoms can be managed. Outpatient treatment typically involves attending treatment 2 to 3 days per week for 2 to 3 hours at a time. You will still receive counseling, medical assessments, and the other components of inpatient treatment, but you can go home at night and possibly continue attending school or work.7)p. 12-19)
It is difficult to determine who needs inpatient treatment or outpatient treatment. Each person’s case is different and multiple factors determine if you need inpatient treatment. These factors include your overall physical health and if you have any co-occurring mental health issues, such as being suicidal or having severe depression or anxiety. Inpatient treatment may also be best for you if you cannot get to an outpatient program on a regular basis due to transportation issues or if you have repeatedly tried outpatient rehab in the past.7(20-21)
Whether you go to inpatient or outpatient treatment for heroin addiction, you will likely be treated with medication, although not every treatment program takes the same approach to medication. In some programs, the focus on medication is for symptom relief, such as prescribing anti-nausea medications to control nausea and vomiting or giving you Tylenol for body aches. However, other programs incorporate medication-assisted treatment (MAT), which mimics the effects of opioids on your opioid receptors. MAT basically replaces the activity of heroin in your brain and helps you to avoid most of the withdrawal symptoms associated with quitting heroin.
The most common types of MAT are:7(60-73)
- Buprenorphine is an effective form of MAT to manage heroin withdrawal symptoms. It is also used for long-term maintenance to help people maintain recovery from heroin addiction. Subutex and Suboxone are the common brand names for buprenorphine. Suboxone also contains naltrexone.
- Naltrexone blocks the effects of heroin and other opioids. So even if you take heroin while on naltrexone, you will experience none of the euphoric highs associated with heroin and other opioid-containing drugs. Naltrexone helps people maintain recovery from heroin addiction.
- Methadone is another form of MAT that can help you withdraw from heroin and continue to stay drug-free long-term.
Finding Heroin Addiction Treatment
As a leading provider of heroin addiction treatment, American Addiction Centers can offer you heroin rehab treatment at one of our locations across the country, including Las Vegas, Nevada. We can offer you an individualized treatment program tailored to your needs. Our compassionate and caring staff members will be there to support and guide you in your treatment and help you find your way to long-term recovery. Call us today at our 24/7 free and confidential helpline to get started on your journey to recovery from heroin addiction.
We can be reached at 702-800-2682.
- Drug Enforcement Administration. (2020).
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2015). Vital signs: Demographic and substance use trends among heroin users. United States 2002-2013.
- Kim, P. C., Yoo, J. W., Cochran, C. R., Park, S. M., Chun, S., Lee, Y. J., & Shen, J. J. (2019). Trends and associated factors of use of opioid, heroin, and cannabis among patients for emergency department visits in Nevada: 2009-2017. Medicine, 98(47).
- National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2015). Prescription opioid use is a risk factor for heroin use.
- American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5®). American Psychiatric Pub.
- National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2020). Is there a difference between physical dependence and addiction?
- Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. (2015). Detoxification and substance abuse treatment.
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