Heroin Addiction

By MaryAnn DePietro, CRT. Medically reviewed by Tom Iarocci, MD. May 7th 2016

In the past, books, movies and television shows often portrayed heroin users as homeless drug junkies, shooting up dope in back alleys and nodding off in a stupor.

While many people may still believe in that stereotypical image of a heroin addict, the face of today’s heroin user is changing. While methamphetamine use is declining, heroin use is on the rise.

Who is Using Heroin?

According to a study by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, heroin use has increased since 2007. According to the study, 373,000 people over the age of 12 used heroin in 2007. In 2012, that number climbed to 669,000. 

Why heroin use has almost doubled since 2007 is not entirely clear, but theories do exist. According to the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence Inc., the increase in heroin use may be due to an increase in prescription drug abuse.

“In some instances, heroin use is fueled by a person’s addiction to prescription pain pills. But prescription medication can be costly,” says Vannessa Lindsey, CADCII, and CEO of Another Choice, Another Change, a nonprofit organization in Sacramento, California, specializing in chemical dependency. “The cost and crackdown on prescription medication has led some people to seek cheaper alternatives to get a similar high. Heroin fits the bill. It is cheap and prevalent.” What’s more, some batches of heroin bought on the street can be very potent, raising concerns of overdose and drug-related death.

Heroin users come from all walks of life and all economic levels. “It’s important not to stereotype what a heroin user looks like. A typical user can be anyone. Drug use does not discriminate,” says Lindsey.

Signs of Heroin Addiction

Once heroin is injected, smoked or snorted, it is converted into morphine in the body. It then attaches to receptors in the brain that are involved in the perception of pleasure. The chemical changes in the brain and elsewhere in the body are what make heroin physically and psychologically addicting, and addiction can develop quickly.

Not all users of heroin have the same signs and symptoms of addiction. But most users will exhibit at least some of the following:

  • Disorientation
  • Increased sleeping
  • Weight loss
  • Track marks on the arms (and sometimes elsewhere)
  • Restlessness

In addition to some of the physical signs and symptoms of addiction, changes in behavior are also very common with heroin addiction. When someone is addicted to heroin, it is common for them to lose interest in activities, change how they treat relationships and possibly start isolating themselves. Though less common, some heroin addicts carry on with life while their habit is unknown to the wider community.

The physical consequences of heroin use can include several serious medical problems. Kidney and liver disease can develop. Heroin use can also lead to collapsed veins, skin infections, endocarditis (heart/blood infection) and increased risk of contracting viruses, such as HIV and hepatitis.

In addition to the physical effects of heroin, addiction can fuel crime and affect all other areas of a person’s life, including employment, family, other relationships and mental health.

Heroin Abuse Treatment

Because addiction to heroin is often both physical and psychological, treatment often involves both group/professional therapy as well as medical management. While some people may choose to quit heroin without professional treatment, withdrawal symptoms may make it difficult to stop using the drug.

There are different treatment options for someone addicted to heroin. “Addiction is a complex problem, and treatment needs vary,” said Lindsey. “For example, some patients do better with a restrictive treatment, such as an inpatient program, which usually lasts from 30 to 90 days. Others may be more successful in an outpatient program. Programs often address both the physical and psychological aspects of addiction.”

Medications may help someone addicted to heroin cope with withdrawal symptoms. Methadone, for instance, can help reduce withdrawal symptoms, such as nausea, fever, chills and agitation.

The psychological aspect of addiction also has to be addressed. Patients need to understand why they start using in the first place and develop ways to deal with cravings and negative emotions without turning to back heroin.

Next Steps

As with most types of addiction, the first step in the recovery process is realizing you need help. Someone addicted to heroin may make the choice to start recovery, but soon feel as if they are in over their head. If you are addicted to heroin, recognize that this is a disease. Addiction can be successfully treated by taking that first step.

Get professional help. Call your local hospital for information on drug treatment programs in your area. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration has a drug treatment directory on their website. Organizations, such as Narcotic Anonymous, can provide support and information on resources in your community. 

For Caregivers

Watching a loved one deal with addiction is devastating. While you want to encourage someone to seek help, you cannot do it for them. One of the most important things you can do is get help for yourself. In some instances, you may need to set boundaries and limits. Keep in mind that there is a difference between helping someone and enabling their drug use.

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