Symptoms, Signs & Effects of Heroin Abuse

Understanding Heroin Abuse

Understanding heroin addiction

Heroin is an extremely addictive substance derived from morphine, which is gathered from the opium poppy plant. This drug is a central nervous system depressant that affects the pleasure system of the brain and interferes with the brain’s ability to feel pain. On the street, heroin can be found in a white to dark brown powder or as a tar-like substance. This drug can be used in a few different ways, depending on which method the user prefers. One method is to inject heroin into a vein or a muscle, and others are to smoke it in a standard pipe or water pipe, inhale it as smoke through a straw, snort it as powder up your nose, or roll it into a marijuana joint.

Heroin addiction is a chronic, relapsing disease that causes changes in the brain and uncontrollable drug-seeking behaviors, despite all of the negative consequences. After taking heroin, the user feels a surge of euphoria along with a warm flushing of the skin, dry mouth, and heavy extremities. Shortly after the initial rush the individual will go into a phase in which they alter from a wakeful to drowsy state (called “on the nod”). These strong feelings leave a user wanting more, which quickly leads to tolerance and addiction.

With regular heroin use, tolerance develops and an individual will need to use more of the drug to achieve the same intensity and effects. As these higher doses are used, over time an individual will become physically dependent and addicted to heroin. Physical dependence means that an individual’s body has adapted to the presence of the drug and withdrawal symptoms will likely occur if they stop using.


Statistics of heroin addiction

It’s reported that over 50 million people worldwide use heroin, cocaine, and other synthetic drugs on a regular basis. In 2011, 4.2 million Americans over the age of 12 reported having used heroin at least once in their lifetime, which is 1.6% of the population. Additionally, it has been estimated that approximately 23% of individuals who have used heroin have become dependent upon it.

Co-Occurring Disorders

Co-occurring disorders

Heroin addiction most often occurs alongside other mental health conditions. Some of the most common co-occurring disorders found in heroin addicts may include:

  • Major depression disorder
  • Anxiety disorders
  • Bipolar disorder
  • Schizophrenia
  • Eating disorders
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder
  • Personality disorders
  • Other substance addictions or alcohol addiction


Causes of heroin addiction

While researchers have not been able to determine a single cause for the development of a heroin addiction, it has been determined that a combination of factors work together to cause addiction. Some of the most common causes for heroin addiction may include:

Genetic: Individuals who have a family member, especially a first-degree relative, with addiction disorders are more prone to develop an addiction themselves. This means that should an individual who has relatives with addiction disorders try heroin, their chance of getting addicted to the substance is higher than those who don’t have a genetic connection.

Brain Chemistry: Repeated drug use changes the way in which your brain feels pleasure and may cause physical changes to nerve cells in the brain. These nerve cells use neurons to communicate, and when an individual is addicted to a substance such as heroin, it disrupts communication within the brain. Those who have come to rely on heroin to boost their mood will become depressed and can no longer enjoy activities, so they continue to use in an attempt to feel pleasure again.

Environmental: Environmental factors such as family beliefs, peer group attitudes, and friends that encourage drug use all have a strong influence on whether an individual may make the decision to engage in substance abuse. For example, some men and women grow up in home environments in which drug use was an acceptable way of coping with negative life events and emotional pain. This may start a cycle of drug use as a means of dealing with everyday life, eventually leading to addiction.

Psychological: Often, individuals will use drugs such as heroin as a way to numb unpleasant feelings, life circumstances, pressures of everyday life, and stress. Sometimes those who are struggling with untreated or undiagnosed mental illnesses may attempt to self-medicate the symptoms of their illness with alcohol or recreational drugs.

Signs and Symptoms of Heroin Abuse

Signs and symptoms of heroin addiction

The signs and symptoms of heroin addiction will vary from individual to individual. The seriousness of the symptoms will depend upon how physically dependent an individual is on heroin, how long they have been using, frequency of use, and individual genetic makeup. The most common symptoms of heroin addiction include the following:

  • Hostility toward others
  • Agitation and irritability
  • Lying about drug use
  • Avoiding loved ones
  • Inability to fulfill responsibilities at work or school
  • Increased sleeping
  • Apathy and lack of motivation
  • Decline in occupational or academic performance
  • Slurred speech
  • Shortness of breath
  • Frequent respiratory infections
  • Dry mouth
  • Weight loss
  • Scabs or bruises from skin pickin
  • Warm, flushed skin
  • Track marks on arms and legs
  • Constricted pupils
  • Extreme itching
  • Delusions
  • Depression
  • Euphoria
  • Mood swings
  • Anxiety
  • Disorientation
  • Hallucinations
  • Paranoia
  • Decreased attention to personal hygiene
  • Possession of burned spoons, needles or syringes, missing shoelaces, glass pipes
  • Periods of hyperactivity followed by periods of exhaustion/li>
  • Wearing long pants and shirts, even in warm weather
  • Forced, pressured speech

Effects of Heroin Abuse

Effects of heroin addiction

The effects of heroin can be devastating for an addict, affecting all areas of their life.

The severity of symptoms tends to get worse the longer the drug is abused. The most common effects of heroin addiction may include:

  • Liver disease
  • Skin disease and abscesses around injection sites
  • Infections of the valves and lining of the heart
  • Blood clots, leading to stroke, pulmonary embolism, and heart attack
  • Kidney disease
  • Risks of contracting chronic illnesses
  • Risks for blood-borne pathogens
  • Septicemia
  • HIV or Hepatitis B and C
  • Chronic pneumonia
  • Clouded mental functioning
  • Collapsed, scarred veins
  • Respiratory depression
  • Seizures
  • Overdose
  • Death

Withdrawal Symptoms

Withdrawal symptoms of heroin addiction

Those addicted to heroin eventually become physically and psychologically dependent on the substance. Due to this dependency individuals who abruptly stop using or have a prolonged period of time between doses will experience withdrawal symptoms. Withdrawal symptoms from heroin can develop as soon as a few hours after sustained use. Someone who is withdrawing from longtime heroin abuse and dependence is at risk of serious medical complications and should seek professional medical assistance. Some effects of withdrawal include:

  • Intense cravings
  • Extreme sweating
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Severe muscle aches and pains
  • Cramping in the limbs
  • Feelings of heaviness of the body
  • Extreme pain in muscles and bones
  • Periods of crying
  • Insomnia
  • Cold sweats
  • Runny nose
  • Fever
  • Diarrhea
  • Death can occur when other medical conditions are present
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