Heroin Addiction Help & Treatment

Heroin is a processed form of morphine that produces a calming effect, reducing pain and giving users a rush within a few seconds of using it. Small doses give a general sense of well-being and larger ones cause extreme relaxation. But heroin addiction is one of the biggest challenges that is globally facing humanity today.

Some common slang names for heroin include skunk, smack, scag, big H, gear, brown crystal, and black tar. It is much more addictive than morphine and causes a rapid physical as well as psychological dependence.

Tolerance also tends to build quickly, so users have to take larger amounts for the same effects, making overdosing an ever-increasing risk. Withdrawal and post effect “crashes” are very uncomfortable which also drives increased usage frequency and dosage.

Injected heroin is often done in poor conditions or using shared needles (which brings its own risks in terms of HIV, hepatitis, and blood poisoning) and damages veins quite severely, even causing gangrene. Heroin inhibits normal cough reflexes which can mean that users die by inhaling their own vomit. Overdose causes a coma and normally leads to death.

Why Is Heroin So Addictive?

Heroin is an opioid which is a type of drug that will bind to certain receptors within the brain, this leads to the release of a chemical known as dopamine, which causes feelings of happiness and elation. These feelings are extremely pleasurable but when the effects of the drug wear off, the user is left wanting to experience these feelings again and so will take more of the drug in order to achieve this.

Over time, the user will come to believe that they must take the drug in order to feel any kind of happiness and a dependence quickly develops. Aside from feeling good, the addicted person will also use the drug to alleviate any unwanted withdrawal symptoms, this creates something of a vicious circle.

In many cases, people who are addicted to heroin may put immense strain on their personal relationships and believe that they have no other support. This will cause them to take more of the drug as a way of coping emotionally.

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What Does Heroin Do To The Body?

The drug can be used in many different ways with most people injecting the drugs directly into the veins. However, heroin can also be ‘snorted’ as well as smoked.

Whilst injecting is the most popular method of taking heroin, it is also the most dangerous since there are many more fatalities from this way of using. The reason for this is that an overdose is much easier through injecting as well as the dangers associated with sharing needles.

Heroin can make its way to the brain very quickly and users will notice the effects of the drug within just a few minutes of taking it. Users will find that they begin to feel experience intense happiness which is soon followed by enjoyable sleepiness.

In cases where a lot of heroin has been taken, users may become unconscious as a result. One of the greatest risks is that death can be caused if an overdose is taken, making heroin one of the most notorious drugs in the country.

Possession and use of heroin in the United Kingdom and many other countries throughout the world is illegal due to the high health risk it poses along with how easy it is to become addicted to the drug. For a lot of people, taking heroin just once or twice can lead to an addiction.

Coming off heroin is so difficult since, without the drug, users can experience very unpleasant withdrawal, and taking the drug again become their preferred way to alleviate these symptoms.

There are various ways in which heroin can get into the bloodstream and to the brain.

  • Intravenous methods are most frequently used as this allows the heroin to make its way to the brain in the fastest manner. However, this is also one of the most dangerous ways of administering the drug since shared needles are frequently used which can lead to the spread of infection
  • Inhalation of heroin is often used and the effects are very fast, with users noticing them within five minutes of inhaling the substance. For those who are new to the drug, this is usually the preferred method, however over time and as their addiction worsens, they will usually move on to injecting for a quicker and more intense ‘hit’
  • Transmucosal administration is used to allow the drug to enter the bloodstream through a mucus membrane, there are several ways in which this can be done and by doing so, the drug will bypass the liver delivering a greater effect. This method can be done by inserting the drug through the vagina, rectum, eyes, nose or mouth
  • Orally taking heroin means that the drug will go through the liver and will be metabolised, this gives an effect similar to those experienced when taking morphine-based pain medications
  • Intramuscular methods of taking heroin are performed by injecting the drug into the muscle rather than the vein, which is a more common method. This method will not act as quickly but can pose a threat to the nerves within the muscles
  • Subcutaneous injection of heroin is when the drug is administered directly under the skin but is often done in error. By doing this, the user risks the development of abscesses and skin infections
  • Intrathecal administration is when the drug is injected directly into the spine. This is extremely dangerous if not performed by a trained medical specialist

Heroin Smoking vs Injecting

The most common methods of taking heroin are through injection and smoking, and there is a clear difference between the two. A tell tale sign that someone is smoking heroin might be squares of tin foil and a pipe, including homemade items for inhaling the drug such as pens or pieces of rolled up cardboard. These items will likely feature burn marks or a yellow residue.

Those who inject heroin will likely have items such as bent spoons, needles, tourniquets, and cotton balls. However, there are also some items that would usually be less common such as citric acid. Users of heroin will use this to break down the drug before they inject it. Similarly to smoking heroin, the items associated with injection may also be scorched or marked from use.

Signs And Symptoms Of Heroin Use

Do you know someone who is worrying you by exhibiting a possible addiction to heroin? If you suspect a loved one is using heroin, you may wish to look out for certain signs and symptoms:

Users of heroin may experience many psychological giveaways that they are struggling with. These could be feelings of guilt or feeling hopeless.

You may also notice that their attention and focus is more lacking than usual and that their judgement becomes impaired. People struggling with heroin addiction might also appear to be confused or disorientated.

When using heroin, people tend to lose a lot of weight as well as developing extreme fatigue or exhaustion, this may be partially due to problems with insomnia.

In addition to this, you may also notice that the person suffers from flu-like symptoms that do not clear up including watery eyes and a runny nose.

They may become constipated and have serious problems with the liver and kidneys. Users of the drug may also develop more serious conditions such as tuberculosis and hepatitis.

When people become addicted to heroin, the drug becomes their main focus, and relationships with family and friends are put on the backburner with the patient withdrawing from these relationships.

You may also notice that they begin to spend time with new friends, often those with whom they are using.

The user may also struggle with mood swings and aggressive behaviour. On top of this, a person who is addicted might struggle to keep their job and find themselves in financial dire straits.

Heroin users may end up in trouble with the law as a result of behaviours when under the influence of the drug or whilst trying to obtain it.

One of the giveaways of whether someone may be addicted to heroin is a change in their behaviour, you may notice things like the person not attending their job or education and when they do, their performance may be lacking.

In addition to this, users may possess items that they wouldn't usually such as tin foil, needles, and citric acid. They might also begin to cover up with their clothing despite weather conditions as a way of concealing injection sites.

People struggling with addiction may become much more secretive than usual and may begin lying as well as losing interest in things that they once found enjoyable.

The items used to assist in taking heroin can be a clue as to whether someone may be struggling. You should look out for the following items:

  • Burned spoons
  • Needles
  • Bags filled with white powder or containing small trace amounts of white powder
  • Foil
  • Items which could be used as a tourniquet such as a shoelace


How Heroin Addiction Happens

There are certain people who may be more likely to develop a heroin addiction, that being said there are cases of people using the drug and not becoming psychologically dependent on it. People who have been exposed to drugs throughout their childhood may be more likely to become addicted as an adult as well as those suffering from mental health conditions.

People who use heroin will be more likely to suffer from physical consequences as a result of the unpleasant withdrawal symptoms of not taking heroin once dependence is established. Over time, as the drug is used more and more, a dependence will build up with the person needing to take higher doses of the drug to match their tolerance levels.

Users will usually begin with a small dose, often snorted or smoked, but as they take more, they may find themselves turning to higher doses through more intense methods such as injecting.

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What Causes Heroin Addiction

There may be many reasons that a person may be more likely to become addicted to heroin, although it is important to remember that anyone who takes the drug stands a chance of becoming addicted to it.

However, there are certain things that can make some people more susceptible to heroin addiction. These include:

In people with lower dopamine D2 receptors, heroin addiction has been noted to be more prevalent, that being said genetics can make addiction more likely for other reasons.

Examples of this might be those who have developed associated with gaining rewards from certain behaviours as well as those who are naturally more impulsive.

There are certain personalities that may be more likely to become addicted to heroin, including those who are more impulsive. In this instance, even those who are aware of the potential risks of heroin use will place the reward in higher standing.

In some cases, those who have previously taken prescribed opiate based drugs may be more likely to become addicted to heroin due to wanting to experience the same sensations once again.

In young people who struggle academically or socially, including anti-social behaviour, may be more prone to turn to drugs such as heroin. However, there is also evidence to suggest that people who are subject to abuse might also be more likely to struggle with addiction.

If a child is exposed to drugs and addiction from the adults responsible for them, it is much more likely that they may develop an addiction themselves.

Many people with mental health disorders may seek solace in recreational drugs. Patients may believe that self-medicating will ease their condition and for this reason, those with mental health disorders are more likely to develop an addiction.

Why Can’t Heroin Users Just Stop Using?

When an addiction to heroin occurs, it takes over the life of the person who is addicted, this means that other things fade into the background and no longer seem to matter. People struggling with heroin addiction lose their logic and this can make simply stopping the drug very difficult.

Using heroin is often an escape for the addicted person and often times they will be of the belief that their life won’t be fulfilled without the use of the drug. Even when everything else seems lost, an addicted person may believe that heroin will provide them with a solution. This mental effect can make it extremely hard to quit the drug even if the person is aware of the risks.

effects of heroin

Heroin: Physical Dependence Vs Tolerance

Taking heroin can become highly addictive and when tolerance occurs, a person may need to take higher doses of the drug to achieve the same ‘high’ that they got when they first took it. The brain of the heroin user will become accustomed to its presence and in many cases, the person will require the drug in order to feel ‘normal.’

1. Developing Tolerance

When a person develops tolerance to heroin, they are much more likely to die from an overdose of the drug. The brain becomes used to the presence of heroin and the user will need to take regular doses in order to function normally. However, by undergoing a detox, the tolerance can be reverted and the user can begin to feel ‘normal’ without the drug.

2. Psychological Addiction

Most people are aware of the potential dangers of taking heroin, but when a psychological addiction develops, the person will continue to take the drug despite being aware of the consequences.

People who have this type of addiction tend to put the drug in a priority position, often before many important aspects of their lives such as work and family.

Psychological addiction is usually a factor in those who relapse after a period of detoxification and it is therefore important that intense therapy is given in order to avoid relapse.

Effects Of Heroin

There are multiple effects that can be seen after taking heroin, some of these will only be evident for the short term, whereas others are more long term. Below we have listed the short-term and long-term effects of heroin use:

When heroin gets to the brain it turns into morphine, this can have an immediate impact on the physical being, with some effects being as follows:

  • Feelings of euphoria and happiness
  • Dryness in the mouth
  • Warm skin
  • Heaviness in the limbs
  • Vomiting
  • Itching
  • Becoming drowsy
  • Fuzziness of the brain

With continued use of heroin, there stand to be some more serious long term health effects:

  • Trouble sleeping
  • Collapsing of the veins
  • Heart infections
  • Skin infections
  • Mental health disorders
  • Liver disease
  • Kidney disease
  • Lung disease
  • Irregular periods in women and possible miscarriage of pregnancy

Consequences Of Heroin Use

One of the main consequences of using heroin is that addiction is almost inevitable, this means that users may then go on to experience trouble in other areas of their lives. For example, the breakdown of relationships, loss of employment, financial difficulties, and even homelessness.

Of course, there are many physical and psychological health risks associated with the drug and in some unfortunate cases, death may even occur. Taking large quantities of heroin can lead to serious conditions such as respiratory failure and HIV/AIDS.

Users of the drug may also suffer from malnourishment which can have further health complications. The reason for this is that heroin has the capability to reduce appetite leaving users feeling as though they do not need to eat.

From a social perspective, heroin can become so addictive that users will make it a priority and this can have serious effects on their personal relationships. Not only will relationships break down but those struggling with heroin addiction may steal from or lie to friends and family, causing further issues. In addition to this, users may find it difficult to stay in employment or education which can lead to financial problems.

overdose heroin

What Are The Effects Of Heroin Overdose?

Every time that heroin is taken, there is the possibility of an overdose, especially in those who have developed a high tolerance to the drug. There are some serious effects that overdose can cause, however, there are also certain signs that you can be aware of. If you notice any of the following signs, urgent medical assistance should be sought.

  • Small pupils
  • Shallow breathing
  • Decreased heart rate
  • Lowered blood pressure
  • Cramps in the muscles
  • Tremors or spasms
  • Areas around the mouth and fingers becoming blueish
  • Becoming unconscious

Understanding Heroin Withdrawal & Detox

Heroin detox is an important step in the recovery of someone who is addicted to the drug. The detox process allows you to cleanse your body of any traces of the drug. The good news is that heroin will leave the body quite quickly especially when compared to other drugs such as cannabis which can take much longer to detox from.

When detoxing from heroin, it is inevitable that there will be some unpleasant withdrawal symptoms. By being aware of what to expect and gaining an understanding of these symptoms, it may be easier to cope with them.

Below we discuss the various aspects of heroin detox that you should expect:

Heroin addiction is extremely dangerous and one of the most severe conditions in a medical sense. However, taking a detox is a positive first step in overcoming addiction and regaining a healthy lifestyle. It is important to recognise the following signs in order to determine when a detox may be required.

  • Continued flu-like symptoms
  • Heroin use - no matter how small the amount
  • Gastrointestinal problems such as constipation, vomiting, diarrhoea
  • Scabbing or bruising of the skin
  • Extreme lethargy
  • Liver or kidney damage
  • HIV/AIDS or hepatitis C
  • Muscle aches
  • Itching
  • Problems with sleep including insomnia or drowsiness

There will be many psychological withdrawal symptoms when detoxing from heroin, such as difficulty in concentrating and a lack of focus, you may also feel intense mood swings and problems with anxiety and depression.

In addition to this, you might experience feelings of confusion or paranoia as well as much more intense dreams. One of the most notable psychological side effects are intense cravings which can lead to you feeling agitated and irritable.

Alongside the psychological withdrawal symptoms, you will also experience some physical ones. These may include some of the following:

  • Sweating
  • Exhaustion
  • Increased heart rate
  • Trouble sleeping
  • Tremors
  • Fever
  • Muscle pain
  • Bone pain
  • Decrease in appetite
  • Headaches
  • Stomach pain and cramping
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Diarrhoea

After a successful detox, it is important to address the underlying issues as to why you were taking heroin to begin with. This can be done with therapy and treatments such as cognitive behavioural therapy or CBT.

These treatments will not only address the cause of your addiction but will also give you the tools to combat triggers and prevent a relapse.

In some cases, medication can be used which will gradually be tapered out over time. This is particularly useful when trying to reduce or remove withdrawal symptoms.

Intervention For Heroin Treatment

People who are struggling with heroin addiction may find it difficult to admit that they require help and will often object to it. It may be the case that the user feels they are not far enough into addiction to warrant treatment or they may have attempted to quit previously with no success, therefore see no point in trying again.

For those around them, staging an intervention may be one of the best ways to help the heroin user to recognise that they have a problem and need help and support. You may need the assistance of an intervention specialist and it is important to make sure that the intervention is well managed in order for it to be a success. Finding the right time, place and group of people can be extremely beneficial.

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Living With Heroin Dependence And Medication

One of the ways that heroin addiction can be treated is through the use of drugs such as methadone. When used as a ‘substitute’ for heroin, it is important for patients to gradually decrease the dose in order to make their way to a drug-free life. However, it is also important to keep in mind that there are some problems relating to the use of these treatments.

Methadone is also an addictive substance and people using it to treat heroin may find that they become just as addicted to it as they were to heroin. However, it is particularly useful in aiding patients who have struggled with a crime when trying to obtain heroin.

There are also certain medications that can be used to counteract the effects of heroin meaning that if the two are taken together, heroin will not provide the ‘buzz’ that it once did.

It may be intimidating to consider taking medication to treat your heroin addiction. However, it can be comforting to know that the medication can potentially help you become free from the drug as well as the problems associated with it such as crime. In many cases, medically treating heroin addiction can be a very important first line of defence in preventing relapse.

mental health

Heroin Addiction And Mental Health

Those with previously existing mental health disorders may be more liable to developing an addiction to heroin but in contrast, the use of heroin can have an effect on one’s mental health.

In many cases, people with existing mental health conditions may turn to drugs like heroin as a way of self-medicating but this can have disastrous consequences.

1. Depression

When using heroin, depression can be easily caused. This can happen as a result of chemical changes within the brain or because of outside effects of the drug such as loss of employment or ruined relationships.

It is important than when undergoing treatment for heroin addiction, depression is treated through talking therapies and support. If left untreated, patients can end up feeling suicidal.

2. Bipolar Disorder

It has been observed that around 60% of patients with bipolar disorder engage in some kind of substance abuse and heroin is frequently favoured as it can provide relief from the extremes of this condition. Many people opt to self-medicate using this drug, however, the potential damage far outweighs the temporary release.

It is vital that when treating patients with both heroin addiction and bi-polar disorder that the approach ensures that the ‘lows’ associated with the condition are not intensified.

Is It Possible To Beat Heroin Addiction?

Despite heroin addiction being very serious, there is light at the end of the tunnel and the addiction can be overcome. Throughout recent history, medical experts have favoured a methadone program to treat addiction to heroin however there are more modern approaches that can be much more effective and successful.

When using a drug such as methadone to replace heroin, this should only be done as a temporary measure and as a way of reducing withdrawal symptoms. It is not advisable to use these drugs for long periods of time as dependence can develop and heroin is simply replaced with another drug.

It is much more preferable for a patient to undergo detox and follow a rehabilitation program to become successfully free of the drug. For more information on heroin treatment, visit our heroin detox section, and our heroin rehabilitation here.

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