Heroin is a drug made from morphine and categorized as a class of medicines called opioids. Heroin is a white or brown powder, or a black sticky substance called “black tar heroin.” It is a highly addictive substance and is used by injecting, sniffing, smoking, or snorting it.
According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, over 2.1 million people in the United States abused opioid pain medicine in 2016. In the same year, 626,000 Americans had a heroin use disorder, and over 15,000 died of an overdose because of the drug.
What is the true meaning of drug addiction?
Addiction, medically speaking, is a compulsive physiological need for a substance or habit, characterized by definite withdrawal symptoms. In simple words, it’s an unhealthy and destructive need for something.
Drug addiction is when a person has a pressing need to take in drugs to “function properly.” Drug addiction can often destroy multiple aspects of the victim’s life, from the intrapersonal to the financial.
How Do You Know if You’re Addicted?
Often, people misinterpret addiction as an obsession. It’s not the same thing. Obsession is a ritualistic routine/habit that frequently becomes a part of one’s life to relieve anxiety. An example would be irrational and frequent hand washing or repetitive counting.
Addiction is different as it focuses on a substance rather than a ritual, as a means of a mental escape. Addiction is usually more destructive, as it is most likely unhealthy for the body after repetitive use.
How do we get addicted? A misinterpretation in the brain’s reward system can cause addiction. In drugs, an influx of dopamine upon substance intake leads to the brain having an unhealthy urge to take in more and more of the substance, even if it does have dangerous side effects.
What are the Four C’s of Addiction
To help identify an addiction, you must recognize four main, unique factors: Compulsion, Craving, Consequences, and Control.
Compulsion refers to the overpowering urge to acquire their addiction. When someone cannot give in to their addiction, they will usually feel anxiety or other destructive behaviors.
Craving refers to the urge becoming as important as or surpassing a physical need. This urge usually manifests in loss of appetite or insomnia.
Consequences refer to the neglect of the downsides of the addiction, even if it becomes destructive. These include intrapersonal problems, financial, familial, and or romantic problems.
Lastly, Control refers to the person’s ability to cope without their addiction. When a lack of control is apparent, the person is already very likely addicted.
What Heroin Does to Your Body
Heroin attaches to the molecules of the brain’s opioid receptors, affecting the body’s perception of pleasure and causing an intense “high.”
The effect of heroin only lasts for a few hours. When the rush of pleasure fades, people experience a depressed mood that makes them crave more of the drug. Regular use of heroin alters the brain’s normal functions, making the body develop dependence and eventually an addiction to the substance.
The opioid receptors are in different parts of the body, namely, the brain, the brain stem, the spinal cord, the lungs, and the intestines. The constant use of heroin causes considerable physical damages.
People who continuously use heroin experience both short-term and long-term physical and psychological damages over time.
Short-term effects because of heroin use include:
- Dry mouth
- Stomach sickness
- Severe itching
- Loss of consciousness
- Warm flushed skin
- “Heavy feeling” limbs
However, people who use heroin for an extended period may develop:
- Damaged nasal tissues (for nasal intake)
- Constipation and stomach cramps
- Liver and kidney damage
- Lung ailments
- Blood clots
- Changes in menstrual cycles for women
- Slurred speech
- Collapsed veins
People who recurrently use heroin also have a higher risk of being infected by viruses like HIV or hepatitis. Blood-borne infections are also common, especially when people share needles to inject the substance. There is also a higher risk of accidental abortions among pregnant women who use heroin.
Signs of a Heroin Abuse
It’s essential to recognize heroin abuse fast to conduct proper intervention and treatment before it develops into an addiction. No one ever plans to be addicted to heroin. However, people who use it eventually need the substance to feel “normal.”
Signs of heroin abuse include:
- Blood-shot eyes
- Constricted pinpoint pupils
- Sudden weight loss
- Secretive behavior
- Sudden change in appearance
- Lack of motivation
- Extreme drowsiness
- Occasional black-outs
- Financial problems
- Needle marks
The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual lists 11 signs that tell if a person is addicted to heroin. A few items on this list include using more heroin than intended, developing a tolerance to it, and constant use of the substance despite noticeable adverse effects.
The more symptoms of heroin abuse a person shows, the worse their addiction is. Here is the full list of 11 criteria:
- The use of heroin comes in larger doses and over a longer period.
- Persistent craving for heroin. Efforts to cut down heroin use is unsuccessful.
- A significant amount of time is spent by a person to obtain heroin, use heroin, or recover from heroin’s effects.
- There is constantly a strong desire to use heroin.
- Continuous heroin use results in abandoning work, school, and home obligations.
- Continued heroin use even though there are social or interpersonal problems caused or exacerbated by the effects of heroin.
- Lack of participation or boycotting important social, occupational, or recreational activities because of heroin.
- Recurrent heroin use in situations that are physically harmful to a person.
- Continued use despite knowledge of recurrent physical or psychological damages directly linked to heroin use.
- Tolerance, as defined by either of the following: (a) a need for markedly increased amounts of heroin to achieve a level of pleasure (b) markedly diminished effect with continued use of the same amount of heroin.
- Withdrawal, as manifested by either of the following: (a) the characteristic heroin withdrawal syndrome (b) the same (or a closely related) substance is taken to relieve or avoid withdrawal symptoms.
A heroin overdose is one of the worst-case-scenarios that stems from heroin addiction.
An overdose happens when a person uses enough dosage of heroin to slow their breathing to a stop. As the amount of oxygen that reaches the brain decreases, a condition called hypoxia develops. Hypoxia has short- and long-term effects on the nervous system, including comatose and permanent brain damage.
To treat a heroin overdose, one must take the medicine naloxone right away. It works by rapidly binding to opioid receptors and blocking the effects of heroin and other opioid drugs. Sometimes, to help a person start breathing again, they need over one dose of naloxone. If the medicine is unavailable, it’s crucial to get the person to an emergency department or a doctor to receive support immediately.
Naloxone is available as an injectable (needle) solution, a handheld auto-injector (EVZIO®), and a nasal spray (NARCAN® Nasal Spray). People close to someone who uses heroin can use the auto-injector and nasal spray versions of naloxone to save them from overdosing.
What are the Causes of Withdrawal?
To understand withdrawal better, let’s remember that the body aims to be in a state of homeostasis. The body is in a state of balance internally, meaning that physical and chemical conditions are stable and easily maintained. In this state, the body can function properly, fluidly, and efficiently.
Continuous use of drugs and other substances affects the body by causing an internal chemical imbalance, shifting the body’s sense of homeostasis, or normalcy. In other words, drugs may cause someone to experience dependence on the substance to achieve a distorted state of homeostasis.
When someone can’t get to that distorted state, withdrawal happens. Be it through complete removal of the drug or significantly lower dosage than what the body is accustomed to, at that point, and something is throwing the body off-balance.
Treatment and Withdrawal
People addicted to heroin rarely want to seek treatment for their situation. People in the early stages of their addiction may deny that they have a substance abuse problem.
However, individuals who have a severe addiction to heroin may have attempted to stop its use but have failed. In these scenarios, an intervention from close loved ones may be the best way to convince them to get professional help.
A range of treatments, including medicines and behavioral therapies, can help people stop heroin use. It’s vital to schedule checkups to match the best treatment approach to meet individual needs.
Researchers are currently developing medicine to help ease the withdrawal effects. The FDA approved lofexidine, a non-opioid drug designed to reduce opioid withdrawal symptoms.
Medicines to help people stop using heroin include buprenorphine and methadone. They work by binding to the same opioid receptors in the brain as heroin, but more weakly, reducing the desire for heroin. Another medicine is called naltrexone, which blocks opioid receptors and prevents opioid drugs from affecting them.
Withdrawal symptoms that can appear when a person stops the use of heroin include:
- Muscle and bone pain
- Cold flashes and chills
- Stomach cramps
- Trouble sleeping
- Constant panic
It’s vital to help a person withdraw from heroin in a safe environment, surrounded by proper facilities and professionals. Unlike drugs that can cause mild physical dependence (like marijuana and cocaine), withdrawal symptoms for heroin addiction can cause severe physical and psychological challenges and sometimes occur as quickly as within two hours of the last use.
Heroin is an illegal opioid that gives its people a strong, but temporary euphoria while severely compromising their health and wellness. Heroin users get addicted to the drug quickly and most of the time unintentionally, ultimately ruining many aspects of their lives from personal to the financial.
Heroin addiction is challenging to treat because of the severe effects of withdrawal. When left unchecked, heroin addiction can even become fatal.
It’s not impossible to recover from heroin addiction, but it requires medicine, therapy, and support from loved ones.
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