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Heroin Addiction and Treatment

Heroin abuse involves complex and often devastating changes to the addict’s brain and behavior. Learn about treatment and recovery for heroin addiction.

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What is Heroin

Heroin is a dangerous and highly addictive substance. Most people who use heroin become addicted extremely quickly. Heroin addiction comes with severe consequences, and the risk of death by overdose is very high. Overcoming heroin addiction is only possible with the right treatment and inpatient rehabilitation.

Heroin's Affect on the Brain

Heroin is an opioid that binds to receptors in the brain to release dopamine. Dopamine is a natural chemical produced by the brain and makes the individual experience euphoria.

As with most drug side-effects, this artificial release is only temporary. If an individual takes an opioid repeatedly over time, the brain will not naturally produce dopamine as it once did. Addiction results in the individual taking higher or more frequent doses of the opioid to achieve the same effect.

Is Heroin Addictive?

Heroin is extremely addictive. According to the American Society of Addiction Medicine, almost a quarter of people who try heroin become dependent on it.

Signs of Heroin Addiction

It may not be easy to recognize the signs and symptoms of heroin addiction. There are some indicators to look out for when a friend or family member may be addicted to heroin.

Signs include:
  • Mood swings and irritability
  • Appearing excessively drowsy
  • Breathing problems
  • Constant nausea
  • Recurring flu-like symptoms
  • Physical signs like track marks or other visible damage to the veins
  • Secretiveness
Heroin Addiction and Treatment

Who Abuses Heroin?

Heroin-use is widespread, with seemingly no bias regarding age, gender, sexual orientation, or income. However, some factors put people at a higher risk of developing a dependence on heroin. Most people addicted to heroin use other drugs such as marijuana, alcohol, or cocaine. In this way, other milder drugs can be seen as “gateway” drugs to heroin abuse, especially the use of opioids. People who abuse prescription painkillers such as oxycodone are at a higher risk of experimenting with and abusing heroin.

Many heroin users also have a pre-existing mental health condition. Studies have shown that up to 75% of heroin users have a mental health disorder such as bipolar disorder, depression, or ADHD.

Side-Effects of Heroin Addiction?

Early on, there may be no symptoms or side-effects of an opioid use disorder. The effects will become evident as the use increases. Side-effects of heroin use can include:

  • Agitation or drowsiness
  • Slurred speech
  • Constricted pupils
  • Depression and memory problems
  • Collapsed veins if injecting the drug
  • Nose sores or runny nose if the drug is inhaled or snorted
  • Infection of the heart valves and lining
  • Abscesses
  • Lung ailments such as pneumonia
  • Constipation

Heroin Health Implications

Heroin can result in both short-term and long-term consequences. Immediately after use, individuals might experience a euphoric sensation, but this feeling may be accompanied by excessive drowsiness, nausea, and vomiting.

Heroin also slows heart-functions and breathing. If the user takes too much, their breathing may slow enough to cause a coma, brain damage, or even death. The risk of fatality due to heroin overdose in addicts is high.

Long-term heroin use can permanently alter the brain’s structure, and these changes may be difficult to undo without professional treatment. It can also lead to kidney and liver disease and make the user more susceptible to contracting Hepatitis C or HIV.

Heroin Addiction Treatment

There is no single successful treatment approach for heroin addiction. Instead, there are several effective treatments or combinations of remedies available to help the person into and through recovery.

The primary forms of heroin addiction treatment are pharmacological (medication) and intensive  behavioral therapies. Due to the severity and dangers of heroin addiction and withdrawal, inpatient treatment is highly recommended.

Heroin Detox

Heroin detox is a very dangerous and debilitating process. The patient is likely to go through several withdrawal stages during the detox process. The amount of time it takes to fully detox depends on factors such as:

  • Severity of the addiction
  • Overall patient health
  • Frequency and dosage of heroin use

Heroin Withdrawal

When a person is dependent on heroin and is in withdrawal, they will likely be extremely uncomfortable and sick. Symptoms may be flu-like and are often severe. Withdrawal is the most common reason relapse occurs.

Other Heroin withdrawal symptoms include:
  • Restlessness
  • Diarrhea
  • Vomiting
  • Insomnia
  • Muscle pain
  • Cold or hot flashes

These symptoms may last for up to a week and usually peak between 24-48 hours.

Depending on the length and level of heroin use, post-acute withdrawal symptoms may continue for many months or even years. This is why outpatient and ongoing treatment for heroin addiction is crucial to prevent the high risk of relapse.

Heroin Addiction Therapies

Detox is the first step in heroin addiction treatment. Due to the severity of heroin withdrawal symptoms and its health risks, medication assistance is highly recommended to ease cravings and discomfort. In medication-assisted treatment, medication is administered under professional supervision to reduce the dangers and severity of detox, making recovery easier and relapse less-likely.

To enhance the safety of detox, the person should be medically supervised using the following options:

  • Medically-assisted detoxification in a hospital or rehabilitation center
  • Specialist inpatient drug abuse treatment in a hospital or rehabilitation center

Behavioral Treatment

Often, multiple types of therapy are used in heroin addiction treatment, either together or in stages. Treatment can include:

  • Individual and group therapy
  • Contingency management therapy
  • Talking therapies, such as cognitive behavioral therapy to identify triggers of drug use and precise coping mechanisms
  • Therapy to build coping skills when faced with cravings
  • Comprehensive and confidential rehabitation groups
  • Dialectical behavioral therapy to alleviate the symptoms of emotional distress
  • PTSD and substance abuse therapy
  • Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing to alleviate traumatic memories

Recovery from Heroin

Heroin addiction can be fatal. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, more than 70,000 Americans died from a drug overdose in the past decade, including illicit drugs such as heroin and prescription opioids.

The statistics reinforce the necessity for rehabilitation. Heroin addiction is a severe condition, but it is treatable. Addiction does not have to be permanent or even long term.

The good news is there is help available, and it is possible to recover. Our treatment navigators are standing by to help guide you or your loved one to the right facility for your situation. Chat to one of our specialized treatment navigators today about finding the right rehab and treatment plan for your recovery.

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