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Heroin is arguably one of the most potent, dangerous and addictive drug substances currently available. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, approximately twenty-three percent of individuals who try heroin once become addicted to this substance, due in no small part to the fact that once consumed, heroin rapidly enters and affects the human brain.

What Is Heroin

Heroin is in the opiate family of drug substances, a group of drug substances that are derived from the residue in the seed pod of the Asian poppy plant. When opium first made its way into America through Chinese immigrants in the early 1800s, it quickly took hold and gained popularity and by the 1850s opium addiction was a major problem in the country. Scientists who were seeking to preserve the pain-relieving properties of this powerful drug while reducing its addictive nature created morphine, which soon turned out to be more potent and addictive than opium. Once again, scientists sought to preserve the pain-relieving qualities of opiate drugs but reduce the drug’s potency and addictiveness. Heroin was synthesized from morphine, and it too proved to be more potent and addictive than its predecessor.

Heroin normally presents in powder form, ranging in shades from a light off-white color to a darker brown. It can also present as a black sticky substance, better known as “black tar” heroin. Heroin can be smoked, inhaled or injected, and while any method of consumption will cause heroin to move quickly into the brain, injection produces the most dramatic results in the user, and is therefore the most highly preferred method of consumption.

Once heroin reaches the brain it is converted back into morphine, which binds to opioid receptors. These opioid receptors control the communication of physical pain, the regulation of vital organ functions like respiration and heart rate, and the basic pleasure and reward circuits of the brain. When an individual consumes heroin, they experience a euphoric rush, a suppression of physical pain and dangerously reduced respiration and heart rate. The euphoric rush caused by heroin, most notably through injection, is what drives an individual to continue their heroin use.

In addition to the desired effects of heroin use, most individuals also experience drowsiness, dry mouth, clouded mental functioning and a warm skin flush. The individual may nod off suddenly, which can be especially dangerous due to their reduced respiration and heart rate. However, the pleasurable effects of heroin use can often cause the individual to set aside or ignore the less desirable effects. Over time, the individual can develop a tolerance of heroin, which means that they no longer experience the same pleasurable effects with the same amount of heroin. This often leads the individual to increase their heroin dose, which also increases the danger.

After heroin use has continued for some time, the individual’s body becomes dependent upon this drug substance. The regular interruption of its normal functioning will cause the body to create a new “normal” that includes heroin, and the individual no longer has any control over whether they use heroin and how much. They are compulsively driven by powerful cravings and uncomfortable withdrawal symptoms to continue their heroin use at all costs and despite the destructive consequences. They may no longer experience any pleasurable effects as a result of heroin use, but without the drug they can feel horribly ill and uncomfortable. At some point in the process, the individual usually recognizes that heroin use is destroying their health, relationships and life and they may desire to be free from this drug. However, the intensity of heroin addiction can drive the individual to believe that the only way they can escape heroin use is through death.

Signs of Heroin Addiction

More than four million Americans have tried heroin at least once, according to a 2011 survey by the National Institute on Drug Abuse. Unfortunately, very few of the individuals who suffer from heroin abuse or addiction problems are actually able to recognize and admit that they have a problem and that they need help. In many cases, it is their family members and friends who learn of their heroin problems and assist the individual in getting the rehabilitation treatment services they need to end their relationship with this powerful and dangerous drug. For this reason, it is valuable for individuals to know the signs of heroin addiction, so that they can reach out to help a loved one where necessary.

Following are just some of the signs of heroin addiction:

  • Collapsed veins
  • Infection of the heart lining and valves
  • Abscesses
  • Constipation
  • Gastrointestinal cramping
  • Liver or kidney disease
  • Depressed respiration and shortness of breath
  • Frequent yawning
  • Pneumonia and other respiratory illnesses
  • Dry mouth
  • Constricted pupils
  • Sudden changes in behavior or actions
  • Disorientation
  • Periods of alertness followed by sudden nodding off
  • Droopy appearance due to the sensation of heaviness in the
  • extremities
  • Needles and syringes
  • Burned silver spoons
  • Aluminum foil pieces and foil gum wrappers with burn marks
  • Missing shoelaces
  • Straws with burn marks on them
  • Small plastic bags and colorful rubber balloons that have a white, powdery residue
  • Glass or metal pipes
  • Dishonest and deceptive behavior
  • Inability to meet eye contact
  • Irregular sleep patterns and increases in the amount of time spent sleeping
  • Slurred and incoherent speech
  • Sudden poor performance at school or work
  • Deterioration in physical appearance and hygiene
  • Loss of motivation
  • Isolation from family members and friends
  • Disinterest in activities that were once highly enjoyed
  • Stealing or borrowing money and valuables from others
  • Hostile, aggressive behavior toward others
  • Long-sleeved clothing when not weather-appropriate – used to hide needle marks, bruises and scars
  • Sudden weight loss or weight gain
  • Runny nose without other physical signs of a related illness
  • Treating Heroin AddictionAn individual should never attempt to resolve their heroin addiction problems on their own, or even just with the help and support of family members and friends. Professional rehabilitation treatment can aid the individual in withdrawing from heroin use as safely and comfortably as possible, a vital step in successfully recovering from heroin addiction.

    In choosing a rehabilitation treatment program, the individual must select a program that addresses their own specific needs and focuses on full and lasting recovery, as opposed to simply selecting a program that promises speedy treatment. While each treatment program can vary from the next, the most important components are:

    • Physical detoxification to help the individual withdraw from heroin use and eliminate residual drug toxins from their body. When a heroin addict refuses to admit to their heroin problems or refuses to receive help for these problems, it is usually because they fear withdrawal.
    • Heroin withdrawal symptoms can include restlessness, muscle and bone pain, insomnia, diarrhea, vomiting, cold flashes with goose bumps, uncontrolled kicking movements and severe cravings. Professional detoxification services can help the individual work through these symptoms as safely and comfortably as possible.
    • Counseling to help the individual address and resolve the root causes for their heroin use, and take responsibility for the damages it has caused to self and others. This process can also help an individual begin to rebuild the self-respect and self-confidence that has been destroyed by their heroin use.
    • Life skills education to help the individual learn how to cope with the challenges and difficulties of life in the future, without relapsing into heroin use.
    • Aftercare services to help the individual transition smoothly back into their normal life environments and routines by providing additional support where necessary.

    Lasting Recovery

    It is true that recovering from heroin addiction is not a fast or easy process, but when one considers how thoroughly and quickly heroin use can destroy a life, it is easy to see the value and rewards in persisting through to full and lasting recovery.