Heroin Addiction: Causes, Risk Factors, Effects & Treatment

Even though fentanyl has recently surpassed heroin as the most dangerous and deadly drug on the streets of the United States, hundreds of thousands of Americans continue to battle heroin addiction every day.

Although heroin dependence can wreak havoc on your life and put you at risk of a potentially fatal overdose, the good news is that it can be treated. If you or someone you love is suffering from it, you should know it’s never too late to get help.

This article will cover the key information about heroin dependence and addiction, including its signs and symptoms, causes, risk factors, and more. 

What Is Heroin?

Heroin is an illegal drug that belongs to the opioid family. As a semi-synthetic opioid, it is synthesized from morphine, an alkaloid found in the opium poppy plant. It comes in granules, sticky substance (“tar”), or powder, and its color can range from white to dark brown. 

People can snort heroin, smoke it, or inject it, which is the most dangerous method of administration.

What Is Heroin? - Heroin Addiction

Unlike most other opioids, such as codeine and fentanyl, heroin isn’t approved for any type of medical use. Classified as a Schedule I controlled substance, it has a very high potential for abuse, dependence, and addiction. It is considered a hard drug and cannot be obtained legally.

On the streets, heroin is also known as:

  • Dope
  • China White
  • Junk
  • Smack
  • Horse
  • H
  • Skag
  • Brown

As a rapidly acting opioid, heroin binds extremely quickly to the opioid receptors in the central nervous system (CNS), relieving pain and triggering a surge of dopamine that causes the user to feel “high.” Most users describe the feeling of heroin “high” as euphoric, warm, and relaxing. It also often makes people feel drowsy, confused, and lethargic.

Depending on the consumption method and other factors, heroin effects can last around 4-5 hours.

Side Effects of Using Heroin

Once consumed, heroin can lead to various side effects ranging from mildly uncomfortable to potentially life-threatening.

Besides euphoria, some short-term effects of heroin include:

  • Slurred speech
  • Difficulty urinating
  • Nausea
  • Slowed breathing
  • Trouble concentrating
  • Itchy skin
  • Dry mouth
  • Vomiting
  • Heavy limbs

Moreover, heroin use increases the risk of:

  • Tolerance
  • Dependence
  • Addiction
  • Liver damage
  • Kidney disease
  • Collapsed veins
  • Insomnia
  • Skin infections
  • Mental health disorders, such as depression
  • Lung disease
  • Opioid overdose
  • Death

Injecting heroin can also put you at risk of collapsed veins and bloodborne diseases, such as hepatitis B and HIV/AIDS.

Is Heroin Addictive?

Heroin is highly addictive. By nature, people are wired to repeat behaviors that stimulate dopamine release. As such, it’s not uncommon for first-time heroin users to take this drug again in hopes of recreating the initial “high.”

As a fast-acting opioid, though, heroin quickly activates the production of opioid receptors in the brain, leading to tolerance. This is a sign of a physical dependence on the drug. Once people build up a tolerance to it, the dose they initially took will no longer produce the desired effect. This entices people to “chase” the “high” by increasing their heroin dosage.

People dependent on heroin can no longer function normally without it, as they experience withdrawal symptoms when they don’t take the drug. Since these symptoms are often very painful and uncomfortable, many people continue to take heroin just to ward them off.

Given that heroin is an illegal drug, any use of it constitutes heroin abuse. While most users abuse heroin by snorting, injecting, or smoking it, it’s also not unusual to mix heroin with other substances to enhance its effects (e.g., “speedballing” refers to a combination of heroin and cocaine). This puts people at an even greater risk of becoming addicted.

Heroin Abuse Statistics

Here are some statistics on heroin abuse, dependence, and overdose in the United States:

  • Between 1999 and 2021, more than 150,000 Americans lost their lives to a heroin overdose.
  • The number of heroin-involved drug overdose deaths has decreased by around 62% between January 2019 and January 2023. 
  • More than 10 million Americans misuse opioids every year, and around 7.2% of them abuse heroin specifically.
  • 6.25 million Americans have used heroin at least once in their lives, and more than 690,000 people above the age of 12 struggled with heroin addiction in 2020.
  • Nearly 80% of heroin users have previously used prescription painkillers for non-medical purposes.

Heroin Addiction Signs and Symptoms

Heroin Addiction Signs and Symptoms

Heroin abuse can have negative effects on your physical, mental, social, and financial health, but those addicted to this drug continue to use it regardless.

While this is one of the main signs of heroin addiction, it isn’t the only one. Knowing these signs can help you understand whether you or someone you love is addicted to heroin and needs help to regain control over their lives.

On that note, let’s take a closer look at the physical and behavioral signs and symptoms of heroin addiction.

Heroin Addiction Physical Symptoms

Suffering from opioid withdrawal symptoms—cravings, body aches, flu-like symptoms, etc.—after quitting the drug or cutting back on it is a tell-tale sign of heroin dependence.

You can also recognize heroin addiction from the following physical symptoms:

  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Lethargy
  • Skin problems (scabbing, bruising, sores, etc.)
  • Flushed skin
  • Slurred speech
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Low heart rate
  • Constricted pupils

Heroin Addiction Behavioral Symptoms

Heroin dependence can also drastically change people’s behavior. Some of the most common behavioral warning signs of heroin addiction include:

  • Becoming more socially withdrawn
  • Possessing needles, syringes, etc.
  • Hiding or lying about drug use
  • Nodding off during conversations
  • Showing little to no interest in previously enjoyed activities
  • Experiencing financial difficulties due to heroin use
  • Persistent scratching and skin-picking
  • Neglecting personal and professional responsibilities
  • Paying less attention to personal hygiene
  • Wearing clothes that cover arms and legs even when it’s hot
  • Deteriorating school or work performance
  • Becoming hostile toward loved ones

Besides these physical and behavioral signs, you might also recognize heroin addiction through psychological and cognitive symptoms.

People addicted to this drug will often be confused, act impulsively, have trouble making decisions and concentrating, and struggle with rapid mood swings. They may also be more irritable and suffer from depression and anxiety. Changes in sleep patterns are also common.

Heroin Addiction vs. Heroin Dependence

Heroin dependence is characterized by tolerance and the presence of withdrawal symptoms upon quitting the drug or cutting back on it. Addiction can have similar characteristics, but most importantly, its hallmark symptom is loss of power over impulses even when faced with grave consequences.

In fact, research has shown that essentially everyone taking opioids for an extended period of time will develop dependence. Meanwhile, only about 8% or less will develop opioid addiction.  

Quitting heroin after becoming dependent on it will trigger uncomfortable symptoms—nausea, vomiting, muscle pain, etc. Unfortunately, it’s not uncommon for people to continue using heroin just to keep these symptoms at bay. To minimize the risk of relapse, it’s crucial to seek professional help for heroin dependence.

Heroin Addiction Causes and Risk Factors

The root cause of heroin addiction is the chemical brain imbalance stemming from heroin use, as this drug hinders the natural production of endorphins but stimulates that of opioid receptors. This leads to tolerance and dependence, which can develop into an addiction.

Anyone can become addicted to heroin, regardless of their age, gender, socioeconomic status, and other factors. 

Those addicted to prescription opioids are as many as 40 times more likely to become addicted to heroin. Unfortunately, people will often resort to illegal drugs like heroin if they can no longer legally obtain medications like oxycodone, hydrocodone, etc.

Heroin Withdrawal Symptoms

Heroin Withdrawal Symptoms

Heroin withdrawal symptoms occur in people dependent & addicted to this drug when they attempt to quit it or reduce the amount they typically consume.

While all opioids can cause withdrawal symptoms, heroin tends to produce more intense symptoms than most prescription opioids. Quitting heroin “cold turkey” should be avoided at all costs, as it can lead to particularly severe and even life-threatening withdrawal symptoms. Moreover, suddenly quitting heroin can put you at increased risk of relapse and overdose.

Although each person experiences heroin withdrawal differently, the first symptoms typically appear within 6–12 hours after the last dose and last around a week. Nonetheless, some people may suffer from cravings, depression, and other psychological symptoms for several weeks, months, and even years.

The most common heroin withdrawal symptoms are:

  • Heroin cravings
  • Runny nose
  • Watery eyes
  • Loss of appetite
  • Depression
  • Body aches
  • Tremors
  • Apathy
  • Anxiety
  • Chills
  • Diarrhea
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Fever
  • Insomnia
  • Agitation
  • High blood pressure

Risks of Heroin Overdose

Heroin overdose is a life-threatening emergency that happens when people take an excessive amount of heroin, i.e., more than their bodies can tolerate. 

Since heroin is an illegal drug and no amount of it can be safely taken, anyone who takes it risks overdosing, regardless of how much of it they consume. After all, when you use heroin, you never really know what exactly you’re putting into your body, whether it’s “cut” with other substances (and if so, which ones and at what ratio), etc.

Relapse is particularly dangerous due to decreased tolerance to the drug. If you relapse, even your typical dose could be strong enough to cause a potentially fatal overdose. Mixing heroin with other substances, including alcohol, also increases the risk of overdose.

Receiving timely medical help is of vital importance to anyone suffering from a heroin overdose, as this is the only way to prevent death.

Therefore, you should call 911 immediately if you or someone around you is displaying the following signs of a heroin overdose

  • Pinpoint pupils
  • Skin and lip discoloration
  • Shallow, slowed breathing
  • Weak pulse
  • Unresponsiveness
  • Loss of consciousness
  • Vomiting
  • Severe drowsiness
  • Choking
  • Decreased blood pressure
  • Pale, clammy, or cold skin

How to Prevent Heroin Addiction

The only way you can prevent heroin addiction is by not taking this drug. Since heroin dependence is closely tied to prescription opioid dependence and abuse, you can also avoid falling victim to it by exploring non-opioid treatment methods with your doctor if you’re suffering from pain.

If you must take opioids, here’s what you can do to minimize the risk of developing an opioid use disorder (OUD) and, in turn, lessen the likelihood of becoming addicted to heroin:

  • Take your medication strictly as instructed by your doctor.
  • Do not increase the dosage without your doctor’s knowledge and approval.
  • Do not mix your medication with alcohol or other substances.
  • Tell your doctor about any concerns or side effects you experience while taking opioids.
  • Inform your doctor about any medications, including herbal ones, you take to ensure they can be safely taken with opioids.

ANR Treatment for Heroin Dependence

Accelerated Neuro-Regulation (ANR) is an innovative treatment for heroin dependence that can help you conquer opioid dependence safely and effectively in a matter of days.

ANR Treatment

By re-regulating the endorphin-receptor system to its normal levels, the ANR treatment repairs the damage opioids cause to the brain. Thanks to restoring your brain to its pre-dependence state, it eliminates cravings and other withdrawal symptoms, negating the risk of relapse.

Unlike traditional heroin dependence treatments, ANR acknowledges the unique personal and medical needs of each patient. Since this treatment is tailored to every patient individually, it doesn’t lead to relapse. Moreover, ANR doesn’t use methadone, buprenorphine, or other potentially addictive opioid replacement drugs. 

Designed with patient safety in mind, the ANR treatment is carried out in an ICU setting of an accredited hospital by highly experienced medical professionals, including critical care physicians, anesthesiologists, and more. The procedure, which is performed under sedation, lasts 4–6 hours, whereas the hospital stay for ANR patients lasts only 36 hours on average.

Whether you wish to learn more about ANR or to start your recovery journey, don’t hesitate to contact us—our team will be happy to help!

Key Takeaways

If you believe you may be struggling with heroin dependence, seek medical help to get off heroin safely and maximize your chances of recovering from it for good.

Before you leave, let’s reiterate the key points we covered:

  • Heroin is an illegal, rapidly-acting opioid that carries a very high potential for abuse, dependence, and addiction.
  • The chemical changes that occur in the brain due to heroin use are the underlying cause of heroin addiction.
  • Prescription opioid abuse and dependence are among the main risk factors for developing an addiction to heroin.

Heroin Addiction FAQ

Heroin dependence means that you’ve become physically dependent on the drug, i.e., cannot function normally without taking it. It is characterized by two symptoms: tolerance and withdrawal symptoms. If left untreated, it can eventually develop into an addiction.

Heroin addiction can happen very quickly, as this drug is very addictive and induces intense euphoric feelings. Since these feelings can be very pleasant, people will often try to replicate them by taking heroin again. Eventually, heroin use alters brain chemistry, which is the underlying cause of heroin addiction.

Heroin affects the nervous system by depressing it—or slowing down brain function—which can lead to sedation, breathing issues, etc. It also prevents pain signals from reaching the brain and induces euphoria by activating dopamine release. Additionally, heroin stimulates the production of opioid receptors and decreases that of endorphins, which makes it very addictive. 

You can help someone addicted to heroin by seeking professional help. ANR Clinic has helped 24,000+ patients worldwide overcome opioid dependency easily using safe, effective, and humane opioid addiction treatment approaches.

If someone you know is suffering from addiction, call the ANR clinic at 813-328-8513 or the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration hotline at 1-800-662-HELP (4357).

People start using heroin for various reasons, but most people use it after developing a dependence on prescription opioids. If their doctor refuses to extend their prescription, they’ll often turn to illicit drugs like heroin to satisfy their cravings and relieve withdrawal symptoms.

People use heroin by injecting, snorting, or smoking it. While all of these ways of using heroin constitute opioid abuse, injecting heroin is particularly dangerous because it also exposes the user to the risk of HIV/AIDS, hepatitis B, hepatitis C, and other bloodborne diseases.

Yes, you can overdose on heroin. A heroin overdose occurs when a person uses enough of the drug to produce a life-threatening reaction or death. There is no “safe” amount of heroin you can ingest. However, mixing it with other substances and relapsing after a period of abstinence may put you at an even greater risk of overdose.

A heroin overdose can be treated with a medication called naloxone. If administered promptly, it can reverse an overdose by binding to opioid receptors and blocking the effects of heroin. For this reason, it’s important to seek medical help as soon as you suspect you or someone you know may be overdosing on heroin.

Reclaim your life with the revolutionary ANR treatment.

Dr. Andre Waismann

Dr. Waismann identified the biological roots of opioid dependency, Since then he has successfully treated more than 24,000 patients worldwide that are struggling with opioid addiction.

Throughout his career, he has lectured and educated health professionals in dozens of countries around the world to this day.

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