Heroin Addiction: Can You Spot the Signs?
No one intends to become addicted to heroin. However, it’s one of the most addictive substances available, meaning it’s extremely difficult to quit once someone starts abusing it. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, about one million people struggled with a heroin use disorder in 2021. A heroin addiction can manifest quickly, with some people becoming addicted after only one usage. If you’re worried a loved one may be struggling with a heroin use disorder, learning how to spot the signs and symptoms of addiction can help you intervene early and encourage them to seek treatment.
Understanding Heroin Addiction
Heroin is an illegal opioid drug derived from morphine, a naturally occurring substance taken from the seeds of opium poppy plants. It typically comes as a white or brown powder or black sticky substance known as black tar heroin. Most people who abuse heroin either snort, smoke or inject it.
When heroin is ingested, it converts back to morphine and interacts with opioid receptors in the brain associated with pleasure, reward and pain. This causes the brain to release dopamine, a neurotransmitter that makes you feel good, which is why many heroin users report feeling an intense pleasurable or euphoric rush while high. It’s this rush that encourages repeated heroin use.
Heroin’s intense effects can often make someone desire additional dosages as soon as they wear off, causing individuals to increase the frequency and amount of dosages to match their rising tolerance levels. Once your body starts to crave heroin, you’ve developed a physical dependency on the drug and will likely experience withdrawal symptoms when trying to quit.
Signs & Symptoms of Heroin Addiction
There are several signs and symptoms that may indicate someone is abusing heroin. Some symptoms are short-term, while others are long-lasting and can result in serious health complications.
When using heroin, the most common physical symptoms include dry mouth, warm, flushed skin and heaviness in the limbs. However, everyone experiences heroin abuse differently and may display symptoms such as:
- Intense itching
- Changes in appearance, such as weight loss
- Watery eyes
- Nausea or vomiting
- Sores, scabs and other skin problems (if injecting heroin)
- Slowed heart rate or breathing
- Constricted pupils
- Runny nose
Abusing heroin can also result in long-term physical effects based on the ingestion method. For example, injecting heroin can lead to collapsed veins, HIV, hepatitis and bacterial infections of the skin, heart or bloodstream, while snorting it can cause tissue damage. Additional long-term symptoms include heart infections, stomach cramping or constipation, blood vessel bacterial infections and liver or kidney disease.
Heroin addiction can cause someone’s behavior or personality to shift, especially if they’re constantly searching for new ways to obtain the drug. They may go missing for periods of time and lie or become deceptive about their location or activities. You may notice your loved one withdrawing socially, depending on how often they abuse heroin, and lose interest in activities they once enjoyed. It’s also common for heroin users to keep drug paraphernalia, such as syringes and hypodermic needles, in their homes.
You can also experience psychological symptoms from abusing heroin. While heroin causes short-term feelings of pleasure and euphoria, it can also lead to negative symptoms such as clouded mental functioning, poor judgment and an inability to think clearly. Some people may develop depression, anxiety or mood swings, which can last long-term and lead to suicidal thoughts or attempts.
Causes and Risk Factors for Heroin Abuse
Many genetic and environmental factors can influence heroin abuse. Having access to heroin, being around peers who use heroin and being exposed to stress or trauma that exceeds your coping abilities can contribute to heroin use. Other factors include:
- Family history of substance abuse
- Prior substance abuse
- Personal or family history of mental illness
- Poor stress management skills
Dangers of Using Heroin
No matter the reason for using heroin, its status as an illicit drug poses serious risks because it isn’t regulated by the government, meaning there’s a chance you aren’t getting pure heroin when purchasing it on the street. Many dealers mix heroin with other substances, such as fentanyl, to increase their supply and cut costs.
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Fentanyl is a tasteless, odorless synthetic opioid, and it’s difficult to detect when other drugs are laced with it. Because it’s 50 times more potent than heroin, it can increase your risk of overdosing, and people who use heroin are already at a high risk. If someone is overdosing on heroin, their breathing will slow or stop, creating a lack of oxygen in the brain. Other warning signs of an overdose include:
- Loss of consciousness
- Limp body
- Faint heartbeat
- Purple lips
- Constricted pupils
- Pale or blue skin
- Gurgling sounds
Overdosing on heroin can be life-threatening. If someone you know is experiencing any of these symptoms, it’s important to seek immediate medical attention.
Recognizing Heroin Addiction in Loved Ones
People who use heroin tend to hide it from their loved ones, making it difficult to spot the signs of addiction. However, there are a few things to look out for, one of the most obvious being if your loved one has heroin or drug paraphernalia in their home. This can include:
- Small spoons
- Drinking straws
- Tin foil
- Plastic pen cases
Many people who abuse heroin struggle with their memory or attention and may lack awareness of their surroundings. If they inject heroin, they may have needle marks or abscesses around the injection site. Drug use can also lead to ongoing financial issues, and your loved one may ask you for money or steal from you to buy heroin.
Social withdrawal is another warning sign of heroin addiction. Your loved one may reduce interactions with people who don’t use heroin or spend a lot of time trying to obtain, use or recover from the drug, which can also interfere with work or school obligations. If this is the case, it may be time to consider professional treatment for your loved one. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) offers a free, confidential hotline that can help you access addiction treatment resources.
Encourage Professional Treatment for Heroin Addiction
Even though heroin is hard to quit, recovery is possible with the right treatment. Topsail Addiction Treatment is an outpatient addiction recovery center near Boston offering various levels of rehab to help people overcome their heroin addiction and get their life back on track.
Our customized treatment plans are designed to meet people where they’re at in the recovery process. If you’ve noticed any of the warning signs and symptoms we’ve discussed, don’t wait to reach out. Contact us today to help your loved one overcome their heroin addiction before it worsens.
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