Heroin Addiction, Abuse & Overdose

According to 2016 data from the National Institute on Drug Abuse, almost 950,000 people in the United States used heroin in the past 12 months, and the majority of heroin users are between 18 and 24 years old. Of those who used heroin in 2016, approximately 18% used the drug for the first time. While there is a decrease in the number of adolescents who use heroin, young adults continue to be attracted to the drug.

What Is Heroin?

Heroin is derived from morphine that comes from the opium poppy plant. Poppies are grown in Columbia, some parts of Asia, and Mexico. The two most common forms of heroin are a whiteish powder and a sticky, black, tar-like substance. On the street, heroin is referred to as smack.

Heroin can be ingested into the human body via injection or inhalation, such as smoking, snorting, and sniffing. Depending on what method is used, a person who uses heroin may have needle marks, frequent nose bleeds, chronic sinus problems, and burns on the lips and fingers. If the person uses needles, the skin may be infected or abscessed.

With all forms of heroin intake, the person experiences an intense, rapid high. As with all opioids, the drug affects the part of the brain that controls pain and pleasure. Pain centers are turned off and pleasure centers are stimulated. These effects on the brain are why opioid drugs are commonly used in prescription pain medications. At the same time, the euphoric sensations are also why people become addicted to opioid drugs, such as heroin, so easily.

The History of Heroin

Researchers from the University of Arizona trace the use of opiates back to 3400 BC when the drug was used in Mesopotamian area by the Egyptians and Persians. Use of the drug expanded into India, China, and parts of Europe. In the 18th century, doctors in the United States started using opium to help their patients with various pain conditions and ailments.

In the 19th century, scientists found ways to extract codeine and morphine from opium, and heroin was then made from the morphine derivative. Heroin was initially intended to be a replacement for morphine to minimize the risk of addiction, but the medical community soon realized that heroin was a more addictive drug and ceased prescribing it to their patients. Soon after, the drug was classified as illegal in the United States.

Statistics About Heroin Addiction in the United States

According to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, more than 5,000,000 people in the United States used heroin. The National Institute on Drug Abuse reports that almost 15,000 people died of a heroin overdose from 1999 to 2018. A publication by JAMA Psychiatry details a significant increase in heroin use from 2001 to 2013.

In 2017, the Department of Health and Human Services declared a public health emergency in response to the increase in opiate and heroin addiction in the United States. According to the Foundation for a Drug-free World, addiction to heroin and other opiates account for 18% of all drug and alcohol admissions to treatment centers.

Common Myths About Heroin

According to the National Drug & Alcohol Research Centre in Sydney, Australia, there are three common myths about heroin addiction.

  • Heroin addiction is isolated to young users: More than 30% of all users are at least 40 years old, and most overdose deaths occur in people who are in their 30s.
  • Heroin users can still function in society: While this may be true of a small minority of heroin users, studies show that most people with a heroin use disorder are unemployed and unable to meet their basic needs due to the addiction.
  • Heroin overdoses are caused by impurities: While it is common for heroin to contain impurities, impurities are rarely involved in deaths related to heroin use.

Heroin and the Brain

A study published in the AAPS Journal describes the physiological mechanisms by which a person gets high from heroin and how the drug lays a foundation for addiction. At the center of the addiction process for any given user lies the unique physiological capacity to build a tolerance to the drug. Higher tolerance translates into the person needing more of the drug to feel the same effects. Often, the individual may try new methods of ingestion. As this occurs, the brain is adapting to the presence of heroin to regulate centers of pain and pleasure.

The immediate effects of heroin include a sudden rush of highly pleasurable and euphoric sensations. The speed at which this effect occurs differs with different methods of ingestion and ranges from instantaneous to up to 30 minutes after ingestion. These effects may last for a few hours.

Effects and Risks of Heroin Addiction

While the high may be intense, it is also accompanied by unwanted short-term side effects. These include:

  • Passing out, falling asleep, or feeling very drowsy
  • Itchy or warm skin
  • Dry mouth
  • Vomiting and nausea
  • Lack of concentration and inability to process information

When a person continues to use heroin, they may experience a range of negative side-effects. The risk of these long-term complications increases the longer the drug is used and include:

  • Kidney and liver disease
  • Heart infections
  • Lung damage and respiratory disease
  • Skin infections and abscesses
  • Erosion of the nasal and sinus cavities
  • Mental health disorders such as anxiety, paranoia, and depression
  • Digestive disorders and diseases
  • Circulatory disorders and damaged veins
  • Sexual health problems such as sexual dysfunction in men and reproductive issues in women

An inherent risk of using heroin and other opioids, whether for the first time or after many years of use, is an accidental overdose. A heroin overdose is potentially fatal without medical intervention. The outcome of a heroin overdose relies on how much heroin was used, the quality of the drug, if it was combined with other drugs, and the physical characteristics of the person. Even a long-time user can overdose on heroin, so it is not a sign of inexperience.

If you suspect that someone has overdosed on heroin or any other substance, call for emergency medical attention immediately, even if you aren’t sure if someone has overdosed. While the signs of heroin overdose may vary, some of the most common are:

  • No breathing or very shallow breathing
  • Non-responsive or passed out
  • Blue lips or fingernails
  • Going in and out of consciousness
  • Very small (pinpoint) pupils
  • Weak pulse
  • Acting delirious or disoriented
  • Abnormally low blood pressure
  • Low heart rate

Steps for Treating Heroin Addiction

With help, it is possible to recover from heroin addiction. Treatment for heroin addiction typically involves five steps:

1. Medical detox to remove the drug from the body
2. Counseling to identify the contributing factors for addiction
3. Instill healthier coping mechanisms and life skills
4. Ongoing support for long-term recovery and relapse prevention
5. Family support to provide a healthy environment for the person in recovery

The Complexity of Co-occurring Conditions and Heroin Addiction

While treating the addiction itself is important, it is also important to address other underlying or co-occurring disorders. Studies indicate that one-third to one-half of people who enter treatment for drug or alcohol addiction have an underlying co-occurring mental health disorder. This is often referred to as a dual diagnosis.

The way that addiction evolves in a person with an underlying mental health disorder is that the drug is a way to feel “normal” and manage the symptoms of the mental health condition. In the realm of heroin, the user may believe that it will help overcome the sensation of depression, anxiety, PTSD, and even social anxiety.

The National Institute on Drug Abuse identifies two primary factors that contribute to heroin use in those with a dual diagnosis: self-medication and individual brain chemistry. With the former factor, if a mental health disorder has not been diagnosed or properly treated, the person finds other mechanisms to manage the symptoms. They often turn to illicit drug use to self-medicate. Many describe heroin use as helping them feel normal or what they perceive or believe to be normal.

Brain chemistry is another factor with a dual diagnosis. The same neurotransmitters in the brain that are involved with mental health disorders are also involved with addiction. These include dopamine, GABA, and norepinephrine.

Advances in Heroin Addiction Treatment

Psychology Today details the advances in addiction management for those living with mental health disorders. Historically, other mental health disorders were not recognized in the treatment process. Those who may have successfully completed addiction treatment were released with the same inabilities to manage their mental health disorders and relapsed as a result. Dual diagnosis approaches are proven more effective for long-term sobriety.

Heroin abuse and addiction may stem from mental health disorders or be the catalyst for them, as addiction takes a toll on any person’s mental health and well-being. Successful treatment programs such as at Green Mountain Treatment Center integrate mental health support, such as cognitive and behavioral therapy and dialectical behavioral therapy, into every treatment plan. This helps the patient deal with the emotional implications of heroin abuse and addiction.

Heroin Abuse and Addiction Treatment at Green Mountain Treatment Center

Green Mountain Treatment Center is a residential treatment center for people who struggle with heroin abuse and addiction. Our program is for adults only, and we have separate programs for men and women. Our 12-Step curriculum is proven effective for long-term sobriety.

We tailor each treatment plan to meet the person’s unique needs. After a period of detox, our program includes individual counseling and group therapies, daily activities, and personal time to reflect and set goals. The individual plan will address the patient’s co-occurring mental health disorders.

Key characteristics of our program include:

  • Peer structure
  • Goal setting
  • Life skills coaching
  • Evidence-based clinical counseling therapies
  • Alternative therapies, such as exercise, yoga, meditation, and adventure therapy
  • Nutrition

No addiction treatment is complete without talking about and planning for the future. When patients are asked about the future, the most common response is fear. Frequently, a person who has lived with addiction for any length of time cannot imagine any other type of life. By teaching skills to manage difficult emotions and social situations, we help them gain confidence and begin to see how they can live without using.

When someone leaves treatment at our residential facility, our involvement in their recovery does not end. It usually includes outpatient counseling, and some do better in a sober living facility before re-entering society. These options allow a gradual transition from the 24/7 oversight of residential treatment. The person feels more confident knowing that they are not alone or isolated along their journey of sober living.

If you or a loved one is suffering from heroin addiction, we are here to help. Call today to learn how to start on the road to recovery.