Heroin addiction has been a growing problem in the United States over the past several decades. The National Institute on Drug Abuse estimates that adults between the ages of 18 and 25 are the fastest-growing segment of new users. With America’s growing dependence on painkillers and other opioids, it should come as no surprise that heroin use is increasing so fast.
Not only has the sheer number of users been increasing year over year, but heroin addictions have also spread from major cities into suburbs and rural areas. In a study from the Epidemiology Working Group at the National Institute on Drug Abuse, government epidemiologists found that the percentage of heroin treatment admissions for adults under 25 has gone from 11% of admissions to more than 25%.
Recognizing Common Heroin Paraphernalia and Methods of Taking the Drug
If you think someone in your life is dealing with heroin use disorder, you may notice that they carry drug-related paraphernalia. Unlike other drugs, heroin can be taken in a variety of different ways. It can be smoked with a glass tube, injected with a needle, or snorted intranasally. Although some users believe that smoking heroin is somehow “safer” than injecting it, the truth is that every method is just as dangerous.
When heroin is smoked, it is usually placed on a piece of foil, exposed to a high-heat flame, and then inhaled through any type of cylindrical apparatus that the user can get their hands on. A glass tube is the most common smoking device, but many people will use straws and dollar bills if they have no other options. Regardless of what’s being used for inhalation, a paraphernalia kit for smoking heroin will nearly always contain some kind of foil.
After a user inhales heroin, they usually feel the first effects within 15 minutes. The first “high” leads to a powerful adrenaline rush, which is often characterized by faster breathing, sweating, and feelings of euphoria. Similar to other temporary feelings of euphoria, however, the adrenaline rush from smoking heroin is inevitably followed by an intense crash.
This crash is known as the “comedown” phase, and its telltale signs include sudden depression, feelings of listlessness, and slower breathing. If you are observing a cycle of manic-depressive behavior in somebody you suspect may be using heroin, then it’s a good idea to see if you can find any paraphernalia for smoking.
Of all the available methods, injecting heroin produces the most intense high. Instead of waiting a full 15 minutes to feel the effects when smoking, users who inject the drug feel euphoric within seconds. Heroin is addictive no matter how it’s taken, but people tend to get hooked on injections faster than other methods.
According to a 2011 study from scientists with funding from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services, almost half of the heroin users in the United States prefer using injections over any other method. Injecting heroin produces different side effects than smoking it, and the most common signs that a user has injected the substance include a dry mouth, red skin, and much slower reaction times.
With this faster high, however, comes an even bigger crash. When users experience the comedown from a heroin injection, they frequently report feeling hazy and slipping in and out of regular consciousness. People gravitate toward heroin injections because of the initial feelings that they experience immediately after shooting up, but using needles in such a casual manner can lead to serious diseases. Studies have linked heroin injections to many bloodborne infections. Many users have contracted hepatitis C, HIV, and hepatitis B due to contamination from their needles.
Regardless of the route that a user chooses, heroin is a highly addictive opioid. Using this drug for even a short period can come with nasty side effects and unintended consequences. In summary, needles, foil, pipes, straws, and even spoons are all common paraphernalia that people with heroin addiction will regularly use to get high.
A Deeper Look at the Signs and Symptoms of Heroin Use Disorder
Due to the effect of the drug on the nervous system, heroin users will often display small, constricted pupils. If police suspect that a person may be using, they’ll often check that person’s eyes to see if their pupils dilate under a light.
Other physical effects include increased blood pressure, needle tracks on the most common injection sites, severe weight loss due to a decreased appetite, and topical infections from dirty needles. Topical infections can lead to more serious internal infections, and that’s why needles are considered some of the most dangerous heroin paraphernalia. If you notice small cuts, bruises, or red spots near a user’s veins, then those effects could very well be due to budding infections from an unsterilized needle.
It’s never comfortable to speak with somebody you love about a substance use disorder, but it’s imperative to get help right away if you suspect a person has been sharing needles with other users. Many users only find out about a serious infection after it’s too late, but this doesn’t have to be the case.
Understanding Heroin Withdrawal
The physical dependency that results from long-term heroin use can lead to life-threatening withdrawal systems when a user tries to quit. The body’s natural opioid system is incredibly powerful, and receptors become downregulated with repeated drug use.
This downregulation leads to a user needing more and more heroin to get the same level of euphoria. As these physical cravings increase, an addict will often need to keep using to merely maintain their “normal” functioning. They’ll often feel like they literally cannot live without the drug, and the sad part is that this belief is sometimes well-founded. If a heroin detox is not handled properly, then a bad case of withdrawal can lead to death from dehydration or a heart attack.
The most common heroin withdrawal symptoms include severe fever, vomiting, insomnia, suicidal thoughts, tremors, intense feelings of anxiety, and frequent muscle spasms. If the vomiting becomes too intense, then the person going through withdrawal may end up severely depleting their electrolytes. These electrolytes, which include sodium, potassium, and magnesium, are important for proper heart function and other bodily functions. If the levels fall too low, one may lose consciousness and not be able to start breathing again.
Compared to all the other substance use disorders that we see at Green Mountain Treatment Center, heroin has some of the most severe withdrawal symptoms. As good as a user feels when they’re in the middle of a high, they feel about 100 times worse when they stop using the drug.
The Psychological Consequences of a Heroin Addiction
Using heroin not only changes a person physically, but it also changes them psychologically. Becoming addicted to such a powerful substance often leads to feelings of helplessness and despair. This despair can easily turn into chronic depression, and many heroin users end up trapped in a vicious cycle. They end up using the drug to escape the depression that results from the substance use disorder, and this cycle repeats itself until the user hits rock bottom.
Many users also report dramatic personality changes over time, and people often become more easily irritable as they continue to abuse the drug. It’s important to remember that heroin produces a profound adrenaline rush. This adrenaline rush is not physiologically sustainable for long periods of time, but some of the side effects often linger around until the next hit. This means that a user will often feel “wired” and tired at the same time.
It’s not uncommon to hear stories of users who report being wide awake but feeling like their legs weigh 1,000 pounds. People who are struggling with a heroin use disorder also tend to stop paying attention to personal hygiene, and their entire focus often shifts to finding their next hit.
Heroin cravings tend to build upon themselves exponentially, so a person who has been using for 15 years will have disproportionately more intense cravings than somebody who has been using for a few months. With that said, opioid cravings are dangerous for anybody who has started using, and there is absolutely no substitute for sobriety.
The Causes of Heroin Addiction
Even though addiction researchers have debated the causes of heroin addiction for quite some time, most agree that some groups are more at risk than others. Opioid use disorder often occurs in conjunction with preexisting mental health issues, and it’s also fairly common for a person to have another substance use disorder before they start using heroin.
For example, we often find that heavy heroin users only turned to the drug when drinking regularly wasn’t giving them the feeling that they wanted. All substance use disorders change the brain chemistry of the user, and the resulting changes could make it harder to resist the temptation of using opioids.
Studies have also suggested that people with relatives dealing with opioid use disorder may be more likely to develop an addiction themselves. Researchers aren’t sure whether this increased risk is due to genetic or behavioral effects, but the consensus is that certain genes can definitely make a person more sensitive to the effect of heroin.
In addition to preexisting mental health issues and other substance use disorders, someone who is surrounded by other heroin users is often more likely to try it for themselves. The effect of peer pressure is certainly something that we’re familiar with at Green Mountain Treatment Center. Many heroin users tell us that they just wanted to try one hit because their friends told them how good it felt.
One hit of heroin can quickly turn into one hit per week, and one hit per week can quickly turn into one hit per day. When a user is surrounded by other users, they often fear being socially ostracized if they attempt to quit.
Offering a Comprehensive Approach to Treating Heroin Use Disorder
Tackling a heroin addiction can seem like a daunting task, but our years of experience have helped us develop a compassionate, integrated, holistic approach. We’re proud of our success stories at Green Mountain Treatment Center. Our goal is to help every patient heal their mind, body, and spirit.
Our inpatient heroin recovery programs offer medically assisted treatment protocols when necessary, and we know how important it is for a user to detoxify safely. Heroin use disorder is one of the few conditions where the effects of withdrawal can actually be worse than the effects of the drug, so our staff monitors detox patients 24 hours a day until their symptoms have subsided.
If you believe that somebody in your life might be struggling with a heroin use disorder, then today is the best time to seek help. We know that selecting a rehab clinic is a major decision, so our team is here for you every step of the way. Whether you’re seeking treatment for yourself, a spouse, a friend, or even a co-worker, we encourage you to give us a call today so we can assist you in exploring all of your options.