Overview of Heroin Addiction
Those who don’t consider heroin addiction to be a serious problem should consult the work of researchers at UCLA. Between 1962 and 1964, researchers began following a group of heroin addicts who had recently completed a top substance abuse rehabilitation program. The researchers had hoped to demonstrate the consequences of heroin addiction, and perhaps they also wanted to collect inspirational stories of people who had beaten the addiction. What they discovered instead, according to a news bulletin put out by Emory University, was something much more depressing. In 1997, when the researchers contacted participants, they discovered that 49 percent had died. The abusers’ death rate was 50 to 100 times that of the general population. Most of these people died of a heroin overdose. As this study so clearly demonstrates, heroin addiction can truly be fatal if left untreated.
At Alta Mira, we work hard every day to help heroin addicts recover and beat their addictions. We use medications, talk therapy, group meetings and more to help set the addict on the right path, and we encourage all of our patients to keep fighting long after the formal program is complete. If you or someone you know is dealing with a heroin addiction, we encourage you to call us.
A Versatile Drug
Heroin is synthesized from the seeds of a poppy plant. It’s an illegal substance, so its manufacture isn’t regulated by any sort of governmental agency. As a consequence, the quality, purity and even the look of heroin can vary dramatically from place to place. For example, according to the National Drug Intelligence Center, heroin sold on the east coast of the United States often looks like a dry, white powder. Heroin sold on the west coast of the United States, by contrast, is sticky and brown. It can even be solid, like a brick.
Heroin dealers tend to buy in bulk, and in order to stretch their profits, they mix cheap substances in with their heroin in order to make the supply seem bigger. Dealers with white powder, for example, might mix in baking soda or sugar. Dealers with black tar might mix in laxatives or molasses. If the user buys an ineffective batch of heroin, the user might just be out of money.
If the user buys a potent batch when he or she is used to ineffective batches, the user could overdose. Sometimes, dealers even add other drugs to heroin, such as strychnine or Fentanyl. These drugs could also cause an overdose, or they could cause a poisoning death. This is one of the main risks of heroin abuse.
Many people heat heroin until it is a liquid, and then they inject the heroin into their veins. Other people snort the white powder directly, or they smoke or ingest the solid forms of heroin tar. Any method will allow the drug to enter the user’s system, but injecting the drug is often considered the most effective way to use heroin, as the user begins to experience symptoms mere seconds after the needle pierces the skin.
Heroin’s Short-Term Effects
When heroin enters the user’s body, it seeks out receptors dotted throughout the brain and intestinal tract. The heroin molecules attach to these receptors and set off a cascade of chemical reactions. These are the same chemical reactions a person might feel if he or she were about to eat some mouthwatering food or open a present. But, this reaction is exaggerated and it goes on and on. This is the “rush” that heroin addicts feel, and it can be incredibly intoxicating. In addition to this rush, the user might feel:
- A warmth and tingling spreading through the skin
- Heaviness in the extremities
- Dry mouth
Heroin receptors are also located in the base of the brain, which is responsible for controlling the body’s breathing and temperature. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, this is one of the most dangerous aspects of heroin use. People who use heroin may experience such slow breathing and heart rates that they simply seem to fall asleep, and they never do wake up.
People who use heroin on a habitual basis become accustomed to the drug, and they may find that they need to take higher and higher doses of the drug to feel the same effect. These high doses carry with them a higher risk of overdose.
Heroin’s Long-Term Effects
Heroin can also do a significant amount of damage to the user’s central nervous system. In fact, according to a study published in the journal Auris Nasus Larynx, a user who sniffed heroin just once developed hearing loss. The patient did, eventually, get better but it took him an entire month to regain his ability to hear. This is a dangerous consequence of use, to be sure. The drug is so powerful that it can do damage with just one dose.
Over time, abusing heroin can wreak significant damage on a wide variety of systems in the body, including the brain. For example, a study published in the journal Neuropsychopharmacology found that people who abuse heroin perform poorly on mental functioning tests. They have trouble recognizing patterns, dealing with spatial concepts and remembering details. These changes can also appear in brain scans, where the heroin addict’s brain appears shrunken and inactive.
People who inject heroin are subject to a wide variety of long-term health problems, including:
- Collapsed veins
- Infections of the heart or lungs
- Blood-borne infections such as AIDS or hepatitis B and C
Anyone who uses heroin is at risk for long-term addiction problems. The body becomes accustomed to the constant presence of heroin, and when the addict tries to quit, the body goes into a protracted withdrawal. Symptoms can be mild, including sweating and tooth grinding, but they can also be severe and include vomiting, nausea and even death. Some addicts are trapped within their addictions for decades because they experience tiny withdrawal symptoms between hits. These symptoms are so frightening, that the user returns to heroin to keep them from growing stronger. The symptoms dissipate as soon as the addict takes heroin once more, which seems to encourage the addiction to keep growing. The heroin begins to look like medicine (See more on signs of heroin addiction).
Dealing With Addiction
These chemical and neurological changes can make it difficult for the heroin addict to live a normal life. In fact, some studies suggest that a heroin addiction can cause personality changes. For example, a study published by the American Psychological Association found that people who were taking heroin were twice as likely to make impulsive decisions, compared to those who were not. It could be hard to do the hard work of leaving heroin behind when you’re now hardwired to be impulsive and only think about the present.
In addition, heroin is illegal. People who abuse heroin take significant risks each time they buy or use the drug. In some cases, heroin addicts enter top drug treatment programs when they’re arrested for drug offenses. In other cases, heroin addicts lose their children and their jobs when their addiction comes to light. It’s a terrible consequence.
Heroin addiction might be serious, but it can be treated. Often, this means that the heroin addict’s family must step in and point out that the addiction is both noticeable and treatable. The heroin addict might truly think that the addiction is private, not noticeable or not very serious. Family members can help the addict see the dangers of addiction and the hope implicit in recovery (See additional info: heroin addiction relapse).