Heroin Abuse Methods and Signs of Abuse
Heroin can be injected, snorted, or smoked, but regardless of how it is consumed it remains a highly addictive, potentially lethal drug. Identifying a heroin user is made possible through the appearance of its distinctive signs and symptoms, which may be physical, mental, or behavioral. Heroin addiction is a dangerous medical condition, and anyone using heroin who is unable to quit on their own requires immediate treatment by trained addiction specialists who’ve helped others overcome their heroin dependency.
Heroin was once the most dreaded illicit drug in America.
In the 1960s and ‘70s, it left a trail of addicts and overdose victims in its path, and in the ‘80s the sharing of needles by heroin abusers was linked to the spread of HIV/AIDs.
As the ‘90s arrived, heroin use was trending downward, and no reversal was anticipated. But within the last 10 to 15 years there has been a surprising resurgence of heroin on the illegal drug black market, and contrary to previous expectations levels of heroin use and addiction are now soaring.
Heroin is back with a vengeance, and the number of people admitted to treatment centers showing the symptoms of heroin abuse has exploded in recent years.
Fortunately, treatment for heroin addiction is highly effective when addicts are committed to change.
Heroin Abuse by the Numbers
The number of drug overdose deaths in the United States jumped from just over 52,000 in 2015 to a staggering 64,000 in 2016, a 23 percent one-year increase that included more than 50,000 fatalities linked to opiate abuse.
The latter statistic is not surprising, since runaway prescription opiate abuse has played a starring role in the rise of drug overdose deaths. But despite the ongoing problem of painkiller abuse, approximately 30 percent of the opiate overdose deaths recorded in 2016 were actually linked to heroin abuse, which has been increasing even as painkiller abuse have leveled off.
In 2016, approximately 626,000 Americans aged 12 and older suffered from a heroin use disorder, a rate that is essentially double what is was in 2010. Not coincidentally, between 2010 and 2015 the number of drug overdose deaths in the United States attributable to heroin abuse more than tripled, rising from eight percent to 25 percent of the total.
Abuse of opiate painkillers remains a significant problem. But the increase in heroin use and addiction is just as concerning and a sign that opiate abuse in general is a major threat to the health and welfare of the American people.
The Link between Opiate Painkillers and Heroin Abuse
The rise of opiate painkiller use and abuse is the single biggest reason for heroin’s alarming comeback. About 80 percent of heroin users admit to misusing prescription opiates before switching to heroin, and it is these individuals who are responsible for the stunning rise in heroin use that has left public health officials and law enforcement scrambling to catch up.
All drugs that belong to the opiate class, whether legal or illicit, bind to the same receptors in the brain. And while they differ in potency, they all deliver the same effects, including relief from physical pain, prolonged feelings of deep relaxation, and some degree of euphoria immediately after consumption. Opiates are interchangeable both neurologically and psychologically, and if a person has developed an addiction to oxycodone or hydrocodone they can relieve their cravings just as easily by using heroin.
Which is exactly what has been happening. For many people who’ve developed a painkiller use disorder, heroin is a less costly, more readily available alternative that black market sellers can easily provide at sufficient quantities to meet the rise in demand.
Heroin is cheap for users but highly profitable for dealers and growers, and the stigma associated with the drug has not been strong enough to scare desperate opiate addicts away.
Methods of Heroin Use
Heroin abuse systems include three methods of use: injection, snorting or sniffing, and smoking.
- Injection. Intravenous injection is the normal method for those seeking a quick, potent burst of euphoria. Pure white powder heroin can be used in a variety of ways, but heroin in its impure, black tar form is almost always injected, after first being diluted in a liquid solution. Injection is the preferred method of heroin use for most addicts, although those who fear the risks of disease from sharing needles may choose other ways to take heroin.
- Snorting. Many heroin users are under the impression that sniffing or snorting heroin makes it less addictive, but this is a fallacy. Methods of heroin use have no bearing on its addictive potential, and the pure type of heroin used by those who consume it this way is a potent and dangerous substance.
- Smoking. The inhalation of smoke produced by the combustion of heroin delivers a fast effect, but it puts users at risk of lung problems and can exacerbate any existing respiratory problems. Smoking impure heroin is especially risky, since heroin impurities are often toxic and can ravage the body more efficiently when inhaled.
Some heroin users combine the drug with cocaine, either snorting the two drugs in succession or injecting them together in a process known as speedballing. Needless to say, this type of activity is incredibly dangerous and a sure sign of a drug addiction spiraling out of control.
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Signs and Symptoms of Heroin Abuse
Identifying a heroin user is not always easy, since people with drug problems often go to great lengths to hide the truth about their habits. But as use increases and dependency develops, heroin addiction signs will become impossible to miss, at least for those who see the heroin addict on a daily basis.
The signs and symptoms of heroin use and abuse may be physical, mental, or behavioral—or more likely, some combination of all three.
The physical symptoms of heroin use and abuse include:
- Sleepiness, drowsiness, nodding off at odd times
- Slurred or slow speech
- Nausea and vomiting
- Suppressed heart rate and low blood pressure
- Runny nose and nosebleeds (if the drug is snorted)
- Dilated pupils and light sensitivity
- Flushed skin
- Sudden weight loss
- Chronic cough (if the drug is smoked)
- Track marks on the arms (if the drug is injected)
- Sores on the skin that are slow to heal
Continuous drug use affects thinking processes and emotions, and when someone suffers from heroin addiction they may seem like a different person to those who know them best. Some of the common mental and emotional symptoms of heroin abuse include:
- Frequent confusion
- Short-term memory problems
- Poor decision-making, impulsivity
- Inability to think or react quickly
- Severe mood swings, from highly irritable or depressed before using the drug to extremely relaxed and amiable afterwards
- Delusions, hallucinations, feelings of disassociation
The behavioral symptoms of heroin abuse are common to other types of drug addiction, and they include:
- Steadily increasing consumption as tolerance builds
- Social withdrawal, secretiveness
- Habitual lying or avoidance of the truth
- Frequent unexplained disappearances or absences
- Loss of interest in hobbies or other personal pursuits
- Declining performance at work or in school
- Staying up late and/or sleeping all day
- Frequent bouts of illness, as the body’s defenses begin to break down
- Defensiveness and denial if confronted about drug use
- Blaming others for life problems instead of accepting personal responsibility
- Involvement in criminal activity (stealing money or drugs, getting into fights, DUIs, etc.)
Over time, the physical, mental, and behavioral signs of heroin abuse and addiction will continue to get worse, and only if treatment is provided will there be any realistic chance for recovery.
Consequences of Heroin Abuse and Addiction
People who abuse heroin put their bodies under tremendous stress, and if their drug use continues it can set off a cascade of health problems.
Heroin addicts are at increased risk for heart disease, stroke, liver or kidney failure, respiratory illness, immune system breakdown, mental health disorders, hepatitis, other types of drug abuse, and HIV/AIDS. Given the risks associated with all types of opiate abuse, a possibly fatal overdose may be all but inevitable if action is not taken to slow the progression of the addiction.
As their personalities and priorities change, heroin addicts will struggle to maintain healthy relationships, hold down jobs, fulfill their responsibilities as parents, and manage their financial affairs. Legal troubles may cause them great stress and embarrassment, and they may end up without a support network if family and friends abandon them.
Drug addiction creates havoc and chaos in every life it touches, and people who abuse heroin will be unable to escape the grim consequences of their unhealthy and unsustainable lifestyle.
Treatment for Heroin Addiction
After a heroin addiction has been diagnosed by a medical professional or trained addiction specialist, the first step is medical detox to help the recovering addict manage their heroin withdrawal symptoms, which can be notoriously stressful and painful. This will usually take place in a residential drug and alcohol treatment center, where inpatient recovery programs give heroin addicts an authentic chance to find lasting health and wellness.
In addition to basic, 24-hour healthcare, detox usually includes the introduction of substitute opiate-based medications that can help addicts ease off heroin at a safe, sustainable pace. Drugs like methadone and buprenorphine bind to opiate receptors in the brain but do not produce the same level of euphoria or the same intensity withdrawal symptoms as heroin, and they are appropriate for both detox and to boost the effectiveness of long-term relapse prevention programs.
Once detox is complete and heroin withdrawal symptoms are under control, patients will move on to treatment, which will include extensive, daily therapy in individual, group, and family formats. Medications may continue to be offered as necessary, and other services provided may include holistic mind-body wellness techniques like yoga, acupuncture, massage therapy, biofeedback, and arts therapy, and education and life skills classes that teach coping skills that can help recovering heroin addicts avoid relapse and stay committed to a drug-free future.
Whenever the signs and symptoms of heroin addiction are identified, it is vital that friends and family members do everything they can to convince their loved ones to seek evaluation and treatment, while the prospects for a positive outcome still exist. Heroin addiction is a life-threatening condition, and without treatment successful recovery is highly unlikely.