Heroin is an illegal and highly addictive drug that’s processed from morphine, which naturally occurs in certain varieties of the poppy plant. Heroin works in the brain to stimulate the release of dopamine, a neurotransmitter associated with pleasure. The effects of heroin include a surge of pleasure, followed by several hours of drowsiness, slowed mental function and a reduced heart and breathing rate.
Heroin abuse has long been on the rise in the U.S. The number of people who used heroin for the first time in 2012 was 156,000—almost twice the number of those who used it for the first time in 2006, according the National Institute on Drug Abuse. Men between the ages of 18 and 25 account for the fastest-growing population segment of heroin users.
Why is Heroin So addictive?
Heroin is extremely addictive due in part to its euphoric effects and in part to the fact that it produces an extreme degree of tolerance very quickly, which means that it will require increasingly larger doses of heroin in order to get the same effects.
Repeated heroin abuse changes the structures and functions of the brain so that eventually the brain functions more “normally” on heroin than it does without it. Even more, withdrawal symptoms set in within a few hours when heroin is withheld from the body, indicating a physical dependence on the drug. Withdrawal symptoms can be excruciating and typically include flu-like symptoms like body aches, cold and hot flashes, diarrhea and vomiting.
Overdose is a common consequence of heroin use. Between 2000 and 2013, heroin overdose deaths quadrupled, and overdose deaths among men were four times higher than those among women, according to the Centers for Disease Control’s National Center for Health Statistics.
Too large a dose of heroin reduces the heart rate and suppresses the respiratory rate to the extent that immediate medical intervention is necessary for survival. If your loved one abuses heroin, you may be able to save his life after an overdose by asking your doctor for a hand-held naloxone injector, known as Evzio, which is available to non-medical personnel.
Naloxone reverses a heroin overdose by binding to opioid receptors and preventing the heroin from activating them. Having an injector on hand in the event of an overdose can buy your loved one valuable time until medical personnel can arrive.
Other Health Effects of Heroin
Overdose is just one of the many health risks associated with abusing heroin. Chronic heroin use will likely lead to the development of an addiction, and collapsed veins, bacterial infections and liver and kidney disease are other common health problems related to heroin abuse.
Studies have also shown that heroin use can lead to the deterioration of white matter in the brain, which irreversibly affects the ability to make decisions, regulate behavior and respond appropriately to stress. HIV infection is another common health risk among heroin abusers due to sharing needles and engaging in risky sexual behaviors.
Signs That Someone You Love May Be Abusing or Addicted to Heroin
Addiction to heroin is characterized by continuing to use the drug despite numerous negative consequences to health, relationships, and finances. Addiction causes compulsive drug-seeking behaviors: once an addiction sets in, finding and using heroin becomes the primary focus in life.
Signs that your loved one is using heroin include:
The presence of paraphernalia, including small glass pipes, syringes, burnt spoons and small baggies or balloons containing white, tan or brown powder or residue
Needle marks on the arms, hands, legs, or feet—many who inject heroin do so between fingers and toes to hide the needle marks
Wearing long sleeves or pants even in very hot weather
Dilated pupils, droopy eyelids and nodding off
Flushed skin, a runny nose and slowed breathing
Complaints of constipation or nausea
Increasingly neglecting personal hygiene
Loss of appetite
Where to Turn for Help
Watching someone you love succumb to heroin addiction can be terrifying. The most important thing you can do to help him is to educate yourself about heroin addiction and how it changes the brain and affects behaviors and perceptions.
Nar-Anon is one of many support groups for people who have a loved one addicted to narcotics. A support group can benefit you in numerous ways, from helping you learn how to change your own enabling behaviors to developing skills for coping with the fear and anger that often affects the loved ones of those addicted to drugs. You’ll also learn strategies for helping your loved one decide to seek help.
It is possible to overcome an addiction to heroin. One of our addiction counselors will be happy to help you learn more about how treatment can help your loved one overcome his addiction and regain control of his life. If your loved one is in denial or is uninterested in getting help, you may also consider discussing whether an intervention might help him agree to seek the professional assistance he needs to recover.