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Heroin addiction is a terrible disease that affects millions of people causing upheaval and uprooting in all things that are comfortable in life. When an individual crosses the line from being a recreational user to a full blown heroin addict, the results can be devastating for everyone involved including the addict, the family members and loved ones of the addict and even other individuals of society who are indirectly affected by the addictive behaviors and nature of the individual suffering from this disease.
As devastating as heroin addiction can be, there is hope! Treatment philosophies have emerged over the years providing an array of opportunities for those suffering from this deadly disease. From counseling and therapy to shared support and recovery groups, individuals who are addicted to heroin now have a multitude of treatment options available to assist them—but the only way to get help is to understand what heroin addiction is, how to recognize it and what steps you should take to rectify the problem.
What is Heroin Addiction?
Heroin is an opioid that is synthesized from the poppy plant. When smoked, snorted, ingested or injected, heroin’s powerful effects include euphoria, sedation, arousal that can last for a period of up to eight hours. Unfortunately, heroin use can lead to an almost immediate change in the body that results in physical cravings, dependence and a difficulty in quitting later on. Repeat use of this drug will most certainly lead to addiction and subsequent consequences that not only wreak havoc on the life of the user but which may even be fatal.
After a single use of heroin, the euphoric effects that are felt from a tiny dose will no longer be as easily achieved. Tolerance, which according to NIDA, “occurs when the person no longer responds to the drug in the way that person initially responded,” quickly develops and the user will require higher doses in order to produce the same or similar analgesic effects. The development of tolerance, though not necessarily a sure sign of addiction, is one of the first steps in the direction towards physical dependence and an increased risk of addiction—as such, many studies have found that drugs which produce tolerance are more likely to result in addiction.
Dangers of Heroin Use
The National Institute on Drug Abuse reports that, “regular heroin use changes the functioning of the brain.” The changes which occur within the brain and in other vital organs of the body can result in an array of complications and dangers including:
- physical dependence
- withdrawal symptoms
- behavioral outbursts
- disease resulting from the use of shared needles
- organ damage
- reduced inhibitions
- risk taking
- permanent damage to vital organs
The National Institute on Drug Abuse reports that, “ besides the risk of spontaneous abortion, heroin abuse during pregnancy (together with related factors like poor nutrition and inadequate prenatal care) is also associated with low birth weight, an important risk factor for later delays in development.”
Signs of Heroin Use
According to the URMC Medical Encyclopedia, “the best strategy to help children and to prevent drug addiction is to be involved and pay attention to everything that goes on.” Potential signs of heroin use often show up long before the symptoms of addiction are easily spotted. In fact, recognizing the signs of heroin use can help you to seek prompt care before the addiction spirals out of control and leads to potentially irreversible consequences.
The signs that you should be on the lookout for include:
- runny nose
- watery eyes
- drowsiness or abrupt changes in sleep patterns
- drug-seeking behavior in which the individual is seemingly always looking for drugs
- labored breathing
- nausea, vomiting or upset stomach
- lack of energy, lethargy or limbs that seem weighted
- itching or uncontrollable twitching
- constricted pupils
Following the immediate effects of heroin use, “users usually will be drowsy for several hours; mental function is clouded; heart function slows; and breathing is also severely slowed, sometimes enough to be life-threatening,” according to NIDA.
Symptoms of Heroin Addiction
Recognizing the signs and symptoms of an addiction to heroin may allow you to find adequate treatment and help for yourself or for someone you love before the elements of the addiction progress too far and cause irreversible damage to ones life. The most commonly recognized symptoms of heroin addiction include:
- chronic drug-seeking behavior in which the user is always looking for, planning for or otherwise focusing on heroin, where they will get their next dose, how they will get it, when they will get it, where they will do it, what they will pay for it, how they will come up with the money, etc.
- tolerance that has increased substantially and is now paired with subsequent withdrawal symptoms when the user abruptly attempts to lower the dose or to quit all together
- suffering from legal, social, financial, medical or other consequences as a result of heroin use and continuing to abuse heroin regardless of the known problems that the drug is causing.
- Using heroin despite a desire to cut back or quit.
- using heroin despite promising friends or family members that you would quit.
According to University Medical Services, “heroin is so addictive that even after just three days, it’s possible to experience withdrawal symptoms if you stop taking it.” Opiate withdrawal occurs when an individual who is addicted to or physically dependent on an opiate such as heroin attempts to abruptly quit using the drug or to significantly lower the dose without tapering the drug off. Symptoms of heroin withdrawal include:
- muscle aches and bone pain
- watery eyes and runny nose
- sweating and having chills
- abdominal cramping, upset stomach, diarrhea, nausea and vomiting
According to the University of Maryland Medical Center, “opioid withdrawal reactions are very uncomfortable but are not life threatening.” Withdrawal from heroin generally begins just a few hours after the last does is taken and can last anywhere from around 12 hours to a number of days depending on how long the user has been taking the drug, the amount of the drug that is generally taken and various other factors.
Heroin Addiction Treatment
University Health Services from the University of Wisconsin-Madison reports that, “the best treatment plan depends on the person and the level of addiction.” When opiate dependence is to blame, detox is the necessary first step to getting sober and it’s one that cannot be overlooked no matter what the cost. Treatment for heroin addiction generally begins with time spent in a detox center, followed by the creation of an individual and personalized treatment plan that will help those who are addicted to learn how to cope with their addiction without resorting back to previous habits of drug abuse.
According to Harvard Health, “no single approach to detoxification is guaranteed to be best for all addicts.” As such, many heroin addicts first attempt to quit taking heroin on their own without medical treatment or help—most people who attempt this approach fail miserably at least a few times before they find a supportive treatment program that works for them. During detox, the addict effectively overcomes heroin addiction by allowing the drug to be eradicated from the body and by vowing not to touch the drug again and potentially derail the detoxification process.
Medications are sometimes prescribed during heroin detox. Such drugs include:
Each medication works to help alleviate the symptoms of withdrawal or to provide a powerful dose of craving blocking medication that can help to keep patients calm and in control of their recovery.
Support will make up the foundation of heroin addiction treatment and recovery. Many different support groups are found in recovery centers as well as throughout the community and in online resources for those in need. In treatment, heroin addicts receive support from the counselors and therapists as well as from medical staff who work at the recovery center. Outside of treatment, a number of peer to peer support groups readily provide support to those in need.
The most common support group is NA. According to Narcotics Anonymous, “[it] is a global, community-based organization with a multi-lingual and multicultural membership.” They offer recovery from the harmful effects of the addiction to those who are addicted as well as to the friends and family member sin search of a supportive hand during this challenging time.
Heroin Addiction Recovery
Recovering from heroin addiction is a slow process that may be plagued with a number of bumps along the way. Often labeled by the increasingly large number of relapses that consistently occur when an individual is addicted to heroin, this disease can take many years to overcome and, generally, tends to continue to play a part in the user’s life forever.
Although heroin addiction recovery could take months or even years to live through, the end result is like a completely changed life for the user. It’s important to note that although some days in recovery can be challenging at best, with each day of sobriety, the user is one step closer to a lifetime of recovery.