Heroin is an opioid that originates from morphine, a substance derived from opium poppy plants. It can be injected, sniffed, snorted, or smoked.
Heroin addiction, also called opioid use disorder, is a disorder that involves changes in the brain and behavior as a result of heroin use.
Heroin is highly addictive. It’s an opioid, which binds to receptors in the brain to release the chemical dopamine. As with most drug side effects, this release is only temporary — which leaves some people wanting more of the “good” feeling.
If a person takes an opioid repeatedly over time, the brain doesn’t naturally produce dopamine as it once did. This results in the person taking higher or more frequent doses of the opioid in order to achieve the same level of good feeling.
Sometimes opioid use disorder begins with legal drugs like painkillers that are prescribed after a surgery or some other injury. These pain-relieving drugs act in similar ways to heroin.
If a person becomes addicted to these prescribed medications and can’t obtain them anymore, they may pursue illegal drugs like heroin to achieve the same pleasurable feeling.
While not everyone who takes legal painkillers or recreational substances becomes addicted, some people won’t be able to stop taking them.
Addiction can happen to anyone, and anyone who takes opioids can be at risk for developing an opioid use disorder.
While it’s impossible to say who’s at risk for an opioid use disorder, there are factors that can raise the risk of developing a drug addiction.
According to the Mayo Clinic, some of these risk factors can include:
- family or personal history of addiction to other substances
- heavy tobacco use
- history of severe depression or anxiety
- exposure to high-risk individuals or environments
- history of risk-taking behavior
It’s important to remember, though, that even if you or someone you care about has one or even many of these risk factors, that doesn’t mean they’ll develop a substance use disorder. Addiction is multifaceted. It can include genetic, psychological, and environmental factors.
Early on, there may be no symptoms of opioid use disorder, especially if the person is going to great lengths to hide their use. As the use increases, it can get harder to hide. Signs and symptoms of heroin use can include:
- agitation or drowsiness
- slurred speech
- constricted (smaller) pupils
- memory problems
- needle marks (if injecting the drug)
- runny nose or nose sores (if snorting the drug)
- reduced sense of pain
Other signs of heroin use can include:
- changes in appearance or decline in personal hygiene
- changes in behavior, like sudden secrecy or aggression
- money issues, such as missing money or needing more and more money without any logical reason
- problems at school or work
- risky or dangerous behavior
One of the hallmarks of addiction is a person not being able to stop using a substance, despite any negative consequences or multiple attempts to stop and not being able to.
If you yourself are using, you might realize that you need to ingest more and more heroin to achieve the same pleasurable feeling you used to get with less of the drug.
Diagnosing any kind of substance use disorder, including opioid use disorder, is done by a thorough examination and assessment by a psychiatrist or psychologist. In some states, a licensed drug and alcohol counselor may make the diagnosis.
Typically, a variety of tests are used. These include lab tests like blood or urine tests and a clinical interview.
If you suspect that you or someone you care about has a heroin addiction, talk with a professional. This can include a mental health professional like a licensed drug or alcohol counselor or a social worker, physician, or psychiatrist.
There’s no one “cure-all” for any drug addiction, including heroin. Rather, there are effective treatments available to help the person into and through recovery. The specific kinds of treatment used usually depend on:
- the individual
- the substance being used
- any coexisting medical conditions
There are various kinds of treatments for opioid use disorder. Using multiple forms of treatment is often more effective than just using one.
The two main forms of opioid use disorder treatment are pharmacological (medication) and behavioral.
Stopping an opioid like heroin when you’re physically addicted to it can cause an array of physical symptoms during withdrawal. Some of these symptoms can be serious. These include:
Going through detox from heroin can be painful and uncomfortable, on top of intense cravings for the drug. People sometimes use heroin to stop the pain from withdrawal and detox itself.
Because of this, medication can ease cravings and physical withdrawal symptoms, reducing the likelihood of using heroin during detox.
Detoxing from the drug is the first step in most treatments. If detox is physically impossible to endure, further treatment will be less effective. To enhance the safety of detox, it’s best the person is medically supervised. Your doctor may want to hospitalize you for detox.
Behavioral treatment can be done in either outpatient or inpatient treatment settings. It can include:
- individual therapy
- group therapy
- contingency management
Behavioral therapy can help a person:
- identify triggers of drug use
- build coping skills when faced with cravings
- develop ways to deal with relapse
- identify and cope with any issues that might be causing emotional discomfort
Opioid use disorder is a serious condition, but it’s treatable. Addiction doesn’t have to be permanent, or even long term. There’s help out there, and it’s possible to recover.
If you think you or a loved one has developed an addiction to heroin, talk with your doctor or another healthcare provider. They can help you with an assessment and provide further resources for help and recovery.