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Heroin’s Effects on the Body: What Does Heroin Do to You?

The past several years have yielded some of the worst numbers when it comes to the opioid crisis. The most recent numbers released by the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) shows that 128 people in the United States die each day after overdosing from opioids, including heroin, fentanyl, and prescription pain relievers. In the 1990s, pharmaceutical companies assured the medical community patients wouldn’t become addicted to their drugs, but it led to the public health crisis that we know today. 

In 2017, more than 47,000 Americans died due to opioid overdose, and that same year an estimated 1.7 million people suffer from substance use disorders relating to the drug. Unfortunately, 4 to 6 percent of those who misuse prescription opioids will transition to heroin, and nearly 80 percent of people who use heroin first misused prescription opioids. 

Heroin is an opioid that comes from morphine and is derived from opium poppy plants. Users can either snort, sniff, inject, or smoke the drug. Heroin addiction, also known as an opioid use disorder, involves changes in the brain chemistry and behaviors resulting from use. 

What Causes Heroin Addiction?

Heroin is an extremely addictive drug, and as an opioid, it binds to receptors in the brain that releases the chemical dopamine. As you’d expect from most drug side effects, the release is only temporary, meaning people will want more of the “feel-good” effects it produces. 

When a person uses opioids repeatedly, the brain doesn’t produce dopamine naturally like it once did. It results in a person using high or more frequent doses of heroin to achieve that level of feeling good they once did. 

As was mentioned above, heroin addiction commonly stems from prescription opioids. A person might be prescribed something after surgery or an injury, and once a doctor determines their treatment has concluded, they might pursue heroin to achieve the pleasurable sensation. Although not everyone who uses legal painkillers will become addicted, some might not be able to stop taking them. 

Short-Term Effects of Heroin

The initial rush users experience after using heroin is the reason they come back for more. The surge of pleasure and euphoria will cover their body, and some describe it as being covered with a warm blanket. Despite the good feelings, heroin can cause an instant overdose if the person uses more than they’re used to. Some other short-term effects of the drug include:

  • Warm flushing of the skin
  • Dry  mouth
  • Heavy feeling in the arms and legs
  • Severe itching
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Heavy feeling in the arms and legs
  • Clouded mental functioning
  • Nodding, which refers to a back-and-forth state of being conscious and semiconscious

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Who’s At Risk of Heroin Addiction?

Unfortunately, addiction can occur at any time to anyone. Anyone who uses opioids can be at risk of developing an opioid use disorder. Although it’s impossible to say who’s at risk of developing the condition, some factors can increase the odds of developing a heroin addiction. 

According to the Mayo Clinic, some of the risk factors include:

  • Unemployment
  • Heavy tobacco use
  • Exposure to high-risk environments or people
  • Personal or family history of addiction to other substances
  • History of risk-taking behavior
  • History of severe anxiety or depression

You must remember, just because a person you care about has one of several of these risk factors, it doesn’t mean they’ll automatically develop a substance use disorder. Addiction can involve several factors, such as environmental, psychological, and genetic. 

Long-Term Effects of Heroin

Those who abuse heroin over the long-term expose themselves to severe problems. Some of these effects include:

  • Collapsed veins for those who inject the drug
  • Damaged tissue inside the nose for those who snort it
  • Insomnia
  • Infection of the heart valves and lining
  • Constipation and stomach cramping
  • Abscesses (swollen tissue filled with pus)
  • Mental disorders, including antisocial personality disorder or depression
  • Kidney and liver disease
  • Lung complications, including pneumonia
  • Sexual dysfunction for men
  • Irregular menstrual cycles for women

Symptoms of Heroin Addiction

In the earliest stages of addiction, the person might not show any outward signs, especially if they’re trying to hide their condition. As use increases, it will be much harder to hide. The signs and symptoms that indicate heroin use include:

  • Constricted pupils
  • Slurred speech
  • Drowsiness or agitation
  • Depression
  • Constipation
  • Runny nose or nose sores
  • Memory problems
  • Needle marks
  • Reduced sense of pain
  • Changes in behaviors, like suddenly aggressive or secretive
  • Problems at work or school
  • Changes in appearance or decline in personal hygiene
  • Issues with money, such as missing money or need more without logical reason
  • Dangerous or risky behavior

Addiction is characterized as the inability to stop using a substance despite the adverse consequences that follow. If you’re using the drug, you may not realize you need more heroin to achieve the same effects you felt with less of the drug. 

A paper figure stabbed with a syringe symbolizing heroin overdose

How Is Heroin Addiction Diagnosed?

Diagnosing a heroin addiction must be done through a thorough examination and assessment by an addiction specialist. A variety of tests will be used, including blood or urine tests and a clinical review. If you suspect someone you care about is struggling with a heroin addiction, you must talk with a professional immediately. As with any disease, getting treatment right away can drastically reduce the adverse effects. 

Treating Heroin Addiction

Getting help for heroin addiction is a challenging piece of the process, and there isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution. Effective treatments are available to help someone through their recovery. The specific types of treatment will be dependent upon the following:

  • The substance of abuse
  • The individual
  • Any co-occurring medical conditions

There are different types of treatment available for opioid use disorder. Using several forms of treatment is often the most effective when treating the condition. The two primary forms of opioid use disorder treatment are behavioral and pharmacological. 

Pharmacological Treatment

Stopping a drug like heroin when you’ve become physically addicted will lead to an array of physical symptoms during withdrawal. Some of these can be severe, and they include:

  • Diarrhea
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Pain

Going through heroin detox can be extremely uncomfortable and painful, as well as include intense cravings for the drug. In some cases, those who use heroin do so just to stop the pain from withdrawal and detox. 

Detoxing from heroin is the first step in most treatment, and if detox is impossible to endure, further treatment will be less effective. You must ensure that you’re medically supervised.

Behavioral Treatment

Behavioral treatment can be done in an inpatient or outpatient setting, and it might include:

  • Group therapy
  • Individual therapy
  • Contingency management

All of this can help a person do the following:

  • Identify triggers of drug use
  • Build coping skills when dealing with cravings
  • Learn how to deal with relapse
  • Identify and cope with issues that may cause emotional discomfort

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