Signs and Symptoms of Heroin Addiction

Heroin is a highly addictive drug that is derived from morphine. It is an opiate that works as a depressant which, when taken in its purest form, provides the user with feelings of euphoria by temporarily minimizing the brain’s ability to feel pain while increasing feelings of pleasure.

Heroin addiction occurs when a person begins a pattern of use that leads to significant impairment or distress. When people use heroin, their brain experiences both molecular and neurochemical changes. These changes continue to morph over time as the brain builds tolerance to the pleasurable effects of the drug, causing the user to need higher dosages in order to feel the effects that the body has begun to crave. Drug addiction also leads to the disturbance of a person’s inherent hierarchy of needs, meaning that obtaining the drug becomes the highest priority in the person’s daily life.

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It is estimated that 9.2 million people worldwide use heroin. In the United States, opiates (predominantly heroin) make up 18% of the population who enter treatment for drug and alcohol addiction.

Causes and Risk Factors of Heroin Use

The causes of heroin addiction can vary and can overlap differently depending on the person using it. The following causes have been linked to the onset of heroin addiction:

Genetic: Studies have shown that genes have a strong influence on increasing a person’s risk of developing dependence on drugs and alcohol. Some people are said to inherently have “an addictive nature” in which they try something once and seem to become instantly addicted to it. These individuals may try the drug out of curiosity, only to quickly find themselves needing it in order to function.

Physical: Heroin addiction causes the structure and the functioning of the brain to change. It causes the brain’s communication system to become disrupted, disturbing the way that nerve cells send, receive, and process information. As these changes occur, people begin to lose the self-control required in order to stop using the drug.

Environmental:  For some people, significant life events can trigger the need for something to replace the pain that those events caused. Things like experiencing trauma or loss or suffering from abuse are examples of stressors that can lead an individual to seek out something that will numb their pain.

Risk Factors:

  • Family history
  • Lack of a support system
  • Lack of family involvement
  • High levels of stress
  • Peer pressure
  • Loneliness
  • Being male (Men are twice more likely than women to struggle with drug addiction.

Signs and Symptoms of Heroin Use

The signs and symptoms of heroin abuse will vary based on the extent to which a person is using and the length of time that he or she has been using. The following are some examples of the various symptoms that someone abusing heroin may exhibit:

Behavioral symptoms:

  • Lying
  • Stealing
  • Slurred speech
  • Skin picking
  • Sudden bursts of hyperactivity
  • Wearing long sleeves and pants even summer

Physical symptoms:

  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Dry mouth
  • Runny nose
  • Severe itching
  • Dramatic weight loss
  • Track marks on arms or legs
  • Scabs or bruises on the skin
  • Impaired vision

Cognitive symptoms:

  • Disorientation
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Impaired decision-making
  • Paranoia
  • Alternating between wakeful and drowsy states

Psychosocial symptoms:

  • Mood swings
  • Loss of self-control
  • Loss of interest in things that one used to be interested in

Effects of Heroin Addiction

The effects of heroin addiction can include:

  • Social isolation
  • Problems with interpersonal relationships
  • Loss of job or expulsion from school
  • Legal problems or incarceration
  • Participating in high risk behaviors
  • Avoidance of certain people, places, or things
  • Higher susceptibility to illnesses and infections
  • Death
If you feel that you are in crisis, or are having thoughts about hurting yourself or others, please call 9-1-1 or go to the nearest emergency room immediately.

Co-Occurring Disorders

Drug use in general often co-exists with other mental disorders and heroin is no exception. Mental illness can cause people to feel like they have no control over their emotions and , by using substances, they are able to feel a sense of control over how their body responds to the substance. Similarly, people may use substances as a way to self-medicate in order to make the symptoms of the disorder dissipate.

Some examples of mental disorders that co-exist with heroin abuse include:

  • Depression
  • Bipolar disorder
  • Psychosis
  • Anxiety
  • Schizophrenia
  • ADHD

Effects of Withdrawal and Overdose

The effects of withdrawal from heroin will vary in length of time and intensity from person to person. Withdrawal systems can begin to occur as quickly as six hours after a person stops using. The full-blown effects tend to peak within 48-72 hours after the last use and then gradually subside within the next 5 to 7 days. Early effects of withdrawal can include things such as agitation, anxiety, sweating, muscle aching, and insomnia. In the later stages of withdrawal, people experience symptoms such as severe cramping, nausea, excessive vomiting, and diarrhea, in addition to the continuance of the symptoms that initially presented themselves.

When a person overdoses from heroin, he or she will require immediate medical treatment including breathing support, receiving fluids by IV, and medication. A person’s body temperature, pulse, blood pressure, and breathing rate can all be negatively affected by a heroin overdose.

Tragically, many heroin overdoses result in death.

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