When Someone You Care About is Addicted to Heroin

Heroin addiction can happen to almost anyone, and although the consequences can be severe, every addiction is unique. Most people see a drastic and overwhelming change in their lives after heroin takes over, while others are somehow able to hide the addiction for a while and even continue working and attending to daily activities for some time. Unfortunately, it is impossible to maintain a normal life for any length of time when heroin is involved.

In fact, a situation may be even more risky if the heroin user is even slightly functional, because family members might hesitate to step in and confront someone who seems to be holding things together with some proficiency.

There is no such thing as safe heroin use. If you suspect heroin use in someone you love, you will want be prepared to discuss or confront the addiction. It’s the best way to help the addicted person heal.

Why Does Heroin Addiction Happen?

Some people– in extremely rare cases– can use heroin just once and never become fully addicted to it. Other people find the drug incredibly intoxicating and overwhelmingly alluring, and they become quickly hooked on heroin.

A number of factors contribute to the causes of addictions, and researchers agree that most addictions are fueled by three things:

  • The type of drug that is used
  • The person’s genetic predisposition to addiction
  • Any combination of underlying or co-occurring mental health or trauma experiences

Some people may be more prone to addiction because of their genetic makeup. Addiction has been linked to genetics, and additive traits do tend to run in families.

In other cases, the drug of choice may impact the addiction. Heroin is particularly addictive and works to quickly change the way the brain handles pain and physical sensations. It quickly leads to dependence, and causes both physical and psychological addiction.

Co-occurring mental health disorders may make a person more tempted to try a dangerous drug in the first place, and the addition of any powerful opioid is bound to make a mental health condition worse. In many cases, substance use and mental illness feed off of one another, and create a nasty cycle of repeated substance use and worsening mental health (when left untreated).

People who begin using drugs or alcohol earlier in life might also be at greater risk for addiction. During the teen years, the brain is going through a significant amount of change and it is very susceptible to the effects of drugs. Teens who use heroin might experience a more powerful and confusing high than an adult might, and that teen may spend the rest of his or her life trying to recapture that one moment.

Why Do People Use Heroin?

Heroin is derived from the seeds of the opium poppy plant, and like its parent drug, opium, it is incredibly addictive and has a long history of use. Heroin is in the opioid family; a group of drugs that are most often used for pain management.

People who take heroin might feel a temporary surge of euphoria or pleasure. Some people report that they use heroin to escape difficult emotions, and the effect is felt as soon as the drug is introduced to the body, although that feeling does wear off and is nearly impossible to duplicate twice.

Once the euphoria of heroin wears off, a person who uses heroin may feel:

  • Drowsy
  • Listless
  • Warm and flushed
  • Uncomfortable and immediately have a desire to use again

The temporary pleasurable feelings that sit at the heart of heroin addiction cause the addicted person to return to this drug time and time again.

The body doesn’t like to be flooded with outside chemicals, whether they are good or bad, and the body will do its part to correct the imbalance. Over time, the brain’s natural painkillers decrease and the overall supply of dopamine (the neurochemicals in charge of happy feelings) decrease, so the person must take in more of the drug to feel those original responses.

Why Is Heroin So Dangerous?

Feeling high might seem like a positive thing, but heroin does much more than simply cause a temporary feeling of euphoria. People who use heroin over a long period of time experience changes in their brains.

With chronic use, they experience decreased self-control and they become less able to deal with stress and physical pain of any kind. This often leads to irritability, anger, depression, feelings of sickness, and strained relationships. These changes can impact every part of a heroin user’s life.1

Heroin can be sniffed and snorted, but people often heat up the drug and inject heroin directly into their veins. They feel a larger response to the drug with this method, but it can cause a wide variety of health problems. Over time, the addicted person’s veins may collapse due to repeated injections. They may inject bacteria directly into their veins and cause serious infections and large, open abscesses. They may even develop infections around their hearts or kidneys, and those infections can be fatal.

People who use heroin for long periods are at a higher risk of blood-borne diseases such as HIV/AIDS or hepatitis B or C. Heroin can also lead to poor decision making, exposure to dangerous people and environments, and possible exposure to crime or violent incidents.

Heroin is also incredibly addictive, and people may experience a variety of terrible symptoms between doses of the drug. People may feel these signs mere hours after the last dose of heroin:

  • Diarrhea
  • Vomiting
  • Involuntary kicking of the legs
  • Cold sweats
  • Flu-like symptoms

Addicted people often return to their drug of choice in order to make these symptoms stop. This creates a cycle where addicted individuals simply cannot stop taking a substance on their own, no matter how much they want to, because their bodies have developed a physical dependence on the drug.

Heroin dependence is very difficult to break without help, and it is quite unsafe to try to detox from any opioid at home. Attempts at quitting without the help of a reputable addiction treatment program often lead desperately addicted people to accidental overdoses, as they anxiously return to heroin after a failed battle with withdrawal.

The problem with heroin is that most people use ever-increasing amounts of this drug to ward off withdrawal sensations. All of this greatly increases the risk of overdose.

Further, because heroin is an illegal drug, it has no regulations or safety procedures in its manufacture or sale. Drug dealers cut heroin with a wide variety of substances, including sugar and baking soda, as well as other drugs, and people may become accustomed to taking high doses of these diluted drugs. If they happen upon a batch that is of a higher purity, they could take in more than they intended, and they could overdose as a result.

What Does Heroin Addiction Look Like?

Someone who has been arrested on a heroin drug charge or someone who is caught in the act of using might be easily understood to be addicted. Others might be harder to spot.

In most cases, people with an addiction to heroin will:

  • Have some supply of heroin or opioid paraphernalia on hand
  • Borrow or steal money to buy drugs
  • Interact less with friends and loved ones who do not use heroin
  • Seem slow and sedated, quickly followed by periods of hyperactivity, on more than one occasion
  • Become defensive when asked about drug use
  • Exhibit changes in personality, including increases in irritability

If you think someone you love is struggling with a heroin addiction, you don’t have to let that person suffer alone. There are many treatment options available for heroin addiction, including both inpatient and outpatient programs, and these can provide real and lasting relief.

Families of addicted people can help the healing start by holding an intervention. Here, the family addresses or confronts their loved one directly, in a loving manner. The family outlines why the addiction is harmful, and then asks their loved one to get treatment to help stop the addictive behavior. With the help of an experienced interventionist, this talk can encourage your loved one to accept treatment and result in life-saving recovery.
If you’d like to learn more about holding an intervention for a family member, or finding heroin addiction treatment, call 424-387-3118 now. We are here to help.

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1 Liu,J, Liang, J., et. al. Dysfunctional connectivity patterns in chronic heroin users: An fMRI study. Neuroscience Letters. Volume 460, Issue 1. 2009.