The World Health Organization estimates that there are 13.5 million people using opioids regularly, including 9.2 million using heroin.1 While this number is relatively low in comparison to the billions of people in the general population, worldwide production of the drug has more than doubled since 1985. In the United States, heroin addiction has quickly become a public health emergency, as millions of Americans are choosing the cheaper drug as opposed to prescription painkillers. Early detection plays a crucial role in the treatment of and recovery from drug addiction. Today we’re sharing the most common signs of heroin use to look out for.
What Is Heroin?
Heroin is the child of morphine and the grandchild of opium. The use of opium dates back to 3400 B.C.E. in Mesopotamia and has evolved in the thousands of years since.
The discovery of morphine by German pharmacist Friedrich Sertuerner in 1803 opened the door of possibilities for others who came after, with the newfound ability to isolate and extract drugs from plants and experiment with them. The invention of the hypodermic syringe in 1853 also offered a new way of administering drugs in precise doses.
The drug was first synthesized from opium poppy near the end of the 19th century and was marketed as a non-addictive cure for morphine dependency as well as a cough suppressant. By the middle of the 20th century, however, the truly terrifying nature of heroin’s addictive power came to light, and it had been reclassified as a controlled substance. Now heroin is a dangerous plague that affects all levels of American society.
What Does Heroin Do to the Brain and Body?
Heroin is one of the most destructive drugs ever created, having claimed thousands, perhaps even millions of lives since being introduced to the public. The National Institute on Drug Abuse estimates that approximately 23 percent of all people who ever use heroin will develop an addiction.2 The most common way to use heroin today is through injection, though it can be smoked or snorted.
While the most publicized danger of heroin abuse generally focuses on deaths from overdose, there are other very serious health risks associated with heroin use. The drug negatively impacts several areas of the body, including the lungs, heart, brain, intestines, and kidneys. This does not include infections and blood-borne diseases that come from using and sharing dirty syringes.
Heroin effects on the brain and body include:
- Lungs: Heroin use slows down lung function, which is often the way many die from a heroin An individual may stop breathing before their heart stops beating during a heroin overdose.
- Heart: An addict’s heart can be severely damaged from heroin abuse. This is especially true for those who use cotton when injecting, as the bacteria from the cotton can begin to grow on heart valves, potentially causing infections and destroying the valves.
- Kidneys: It has been found that heroin abuse is linked to high protein in the urine, which may cause kidney failure.
- Intestines: The use of heroin and other opiates reduces intestinal function, leading to constant constipation. The result can be hemorrhoids or anal fissures, which may require surgery.
- Brain: Some studies have indicated that heroin abuse leads to brain disintegration and deterioration of white matter. This may impact decision-making ability, behavior, and responses to adverse situations.
The Stages of Heroin Addiction
The initial signs of heroin use are related to the high caused by the drug. Heroin causes a euphoric rush, making users feel relaxed and comfortable without a care in the world. Once addiction has set in, the euphoric feelings have been diminished and many abusers are only using the drug to avoid painful withdrawal effects, such as nausea, vomiting, and body aches.
What begins as a singular usage can easily spiral into something much more dangerous. Heroin addiction symptoms worsen and become more apparent with continued use, leading to tolerance, which leads to the need to increase usage, which makes accidental overdose more and more likely. For individuals who cannot afford to support their growing addiction, many end up losing everything, selling their valuables, and committing theft and property crimes to feed their habit.
A large percentage of heroin addicts were drawn to the drug because of a prior addiction to opioid prescription pills. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention reported that drug overdoses rose for 11 consecutive years, from 1999 to 2010, with over 60 percent involving prescription drugs and 75 percent involving opioids.3 The number of heroin-related deaths increased 39 percent from 2012 to 2013.4
The National Institute on Drug Abuse estimates that approximately 23 percent of all people who ever use heroin will develop an addiction. In 2016 alone, 984,0000 Americans reported using heroin in the past year.5
With millions of Americans suffering from chronic pain, the prescription of opioid painkillers has increased. The risk of these drugs being used recreationally, the development of tolerance, and the propensity for abuse have caused local and federal authorities to crackdown on over-prescribing and some pharmaceutical companies to reformulate drugs to make them less easy to abuse. While this has reduced painkiller abuse, it has led to an increase in heroin abuse. Heroin is cheaper and often more easily attainable than prescription drugs.
The Signs of Heroin Addiction
The earlier you notice heroin symptoms of use, the higher the person’s chances of reaching sobriety and staying sober long-term. Heroin signs and symptoms may be subtle enough at first to where you may not even realize there’s a problem.
Many people who become addicted to drugs or alcohol can function normally in the early stages of their addiction, attending to their family and responsibilities as if nothing is wrong. Eventually, however, as their drug use persists, the problem may become more apparent.
Some of the most common signs of heroin use are:
- Slow, slurred, or incoherent speech
- Disorientation and clumsiness
- Decreased attention to hygiene and appearance
- Scabs, abscesses, or visible vein damage at major injection points (arms, neck)
- Track marks on the arms and legs (from using a needle)
- Possession of paraphernalia like needles or syringes, burned spoons, scorched aluminum foil
- Avoiding eye contact
- Extremely constricted pupils
- A marked increase in time spent sleeping
- Loss of momentum in life
- Repeatedly stealing money or valuable items from loved ones
- Wearing long sleeves or long pants, even in extremely warm weather (to hide track marks)
- Extreme weight loss
If you recognize the signs someone is using heroin, get help immediately. Oftentimes, the individual requires inpatient drug treatment to be separated from triggers and temptations at home and recover from the physical and psychological impact of drug use.
Learn More and Get Help Today
Please download Behavioral Health of the Palm Beaches’ free informational eBook, Understanding Addiction to Heroin. In it, you will find information on the physiological and mental effects of heroin addiction, as well as recommendations for selecting a medically monitored detox and recovery program for yourself or for someone close to you who is struggling with addiction.
If you or someone you love are exhibiting any of the signs of heroin use, waiting to get heroin treatment could be the worst decision you ever make. Addiction is a progressive and chronic disease that only worsens over time. The longer you wait before getting help, the more difficult the process of becoming sober.
Our drug rehab in Palm Beach works with a committed team of addiction treatment specialists who are eager to help patients defeat their substance use disorders and regain control of their lives. If you or a loved one is struggling with a drug or alcohol problem, call Behavioral Health of the Palm Beaches today at 561-220-3981 to learn how our addiction treatment in Palm Beach, FL, can help.
- World Health Organization – WHO Collaborative Study on Substitution Therapy of Opioid Dependence and HIV/AIDS
- NIH – Heroin DrugFacts
- CDC – Opioids drive continued increase in drug overdose deaths
- ASPE – Opioid Abuse in the U.S. and HHS Actions to Address Opioid-Drug Related Overdoses and Deaths
- NIH – What is the scope of heroin use in the United States?