While most people are aware that there is a problem with heroin abuse and addiction in the US, some people still don’t know what heroin actually is and why it is such a problem. As a result, many myths and misunderstandings have built up around the origin of the drug, what it does in the body, who uses and abuses it, and how addiction forms.
Like many drugs of abuse, heroin has specific actions in the brain and body that can cause people to become addicted over time. It doesn’t matter whether the individual is a high-powered CEO, a famous actor, someone down on their luck, or a person who fell in with the wrong crowd; heroin use, abuse, and addiction can affect anyone, and it has long-lasting repercussions on the people and communities affected by addiction. However, with treatment, individuals who struggle with heroin abuse can learn to manage their addiction for the long-term.
Over the centuries, compounds from the opium poppy have been used as medicine for treating pain and various illnesses; they have also been abused by people looking for a euphoric experience.
Heroin itself was first made in 1874 by processing morphine, a compound extracted from the poppy’s sap, which has been used in medicine since the early 1800s. At first, it was thought that heroin would be less addictive than morphine, serving as a safer substitute. However, it was soon realized that heroin was just as addictive, and it became an illegal substance in the US.
Heroin is often considered to be a drug limited to the lower levels of society and to particular demographics; however, this is not true. People from the very poor to the very powerful abuse heroin. The following are some statistics and facts about heroin abuse and addiction:
Heroin addiction can develop fairly quickly in certain circumstances; however, it usually takes several uses and a regular habit to be in place before addiction will happen. The addiction process begins with the person using the drug more than once to get high. After a few uses, the individual may discover that the same dose of the drug doesn’t give quite as potent a high. As a result, the person might take a higher dose to have the same experience. This is a condition called tolerance, and it is the first step toward the individual developing dependence and addiction.
An article from the AAPS Journal delves into the mechanisms by which addiction to opioids, including heroin, develops. While addiction is still not fully understood, the effects that the drug has on the brain’s chemical pathways appear to have a great deal to do with developing tolerance to and dependence on a drug. Heroin disrupts the behavior and use of certain natural chemicals in the brain, resulting in these pathways becoming dependent on the use of heroin to continue functioning. This dependence can then lead to the individual being unable to control heroin use, including the amounts used and the frequency of use, and being unable to stop use. This is the hallmark of addiction.
There are a number of risks of abusing heroin, both in the short-term and long-term. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, short-term effects include:
The longer heroin is used, the more severe the issues may become. Long-term effects of heroin abuse include:
Some of the damage that results from heroin addiction can be reversed. However, the longer the drug has been used, the more damage results, and the less likely reversal is possible. For example, heart, liver, kidney, and lung damage may be able to improve but may not be entirely reversed after the drug is stopped. Brain damage and memory loss are often not reversible either. However, other issues that occur in the short-term, such as red eyes and flushed skin, will diminish once heroin abuse is stopped.
Mental health disorders that result from heroin abuse may also not be reversible. For one thing, addiction itself is a chronic condition, with cravings that can potentially recur throughout the individual’s life and result in relapse to heroin use if the person does not continue to manage the condition. In addition, co-occurring mental health disorders like depression or anxiety may continue to be an issue for years following treatment for heroin addiction. For both the mental and physical risks, it is ideal to stop heroin use before it becomes a long-term pattern.
The National Institute on Drug Abuse discusses a number of reasons that other mental health disorders occur with heroin and other drug addictions. The factors can include:
Based on these factors and others, addiction can be both a result of and a cause of other mental health disorders. Using heroin to self-treat anxiety issues can lead to addiction, while the mental effects of heroin abuse can lead to other mental health disorders. In particular, heroin can cause a person to experience decreases in the ability to feel pleasure due to damage in the chemical systems that regulate reward responses. This can easily lead to depression as well as certain types of anxiety.
As described by the National Library of Medicine, signs that someone has overdosed on heroin include:
Heroin treatment has come a long way. Research has helped to determine a variety of therapies and treatment types that have a positive effect on an individual’s ability to stop using heroin and stay clean for the long-term. That said, heroin relapse occurs for about two-thirds of those who complete addiction treatment, as demonstrated by various studies, including one from the Irish Medical Journal.
This is because addiction, like any chronic disease, is defined by the potential to relapse to substance abuse; rates of addiction relapse are similar to those associated with asthma, hypertension, and diabetes. Because of this, treatment for addiction to heroin should be considered similar to treatment for other chronic illnesses like asthma or diabetes: the condition is something that is treated and managed throughout the individual’s life, but it can’t be cured.
Through a commitment to an individualized treatment plan meant to help the individual meet personal, specific needs, rehab can help the person stop using heroin and avoid relapse in the future, increasing the chances for a happy, fulfilling life.