Heroin addiction is a problem that affects thousands of people each year, but only a small portion get the help they need. Many experience overdose symptoms, which can be fatal. Heroin addiction is a chronic disease that affects the reward center of the brain. It’s also progressive, so addressing it as soon as possible can prevent more severe consequences. But how can you recognize a substance use disorder in yourself or a loved one? If you have become addicted to heroin or another opioid, what can be done to treat it? Learn more about the signs and symptoms of heroin addiction and how opioid use disorders can be treated. 


What is Heroin Addiction?

Heroin is a semi-synthetic opioid that’s made from naturally occurring opiate morphine. Heroin was once used as prescription medication like morphine and other pain-relievers, but it has since been replaced by other options. Like other opioids, heroin works by influencing some of the chemical communications in your brain. It’s very similar to chemicals in your brain called endorphins. Endorphins are designed to moderate your body’s pain response. 

They block pain signals from being sent and received by the nerve cells in your brain, spine, and other parts of your body. However, severe pain symptoms that are caused by broken bones, chronic diseases, and surgery recovery can be too much for your natural endorphins to effectively deal with. Opioids were found to stop even moderate to severe pain symptoms. 

However, heroin, like other opioids, can also be extremely addictive. Using the drug for too long or in high doses can lead to chemical dependence and addiction. Heroin addiction is officially diagnosed as an opioid use disorder in the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. Addiction is identified by compulsive drug use, even despite significant consequences in your life. Addiction is also progressive, which means that it can get worse over time, affecting multiple areas of your life. Heroin addiction can have a negative impact on your physical health, mental health, relationships, career, finances, and legal standing. 

Addiction is difficult to control, and it may start to affect these areas of your life, despite your best efforts to manage your substance use problem. It’s also common for people to deny that they have a drug problem until it starts to take a serious toll on their health and well-being. Over time, managing your addiction can start to take more and more time. The cycle of heroin addiction involves looking for heroin, taking it, and recovering from a heroin high. As the disease progresses and your tolerance grows, you’ll need to use higher doses more often to achieve the same effects. Even though addiction is a chronic disease with no known cure, it can be treated effectively. 

What Causes an Addiction to Heroin?

Heroin acts like your body’s own endorphins, which is one of your feel-good chemicals. This is a group of chemicals that are involved in positive feelings, lifted mood, reward, and motivation. Opioids also interact with another feel-good chemical called dopamine, which is closely tied to reward and motivation. Addiction is a chronic disease of the brain that affects the reward system of the brain. Chemicals like dopamine are released to encourage you to repeat important activities like eating a warm meal or sleeping in a comfortable bed. When you take heroin, the drug manipulates these reward chemicals in a way that causes your brain to associate them with important life-sustaining activity.

As addiction develops, your brain will produce cravings and compulsions to use heroin again, like you crave food or water. However, heroin is so powerful that it causes a more intense rewarding response than you’re used to. Heroin addiction can make you prioritize heroin use over other obligations, hobbies, and necessities. That’s why people in active addiction can begin to neglect their job, relationships, and even personal hygiene. 

Heroin can also cause something called chemical dependence. Dependence is different from addiction, though the two are often related. Chemical dependency occurs when your brain chemistry adapts to the presence of heroin in your brain. Your body will adjust in an attempt to achieve balanced brain chemistry after a period of consistent heroin use. You may feel your tolerance growing, which will make your standard dose of heroin feel less effective. If you stop using, you’ll experience uncomfortable withdrawal symptoms and cravings. 

Chemical dependence can make it so cutting back or quitting is extremely unpleasant, which worsens your addiction. 

Heroin Addiction Statistics

As indicated by to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, 745,000 people 12-years-old or older reported using heroin in 2019. Of these, around 87,000 were between the ages of 18 and 25, and around 658,000 were over 26. Opioids were involved in 49,860 overdose deaths in 2019, and 14,019 were found to involve heroin. 

In many cases, heroin is not the first opioid a person uses. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), around 80% of people that use heroin start with prescription opioids. 

Some start using opioids to treat pain symptoms, or they may get them from a friend with a prescription. If you misuse prescription opioids or use them for too long, you can become addicted. However, an addiction to pills can be expensive and difficult to maintain. For that reason, many people switch to using heroin, which offers some of the same benefits as prescription opioids at a lower price. 

What are the Signs and Symptoms of Heroin Addiction?

addiction to heroin

Addiction to heroin doesn’t usually happen after a single use of the drug. Although it’s extremely addictive, it will likely take several times for your brain to start to associate heroin as a powerful sense of reward that it should encourage you to use again. However, since heroin creates such a powerful euphoria, many people that experience it once use it again. Whether you start with heroin or prescription opioids, there are some signs and symptoms that you have a growing substance use disorder.

One of the first signs is a transition from social to antisocial drug use. This may not be the case for someone who starts off taking an opioid prescription, but many people use drugs in social settings. If you start by using heroin with friends and then transition to using it alone, you may be developing an opioid use disorder. If you start using just to feel normal rather than for recreation, that’s another sign of a worsening problem. 

Tolerance is another common sign of a substance use problem. Tolerance is when your body adjusts to a regular dose of a drug and causes you to feel diminishing effects when using the same dose. If you increase your dose to counteract tolerance, your chemical dependence may get worse. Dependence will also cause flu-like symptoms when you attempt to cut back or quit. If you try and fail to stop using heroin, you may have developed a chemical dependence. 

Finally, addiction is identified by compulsive drug use that causes issues in your life. Even if you know that it’s causing consequences, you may find it difficult to stop taking the drug. Over time, finding and using heroin will take up more and more of your time. You may start using at odd hours to avoid uncomfortable withdrawal symptoms, like first thing in the morning. 

If you’re concerned about a friend or loved one that you think may have a substance use disorder, there are some noticeable signs and symptoms you may be able to notice. In the early stages of addiction, you may be able to hide your drug use from people that are close to you. However, as addiction progresses, it will be more difficult to hide. Here are some signs of addiction that you may notice in loved ones:

  • Changes in friend groups
  • Struggling at work or school
  • Strange sleep schedules
  • Loss of interest in regular activities 
  • Lying about drug use
  • Hiding drugs around the house
  • Medical issues
  • Legal issues
  • Frequent doctor shopping
  • Denial or problematic drug use
  • Loss of control over drug use

How Can Heroin Addiction Be Treated?

Heroin addiction can be treated with a complex, holistic approach that involves personalized therapy options. Addiction can be treated with medications, psychotherapy, and a combination of both. During heroin addiction treatment, you may also need to be treated for co-occurring problems like mental health disorders, social problems, and medical issues. Effective treatment will examine and address all these areas of need. 

Heroin addiction treatment may start with medical detox, which is a high level of care that involves 24-hour care from medical professionals. Detox is for people that are likely to experience severe withdrawal symptoms or other medical needs during withdrawal. After detox, you may go through additional inpatient treatment where you live in treatment-run housing. If you’re able to live on your own, you may go through outpatient treatment. 

Through each level of care, you may go through a variety of therapy options that include individual, group, or family therapy. Behavioral therapies are common, especially cognitive-behavioral therapy.

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