Heroin Addiction: Definition, Common Signs & Options For Help


Have you noticed strange, worrying behavior from someone close to you, or do you sometimes feel out of control of your actions? These could be signs of a substance addiction.

You’re not alone in this because many people face the same issues every day. Heroin use can be scary, but it’s an issue thousands more people are trying to fix.

If you or someone close to you is struggling with a heroin addiction, treatments are available to help turn things around.

What Is a Heroin Addiction?

Heroin addiction is like other drug-related addictions because it causes physical and mental dependency on the drug. The urge to use becomes uncontrollable and going too long without the substances can trigger severe withdrawal symptoms.

Heroin is an opioid derived from opium. Opioids are a class of drugs that can relieve pain but are highly addictive substances. The opioid epidemic impacts thousands nationwide, and drug overdoses have quintupled since 1999.

Unlike some medically prescribed opioids, heroin is illegal and often has unpredictable side effects because it’s often cut with other drugs.

Users can ingest it by snorting or smoking or injecting it with a syringe. Higher-purity heroin has become more widespread, leading to fewer people injecting the drug to feel the same results.

People quickly develop a physical dependency on opioids. This dependence means that the body becomes used to heroin, and if a user attempts to quit, they’ll have withdrawal symptoms.

Withdrawal may cause physical and psychological symptoms lasting up to a week, including:

  • Restlessness or insomnia
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Drug craving
  • Muscle and bone pain
  • Leg shaking uncontrollably
  • Cold flashes

Aside from a physical dependency, heroin addiction triggers an intense mental craving for the drug. Many people who successfully go through withdrawal symptoms may still relapse due to mental struggles.

Do Heroin Addictions Go Away?

Heroin addiction doesn’t go away and requires massive efforts to overcome the urge to use. One of the primary characteristics of heroin addiction is a cycle of drug use, withdrawal, and relapse.

Unfortunately, many heroin addicts face a challenging recovery process with support from treatments and rehabilitation centers. There’s increasing hope as scientists learn more about the opioid epidemic and develop new therapies.

Even after quitting heroin, there may still be struggles with addiction. It could be a lifelong struggle to avoid other triggering substances, like even minor painkillers or alcohol.

Forms of Heroin Addiction

Generally, there aren’t many types of heroin addiction. However, there may be varying levels of severity. Heroin is always highly addictive, and only using it once can form an addiction.

  • Newer users may start exclusively by snorting or smoking the drug.
  • Intravenous (IV) injections typically begin as the addiction progresses.
  • The most severe form of heroin addiction is when a substance use disorder develops. This disorder is characterized by the addict continuing to use the drug despite physical harm to themselves or missing responsibilities.

Heroin Addiction Statistics

Describing heroin addiction is one part of understanding it, but reading some statistics can help see the real-life impacts.

  • The National Household Survey on Drug Abuse approximates that over 3 million U.S. residents aged over 12 years old have tried heroin.
  • Estimates say that the statistics on heroin users may be undercounted by at least 3/4.
  • People with opioid prescription addiction are 40 times more likely to form a heroin addiction.
  • In the U.S., from 1999 to 2017, heroin overdoses climbed from 1,960 to 15,482.
  • Around 75% of heroin addicts may relapse after initial treatments.

What Are the Signs of Heroin Addiction?

Now that you understand more about heroin addiction as a disease, you may be wondering how to tell if someone is suffering from it. There are a few common signs of heroin addiction you can look for to determine if someone is using the drug.

Unstable Moods

Extended heroin use can lead to unstable moods. While the person is under heroin’s effects, they may suddenly show signs of euphoria. Mood swings will quickly follow, leading to depression or irritability.

Overall, heroin addicts may be more agitated than usual. They may also show a lack of interest in their responsibilities or hobbies.

You may notice someone with a heroin addiction going through a period where they quickly accomplish tasks but then crash into a time of sleep or inactivity.

Uncharacteristic Behaviors

When dealing with heroin addiction, people typically change their entire life. If you notice someone acting uncharacteristically tired or uninterested, it could be a sign of addiction.

Other troubling behaviors include:

  • Wearing long sleeves or jeans in warm weather to hide injection sites
  • Associating with new groups of people
  • Avoiding friends or loved ones
  • Stopping hobbies
  • Frequent work or school absences
  • Sleeping more often
  • Lying about drug use or activities
  • Stealing
  • Different eating habits

Differences in Physical Appearance

In addition to their behavior, you may see some physical signs of heroin addiction. The most obvious can be signs of drug use.

If someone is snorting heroin, you might see that their nose looks red and may be runny. Injection use will leave marks on the arms or legs. The injection sites can scab and scar.

Over time, heroin can cause weight loss. You might also notice addicts struggling with intense itching.

Finally, they might have flushed skin and strange speech. Their pupils won’t dilate and will remain constricted during use.

Sudden Cognitive Changes

Another warning sign of heroin addiction can be sudden cognitive issues. These include symptoms like:

  • Grades or job performance slipping
  • Difficulty concentrating or decision-making
  • Nodding off during conversations
  • General feelings of disorientation

There are also more concerning cognitive symptoms of heroin use that may appear. You might notice paranoid behavior or heightened anxieties leading to delusions and hallucinations.

Possession of Paraphernalia

Finally, heroin addicts will possess paraphernalia to use the drug. Users that only snort it may have less paraphernalia than smokers or people who inject.

You may find small plastic bags or dime bags. There could be bent spoons with burn marks, glass pipes, and lighters.

IV users will have syringes and related materials, like needles, cotton balls, eye droppers, and rubber tubing. Sometimes there may be spare shoelaces to tie the arm.

Types of Unhealthy Heroin Behavior

As heroin addiction progresses, these signs may advance into obvious unhealthy behaviors.

Intense itching can lead to picking at the skin and self-harming. IV drug users could have frequent infections and may even develop hepatitis B, hepatitis C, HIV, or bacterial heart infections.

Generally, heroin addicts may seem sick. It’s common for nausea, vomiting, constipation, muscle pain, and other flu-like symptoms to persist for an extended period.

What Is the Main Cause of Heroin Addiction?

Heroin is an incredibly addictive substance, and it doesn’t take much to create an addiction. Some people may try heroin as their first drug, but most people who use heroin have already used at least three different types of drugs.

There are varying factors that can put someone at higher risk of developing a heroin addiction. These include an opioid prescription, being between 18-25, and having a family history of addiction.

Men are usually more at risk of using heroin. If someone has previous issues with other substances, they may be more likely to form a heroin issue.

Sometimes a difficult situation can lead to someone trying heroin. Stress, a history of trauma, an abusive relationship, lack of support, or a history of mental illness are all risk factors.

Finally, inherited or learned behaviors like using drugs to cope or impulsivity can cause heroin addiction.

How Heroin Addiction Affects the Brain

Heroin is a powerful substance that binds to opioid receptors in the brain. They can alter the structure of the brain over time.

Continuous heroin use can break down the white matter of the brain. Less white matter can lead to issues with decision-making, regulating behavior, and responding to stress.

Heroin may alter activity in the brain stem. The stem controls breathing and heart rate and these functions can slow down with heroin use.

What Is the Personality of a Heroin Addict?

Heroin addicts may have unpredictable personalities with frequent mood swings. They might suddenly exhibit irritability or aggression.

You might notice sudden excitement and joy, followed by crashes and extended sleep. Generally, heroin addicts might seem lethargic and could nod off during everyday activities.

People with heroin addictions may avoid their friends and family and stop going to work, school, or hobbies. They could also start frequently lying or stealing.

Is Heroin Addiction a Mental Health Issue?

Yes, heroin addiction is usually considered a mental illness. All substance use disorders are mental illnesses due to their impacts on the brain and neurochemistry.

Addressing the mental aspects of heroin addiction is as necessary as treating physical issues. Many people can make it through the physical dependence withdrawal but may relapse due to mental struggles.

Additionally, other mental health issues can lead to higher rates of heroin use.

What Mental Illnesses Go Hand in Hand With Heroin Addiction?

Some mental illnesses are associated with higher rates of substance use disorders, including heroin addiction. A few of the mental illnesses that may coincide with heroin use include:

  • Depression
  • Bipolar disorder
  • Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
  • Psychosis
  • Borderline personality disorder
  • Antisocial personality disorder
  • Schizophrenia

Additionally, people with serious mental illnesses that impair their typical life activities may have a higher risk. Almost 1 in 4 people struggling with these serious mental illnesses may develop a substance use disorder.

How Do I Stop My Heroin Addiction?

Struggling with a heroin addiction can seem hopeless, as you constantly crave the drug and may fear withdrawal. But there are treatments available, and you can overcome the addiction.

Getting help with a heroin addiction usually requires multiple approaches. You may have medications that help reduce the severity of withdrawal symptoms and damper the effects of opioids.

Additionally, it usually helps to treat heroin addiction with behavioral methods like therapy or admittance into a rehab center.

Can Heroin Addiction Ever Be Cured?

Unfortunately, drug addictions are considered a chronic issue. There will never be a cure for heroin addiction, but working to overcome the dependence can lead to you successfully living without heroin.

It’s crucial to remember while struggling with addiction that relapses are not failures. These setbacks can be a standard part of recovery, especially for heroin addicts. It doesn’t mean that future attempts will be unsuccessful.

However, relapses can be dangerous. After your body goes without heroin, it may lose its resistance to the drug, causing higher overdose rates.

What Is the Most Common Treatment for Heroin Addiction?

Usually, heroin addiction treatment is medical and sometimes with behavioral therapy. The most common medicine is methadone.

Methadone is an opioid agonist, meaning it dulls the effects of opiates and helps ease withdrawal symptoms. It’s been a regular treatment since the 60s. There are some newer medications, like naltrexone and buprenorphine.

It can help to incorporate behavioral changes into treatment. Treatments usually include cognitive behavioral therapy or contingency management programs that provide incentives for staying sober.

What Can I Replace Heroin With?

Methadone and buprenorphine are lower-level opiates that can help replace heroin during recovery. They can produce a mild effect that doesn’t get the patient high during use. However, people can misuse them.

Still, they’re generally a helpful tool to reduce cravings and prevent withdrawal.

Another option is the medication naltrexone which can bind to opioid receptors and prevent heroin from producing any effect. Unfortunately, someone has to quit heroin before taking naltrexone. Its primary function is to stop relapse and stay sober.

Frequently Asked Questions

Heroin addiction is complicated, and you may still have some questions. Here are a few answers to frequently asked questions.

What is the survival rate of heroin addicts?

Although millions of people struggle with addiction, 75% of them recover. Working through recovery is difficult but possible.

However, people who continue to struggle with heroin addiction may have a 23% mortality rate. Overdoses, diseases, and other organ damage can lead to low life expectancy.

Who is the most at risk for heroin addiction?

The people most at risk for heroin addiction are those with a prescription opioid addiction. Some other groups that may have high risk are:

  • Men
  • People with other substance addictions
  • People aged 18-25
  • Those living in cities
  • Non-Hispanic whites
  • People with mental illnesses

Additional Addictions To Be Aware Of

It can be helpful to learn about other addictions. Heroin addictions can be a risk factor for abusing other substances.

Some addicts may replace one addiction with another. Try to avoid substances that have addictive qualities, even after recovery.

If you’re trying to determine if a loved one has a heroin addiction, but some signs seem off, other addictions may be the cause.

  • Meth Addiction: Meth is a powerful, addictive stimulant that can cause erratic behavior.
  • Nicotine Addiction: Nicotine is a prevalent substance in tobacco products and vapes, but it can cause intense addictions and withdrawals.
  • Alcohol Addiction: Usually called alcoholism, people can misuse alcohol by drinking inappropriately or binge drinking despite it causing problems.

Wrapping Up

Dealing with a heroin addiction can be challenging and scary. Heroin is a potent substance capable of altering a person’s life and personality.

You may notice concerning signs in your loved ones and want to help. Although the process may be long, and there may be relapses, recovery is possible. Stick with the journey, and remember that addiction is a chronic illness with treatment.


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