Heroin addiction is a serious public health issue affecting people from all walks of life. According to recent data, over a million people in the U.S. have reported using the opioid drug heroin during the prior 12 months, and a similar number are considered to have a heroin use disorder.
Heroin users often hide their problem from family and friends, but the signs of heroin addiction can be noticed if you know what to look for. If you suspect that someone close to you is struggling with heroin use, watch for these signs and symptoms so they can seek help right away.
Is Heroin Addictive?
Heroin is a member of the opioid family of drugs. Opioids are painkillers prescribed by medical professionals to patients dealing with high levels of acute pain, such as those suffering from a traumatic or severe injury or recovering from surgery.
As with other opioids like oxycodone and hydrocodone, heroin affects the brain by inhibiting the receptors responsible for the sensation of pain. Heroin induces powerful feelings of pleasure and produces a dream-like state where everything around the user slows down and becomes surreal.
Because it provides a profound sense of bliss and tranquility, heroin is highly sought-after as a cheap and readily accessible high. Heroin is highly addictive. Just a handful of sessions is enough for a user to develop a powerful dependence on this opioid which can morph into a full-blown heroin addiction in no time.
To make matters worse, users can develop a tolerance to heroin, meaning it can take higher doses to achieve the same high.
What Symptoms Does Heroin Use Cause?
Heroin use is not an invisible affliction. Even if users try to hide their condition, there are telltale signs indicating that a person may be struggling with heroin use. Therefore, it is crucial to recognize these indicators when they first appear, to prevent heroin use from developing into addiction.
These are the key symptoms that heroin use causes:
The Heroin Rush
A telltale symptom of heroin use is the so-called “rush” users experience as the drug takes effect. This sensation, which users describe as an incredible wave of pleasure and euphoria, is typically accompanied by these additional indications:
- Sudden and unusual reddening of the skin, particularly in the face, neck, and upper chest
- An overwhelming sensation of heaviness in the arms and legs
- Extreme dryness of the mouth
- Nausea with possible vomiting
- Severe itchiness
Once these initial symptoms subside, they are followed by a period of marked drowsiness, which is another thing to watch for if you believe someone is using heroin.
Diminishing Mental Function
Heroin affects the brain in a variety of ways. Aside from inhibiting the receptors associated with pain and creating an other-worldly sensation of pleasure, heroin can also cause the following changes in mental function by altering the brain’s white matter:
- Reduced decision-making ability (crippling indecisiveness)
- Uncontrolled behavior and mood swings
- Inability to cope with stress and anxiety
Heroin use also alters a user’s hormonal balance and neural pathways, potentially resulting in dramatic personality changes.
In addition to the outward signs accompanying the initial “rush” brought on by heroin use, there are additional physical ailments that should be on your radar. While individually, these symptoms may not be conclusive evidence of heroin use, when put together with other observations, the following physical ailments can be important indicators:
- Wavering between conscious and unconscious states (this condition is known as “nodding”)
- Worsening bouts of insomnia
- Respiratory ailments, including pneumonia
- Digestive ailments, including diarrhea, vomiting, and constipation
- Sexual dysfunction in male users and abnormal menstrual cycles in female users
If any of these signs are present with other symptoms of heroin use, your loved one may be on the verge of addiction and needs help immediately.
Signs of Withdrawal
Another telltale indication that your loved one suffers from a heroin use disorder is if you observe signs of withdrawal. Because heroin is such a powerful drug, when a user’s body is deprived of its effects, it can go into withdrawal and display the following symptoms:
- Uncontrollable jitters
- Severe chills with the appearance of goosebumps
- Body aches and acute pain in the joints and muscles
- Uncontrollable movement of the lower extremities
- Severe sleeplessness
Withdrawal symptoms can manifest within just a few hours after the last dose of heroin was taken. Because users develop higher tolerances to heroin the more they use the drug, bouts of withdrawal can become more frequent and severe.
Prior Misuse of Prescription Pain Medication
A key indicator of potential heroin use is prior misuse of similar drugs. Heroin is an opioid, and prescription pain medications like oxycodone, hydrocodone, and other painkillers can serve as gateway drugs to heroin use.
Statistics show that 4 out of 5 heroin users have a history of misusing other prescription pain meds. If someone close to you has a history of using painkillers for purposes beyond their medical needs, you need to be acutely aware that heroin use may be their next move (if they have not already started).
3 Signs a Person Might Have a Heroin Problem: Things To Watch For
No heroin user sets out to become an addict. Heroin is such a powerful, addictive drug that few users can escape its clutches on their own, which is why it is crucial to catch the signs that a person might have a heroin problem as early as possible. Here are 3 key things to watch for:
Heroin is typically injected into the veins by users because this produces the most immediate and intense result. Other ways to take heroin include smoking and snorting.
Therefore, be on the lookout for these types of paraphernalia:
- Needles, syringes, and elastic tubing that can be used as tourniquets
- Spoons and lighters
- Pipes and other devices used for smoking
As far as the drug itself, heroin can take several forms, so familiarize yourself with its various presentations. Heroin is typically a whitish powder but can also appear brownish or blackish. Black tar heroin looks just like it sounds—sticky, gooey, and black.
Another outward sign that a person might have a heroin problem is a noticeable change in their behavior. Heroin is highly addictive and even a newcomer to this drug may become so bewitched by its mind-altering effects that finding the next high can be an all-consuming obsession.
You may notice that a user seems socially withdrawn and oblivious about how poorly they treat those close to them. Personal hygiene can quickly deteriorate when someone uses heroin, and the fear of a person’s heroin use being discovered can cause paranoia.
Heroin use produces profound mental and physical effects that keep users coming back for more. Even after just a few sessions, users can exhibit telltale physical characteristics serving as potential warning signs:
- Abnormally constricted pupils
- Extreme dryness in the mouth
- Reddish complexion
- Sudden, overwhelming drowsiness
- Forgetfulness and confusion
- Severe itchiness
- Chronic constipation
Indicators of heroin use must be recognized early on as potential signs of drug addiction so that you and your loved one can take timely action before the struggle takes a far more serious turn.
At What Point Is Heroin a Problem?
As an opioid substance in the same family of drugs as prescription painkillers, heroin is a double-edged sword: it has powerful effects on the mind and body, and it is relatively cheap and readily accessible.
Because it is so addictive, heroin is a problem from the moment a user tries it for the first time. Heroin becomes a life-threatening situation when a loved one can no longer control their actions and their daily purpose is driven by finding the next high.
When the signs of heroin use appear front and center and can no longer be explained away by you or your loved one, the clock is ticking on acknowledging the problem and taking immediate action.
How Do You Deal With Someone Who Has a Heroin Problem?
Helping somebody with an addiction, be it heroin or any other drug, means guiding them to the crucial resources that will empower them to take back control of their life.
- Open and frank communication is crucial, so identify a person that the user trusts, whether it is you, a family member, a friend, or a doctor
- Suggest a visit to rehab to learn firsthand how the recovery process works
- Help the user conduct research based on their particular situation and needs
- Look into family support groups to explore recovery options emphasizing settings providing comfort and familiarity
If a loved one has a heroin problem, the first step in helping them recover is acknowledging heroin has entered both of your lives. Once the reality of heroin use is confronted and recognized, the real work toward recovery can begin.
Additional Addictions To Watch For
Use disorders encompass a wide range of substances and learning about different types of addiction can provide valuable insight into dealing with heroin use.
- Signs of Meth Addiction: Methamphetamine is a stimulant affecting the central nervous system, and like heroin, is highly addictive.
- Signs of Cocaine Addiction: Cocaine is another addictive stimulant, known for producing powerful feelings of euphoria.
- Signs of Adderall Addiction: Adderall is a combination stimulant commonly used to treat ADHD.
Regardless of the type of substance involved, addiction is a serious, and potentially life-threatening condition. Learning the early signs of addiction and knowing what to watch for, are the keys to recovery.
The opioid drug crisis casts a wide net reaching all levels of society. Heroin is a powerfully addictive drug that can ensnare people even after a few encounters. If you have concerns that a loved one is using heroin, learn to recognize the signs and be prepared to take action.