Opioids are a class of drugs derived from the opium poppy plant. Medicinally, they are used to treat mild to severe symptoms of pain, however, there are also illicit opioid drugs like heroin. Both medicinal and illicit forms of opioids are habit-forming and highly addictive.
Heroin, however, is unregulated and can vary in potency. As a result, it is extremely easy to overdose on the drug–especially if it is laced with fentanyl-like it often is. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), an estimated 0.2% (or about 691,000 people) had a heroin use disorder in the past 12 months. And, in 2020, approximately 13,165 people died from an overdose involving heroin.
Being able to identify the signs and symptoms of heroin addiction–and to understand what treatment is like–can save lives.
What is Heroin and Why Do People Get Addicted?
Heroin is a synthesized opioid analgesic that is derived from the opium poppy plant. This substance is an illicit drug and not approved for any form of medicinal use. Because of the propensity to develop an addiction to heroin, this substance is classified as a Schedule I drug.
When someone uses heroin for the first time, they will experience a rush of intense pleasure. While they may experience adverse symptoms like nausea, slowed breathing, and slowed heart rate, the rush of euphoria overpowers these effects. This causes the individual to continuously chase the feeling of their first heroin use, causing the cycle of addiction to begin.
According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, “Heroin enters the brain rapidly and binds to opioid receptors on cells located in many areas, especially those involved in feelings of pain and pleasure and in controlling heart rate, sleeping, and breathing.”
The Signs and Symptoms of Heroin Addiction
The signs and symptoms of heroin addiction can be difficult to spot during an individual’s early stages of use. This is because they are attempting to conceal their addiction from others. However, the symptoms of heroin abuse will begin to become more obvious as their addiction progresses.
The signs of heroin addiction may include:
- Mood swings
- Anxiety and irritability
- Hostility or aggression towards others
- Lying about drug use and avoiding loved ones
- Weight loss
- Excessive sleepiness or “nodding off”
- Scabs as a result of picking or itching the skin
- Paranoia, delusions, and hallucinations
- Poor personal hygiene
- Needle marks on the skin from IV heroin use
- Wearing long sleeves or pants to conceal needle marks
- Weird speech patterns
- small, pinpointed pupils
- Warm, flushed skin
- Withdrawal symptoms when they aren’t using heroin
If someone is displaying the signs of heroin addiction, they are at an increased risk of experiencing an overdose. Getting treatment is the best way to prevent a life-threatening overdose from occurring.
How is Heroin Addiction Treated?
Understanding the signs and symptoms of heroin addiction is only half of the equation. Once it has been established that an individual is suffering from heroin use disorder, they must go to addiction treatment.
The first step in treating heroin addiction is medical detox. Because the individual is dependent on heroin, they will experience symptoms of withdrawal upon cessation. Medical detox programs provide patients with treatments and medications that soothe symptoms of withdrawal and prevent cravings from becoming severe.
The symptoms of heroin withdrawal include:
- Nausea and vomiting
- Abdominal pain
- Muscle spasms
- Cravings for heroin
The medications used during medical detox prevent individuals from experiencing severe and unmanageable symptoms of withdrawal. People who attempt to detox at home often end up relapsing to soothe those symptoms. This is why medical detox is one of the most critical steps in recovery from heroin addiction.
Medication-Assisted Treatment (MAT)
Once someone has completed detox, they have the option to begin medication-assisted treatment (MAT). Medication-assisted treatment helps individuals remain sober from heroin during the early stages of recovery by preventing cravings and making opioid drugs ineffective.
Some of the medications used in MAT for heroin abuse include:
- Buprenorphine (Subutex) – reduces cravings without providing the individual with a high
- Suboxone (buprenorphine/naloxone) – a combination drug that includes buprenorphine and naloxone to reduce cravings and prevent opioids from providing a high
- Methadone – prevents opioids from providing users with a high in case of a relapse
- Naltrexone – prevents relapse by stopping the mind-altering effects of opioids
Individual and Group Counseling
Whether an individual takes advantage of MAT or not, they will participate in individual therapy and group counseling during a heroin addiction treatment program. Evidence-based therapeutic approaches help individuals recover from the causes and effects of long-term substance abuse. Additionally, this is beneficial for individuals who suffer from co-occurring disorders.
Types of therapy used during heroin addiction recovery programs include:
- Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT)
- Dialectical behavior therapy (DBT)
- Traditional talk therapy
- Contingency management (CM)
- Motivational interviewing (MI)
- The matrix model
- 12-step facilitation therapy
- Trauma-informed care
- Group counseling
- Family therapy
Holistic therapies may be used in addition to evidence-based behavioral counseling. These may include yoga, acupuncture, massage therapy, and mindfulness-based techniques.
Relapse Prevention Planning
Lastly, individuals will work with their therapists to create a relapse prevention plan before they complete their treatment program. These plans provide them with tools and resources that prevent them from experiencing a relapse once they transition out of the facility and back into normal life.
Services or resources included in a relapse prevention plan may include:
- A list of triggers specific to the person
- Coping mechanisms to use in times of need
- Sober support contacts to call when times get tough
- Referrals to sober living programs and halfway homes
- A plan of action in case of a relapse
- Continued attendance to therapy, group counseling, and psychiatry (if needed)
- Referrals to addiction support groups like AA, NA, or SMART Recovery
Finding Help for Heroin Addiction
Heroin addiction is a severe form of substance use disorder that can wreak havoc on an individual’s life. If you or a loved one suffer from heroin abuse, it may be time to consider attending an addiction treatment program.
Recovery Centers can help you find the heroin rehab facility that suits your unique needs. Contact us today to find a recovery center near you.