Heroin Addiction: Abuse Signs & Withdrawal Symptoms

Heroin, a highly addictive form of morphine, comes from the seedpods of poppy plants in Asia, Central America and South America. Because it can be mixed with water and injected, snorted through the nostrils or smoked in a pipe, it reaches the brain almost instantly and can quickly lead to addiction. Its abuse not only ruins the lives of its users, but it also has a devastating effect on society and costs billions in lost wages, crime and healthcare. Heroin abuse can also ruin the lives of loved ones who have a family member or friend using. Heroin use has been rising since 2007. In 2016, around 948,000 people in the United States reported using the drug in the preceding 12 months.

What are the signs of heroin abuse?

This drug creates chemical changes in the brain’s pleasure centers, producing feelings of relaxation and euphoria. It also keeps the brain from feeling pain. Its abuse may be hard to detect in its early stages, and initial symptoms may have other causes. Friends and family can help by watching for signs. Early signs may be general while later ones are more specific.

These symptoms may accompany use of heroin:

  • Dry mouth
  • Dilated pupils
  • Shallow breathing
  • An abrupt change in actions or behavior
  • Confusion
  • Droopy limbs
  • Periods of being hyper-alert followed by suddenly falling asleep

These signs indicate changes in behavior caused by heroin abuse:

  • Wearing long sleeves or pants to hide needle marks
  • Lying or being deceptive in other ways
  • Talking with garbled speech or slurred speech
  • Avoiding eye contact
  • Neglecting personal hygiene and appearance
  • Sleeping excessively
  • Having performance problems at work or school
  • Withdrawing from family and friends
  • Experiencing a lack of motivation or interest in former activities
  • Showing hostility and misplaced blame toward friends and family
  • Stealing or borrowing money or valuables
  • Experiencing a decline in confidence and self-image

The following kinds of equipment can be signs of heroin use:

  • Syringes, needles or other medical equipment
  • Straws, gum wrappers or aluminum foil with burn marks
  • Burned metal spoons
  • Plastic bags with a powdery residue that is usually white
  • Different kinds of pipes
  • Missing shoelaces used to tie off arms or legs for injections

The following physical symptoms occur when abuse becomes heavier or addiction occurs:

  • An unexplained runny nose
  • Severe itching
  • Weight loss
  • Visible needle marks on arms or legs
  • Sores at injection sites
  • Cuts or bruises
  • Loss of menstrual cycle in women
  • Sexual dysfunction
  • Depression, insomnia or other mental disorders
  • Infections, collapsed veins or problems with the lungs, liver or heart
  • Seizures or tremors
  • HIV or hepatitis from shared needles or other equipment

What are the signs of heroin withdrawal?

Anyone who has withdrawal symptoms after using the drug for a long period of time has an increased risk of complications from other illnesses as well as from the addiction itself. People who have become addicted to this substance usually experience withdrawal symptoms when they stop taking it, but symptoms may also occur among heavy users.

People who abuse this drug often experience pain and other symptoms when they stop taking the drug. Symptoms can start from hours to a day after it is withdrawn. They include the following:

  • Intense cravings for the drug
  • Unexplained, heavy sweating
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Bouts of crying
  • Chills and fever
  • Severe bone or muscle pain or cramping
  • Stomach cramps or diarrhea
  • Irritability, anxiety, or depression
  • Heaviness in extremities
  • Insomnia
  • A runny nose
  • Scabs on the skin

Although the early symptoms vary, most begin within six to 12 hours after the last dose and peak in one to three days. Milder symptoms slowly go away over the next five to seven days. Some users, however, go through post-acute withdrawal syndrome, a condition that can last for weeks or months.

How does substance use affect youth?

Disease control specialists say that cases of Hepatitis C are rapidly spreading, especially among young people. Specialists attribute much of the rise to the growing use of prescription and illicit drugs among youth. Studies say that almost one in four young people between the ages of 18 and 25 say they have used a prescription painkiller that was not prescribed by a doctor.

Dr. Judith Feinberg, physician and professor of medicine and infectious diseases at the University of Cincinnati in Ohio, says a bag of an opioid costs less in some cities than a pack of cigarettes. The number of young people who sought help for addiction increased from 11 percent in 2008 to 26 percent in 2012 among all admissions.

How does abuse differ in women and men?

Statistics show that men are more likely than women to use illicit drugs and also more likely to end up in the emergency room. Women, on the other hand, are as likely as men to develop a drug abuse problem. Women may be more susceptible to relapse or cravings, and studies show that they respond to drugs differently than men. They sometimes have unique problems that complicate treatment.

Substance use during pregnancy can result in neonatal abstinence syndrome. In NAS, the baby also becomes dependent on the drug. Symptoms may include irritability, extreme crying, fever, failure to thrive, seizures, vomiting and diarrhea. The baby must be hospitalized for treatment during which medication is reduced until symptoms disappear. A combination of prenatal care and a drug treatment program benefit both the mother and the child.

What causes addiction?

Although the drug is an opiate, the federal government does not allow its use as a prescription drug because of the danger of addiction. Because it is relatively inexpensive when compared to some narcotics, some people turn to the street drug because of its low cost. Not only is it a strong painkiller, but it also produces a warm, pleasurable rush when it enters the body. Users experience a relief from pain and a general sense of well-being, but the benefits quickly lead to cravings and addiction.

A person who smokes or snorts heroin feels its effects in as little as 15 minutes while injections take effect in less than 8 minutes. An intravenous injection is even faster and starts working in seven or eight seconds. A heroin high usually lasts from three to four hours with the user experiencing alternate periods of drowsiness and alertness. Because the drug slows the breath rate, the muscles feel weak, and worries give the illusion of going away.

As the high dissipates, users often feel anxiety or depression, and another dose seems the only way to get rid of uncomfortable feelings. Users build a tolerance to the drug and need a higher dose to get the same results. A full-blown addiction can happen very quickly.

The drug activates a certain kind of receptor in the brain. Natural chemicals called neurotransmitters bind to the receptors throughout the body to control pain, balance hormones and create a sense of well-being. The receptors activate the reward center of the brain and cause the release of a neurotransmitter called dopamine, reinforcing the need for the drug. The results depend on the size of the dose, how the drug binds to the receptors, how quickly it gets there and how long it lasts.

How does long-term heroin use affect the brain?

Its abuse over an extended period of time can have devastating and long-lasting effects on the brain by changing its physical structure as well as the way it works. In addition to imbalances of hormones and neurotransmitters, the white matter of the brain deteriorates and affects the following activities:

  • Ability to make decisions
  • Ability to control behavior
  • Ability to respond to stressful situations

Repeated use leads to substance use disorder, a condition that causes a chronic, relapsing need for the drug at any expense.

How are heroin addiction disorders treated?

Substance use disorders may be treated with a variety of pharmaceutical and behavioral options, and a combination of the two is usually the most effective approach. Medications include initial drugs to relieve withdrawal symptoms as well as those that work on the same principle as heroin but cause less harm to the body and help control cravings.

The choice of drug depends on individual needs and the circumstances of the treatment. Some medical treatments are administered in residential or outpatient clinics while others may be supervised by other medical professionals.

Behavioral treatments may also be administered in outpatient or residential settings. Cognitive behavioral training increases the patient’s skills for coping with stress, teaches them what to expect after treatment and gives them healthier options. Alternative therapies like meditation, listening to relaxing music and yoga may also be a helpful part of recovery.

Can a heroin overdose be treated?

An overdose is dangerous because it lowers the heart rate and breathing to a level so low that medical intervention is required. Fortunately, drugs are available that reverse an opioid overdose in a medical setting, but the help often comes too late to save a life. In 2014, the U. S. Food and Drug Administration approved a hand-help injector that delivers a single dose of medication under the skin or into a muscle, treating an overdose until medical help arrives. In 2015, the FDA also gave its approval to a nasal spray that can be used by caregivers or family members for the same purpose.

From 1996 until 2014, nonmedical persons saved over 26,500 lives by using medication to intervene. Emergency help should always be called as soon as possible because the effects of the drug could possibly outlive the 30- to 90-minute span of the overdose treatment.

Where can you get more information about addiction?

Call Center City Recovery today at 877-573-0032 to talk to a trained addiction counselor who can walk you through the recovery process.

In 2016, over 2.3 million people were treated for alcohol or drug addiction, and one of the keys to success is finding the right program for each person. Heroin addiction, like any addiction, is an illness that can be treated, and help is available. No one should go through recovery alone, and everyone needs support after treatment.