What Happens to Your Body When You Are Addicted to Heroin

Heroin addiction has been a societal problem in the United States for decades. Heroin addiction is on the rise in rural areas across the country, and law enforcement officials as well as healthcare providers are scrambling to address what is seen as an epidemic. The social issues related to heroin addiction are often focused on crime, but let’s take a closer look at a different impact — the medical effects of heroin addiction on the human body.

Heroin Addiction Causes Brain Damage

While that subheading may sound like hyperbole, it is accurate. Using heroin impacts your brain, first and foremost. Heroin is an opiate, in the same category of substances as morphine and opium, and is classified as a narcotic. When you use heroin, it enters the brain and binds to specific receptors that manage pain and pleasure, and also ones that control blood pressure and breathing. That’s why heroin overdoses are often fatal — too much heroin overwhelms these receptors and causes you to stop breathing.

Health Problems From Heroin Addiction

The way in which you get heroin into your system impacts your body. People who use heroin usually:

  • Swallow heroin
  • Sniff heroin in a powder form
  • Inject heroin with a needle
  • Heat and inhale heroin (“chasing the dragon”)

Each method can have a devastating impact. For example:

  • Injecting heroin makes you vulnerable to infections or abscesses due to needle use
  • If you share needles, you increase the possibility of exposure to blood-borne diseases, including HIV, AIDS and hepatitis
  • Snorting heroin causes damage to the nasal passages and sinuses, resulting in frequent nosebleeds and ulcerated mucus membranes
  • Smoking heroin impacts the trachea, bronchi and lungs. Coughing and frequent respiratory infections are the result.

Heroin addiction also impacts your body in other ways:

  • Your immune system gets compromised and you tend to be more susceptible to infections and diseases
  • Heroin addicts tend to experience a roller coaster of gastrointestinal issues — nausea, vomiting, constipation and diarrhea are all common parts of the addiction syndrome
  • Studies have shown that heroin addiction impacts intellectual functioning, causing impairments to decision-making and memory

Heroin addiction is hard on you from head to toe, inside and out. If you are struggling with heroin addiction, seek medical attention. Withdrawal from heroin is a serious and at times complicated medical issue requiring supervision and support.

Effective Treatments for Heroin Addiction

Some research puts heroin relapse rates at 90%. Heroin addiction is hard to beat, but not impossible. Evidence-based substance abuse treatment and relapse prevention training is critical. Some effective treatment options for heroin addiction include:

Long-Term Inpatient Rehab

Research suggests that attending inpatient rehab longer than 30 days may be necessary in some cases of opioid dependence. In one study, almost 60% of heroin abusers relapsed within one week of treatment.  The majority of these people did not follow up heroin addiction treatment with aftercare.

Medication Assisted Treatment (MAT)

Medication assisted treatment, together with behavioral therapy, can help reduce relapse rates. MAT options for heroin addiction include:

  • Buprenorphine (Suboxone®, Subutex®)
  • Naltrexone (Vivitrol®)
  • Methadone

You may take buprenorphine and naltrexone on an outpatient treatment basis with oversight from your physician. Methadone requires administration in a licensed methadone clinic. Buprenorphine, naltrexone and methadone should always be taken in conjunction with behavior therapy and addiction recovery support.

Frequently Asked Questions About Heroin

What is heroin?

Heroin is a synthetic opiate derived from morphine. It’s illegal to manufacture, distribute or possess. Heroin was originally intended as a less addictive replacement to morphine. Heroin abusers use it for its feelings of comfort and euphoria. Heroin is also a very powerful narcotic and extremely habit-forming.

How did the opioid epidemic start?

Heroin abuse is on the rise again in the United States. Some people attribute the rise in heroin addiction to opioid prescription drugs. About a decade ago, calls for improved pain management for patients resulted in an increased number of prescriptions written for painkillers such as oxycodone and related opioid drugs. Reports began to surface that there was a rise in opioid dependence as well as ER visits due to heroin overdoses. People were becoming addicted to the prescription drugs. Opioid painkillers were also getting diverted to the streets for illicit use. Doctors have become more cautious about prescribing opiates for longer periods due to the high risk of addiction in some people as well as diversion of the drugs. However, opioid addicted people often use heroin because it’s cheaper and easier to obtain. Public health officials and addiction specialists continue to search for ways to curb the opioid epidemic.

What are street names for heroin?

Heroin is known on the street as:

  • Smack
  • Junk
  • Horse
  • China white
  • Chiva
  • H
  • Tar
  • Black
  • Fix
  • Speed-balling
  • Dope
  • Brown
  • Negra
  • Nod
  • White horse
  • Stuff

Why is heroin so addictive?

Heroin is particularly deadly due to the rapid pace at which tolerance develops. The drug acts on the reward center of the brain. It causes the brain’s neurotransmitters to release large quantities of chemicals that make you feel good. This eventually depletes the neurotransmitters’ reserve.  Heroin abusers quickly need more and more of it to feel high. Eventually, they need to abuse heroin just to feel normal and ward off heroin withdrawal. People who use heroin are at high risk of heroin overdoses for unintentionally taking lethal quantities.

What are the long-term effects of heroin use?

Frequent heroin abusers can tolerate dosing that would kill uninitiated users. Many long-term problems with heroin addiction arise from the chosen delivery method of the heroin addict. These may include:

  • Abscesses
  • Inflammation of the heart and veins
  • Blood poisoning
  • Viral infections such as HIV and hepatitis
  • Disruption of the brain’s ability to process pain signals
  • Reduction in central nervous system activity that results in:
    • Substantial changes in normal blood pressure levels
    • Erratic breathing rates

Get help, and get clean. It might not be easy, but it will be worth it.   Sources:

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