National Association of Addiction Treatment Providers
American Society of Addiction Medicine
National Association of Psychiatric Health Systems
American Psychological Association
The Jason Foundation
Causes & Effects of Heroin Abuse & Addiction
Heroin is a highly addictive opioid that is derived from certain varieties of the poppy plant. The drug, which is commonly abused by being snorted, smoked, or injected, usually takes the form of a white or brown powder or a sticky, black, tar-like substance. When heroin is ingested, the body turns it back into morphine, which then interacts with brain cells that are affiliated with pleasure, arousal, blood pressure, and breathing. Heroin provides an intense, euphoric high, followed by an extended state of drowsiness. The highly addictive nature of heroin means that users may begin to experience cravings and withdrawal symptoms after their initial use of the drug. Professional treatment for heroin addiction is strongly advised.
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According to the most recent data from the National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NS-DUH), between 600,000 and 700,000 Americans have used heroin within the past twelve months. Heroin abuse in the United States has been on the rise in recent years, with first-time use increasing from 90,000 people in 2006 to 156,000 people in 2012.
The World Health Organization (WHO) has cited heroin abuse as the primary cause for the majority of the 15 million cases of opioid dependence across the globe. WHO also estimates that nearly 70,000 deaths can be attributed to opioid overdose every year.
Causes and Risk Factors for Heroin Abuse
As is the case with all forms substance abuse and addiction, heroin abuse and addiction cannot be attributed to one single cause or risk factor. The following are among the several factors that may lead a person to abuse and become addicted to heroin:
Genetic: Several studies have documented the degree to which genetics can play a role in the abuse of and addiction to substances such as heroin. For example, individuals whose parents developed a heroin addiction are at increased risk for struggling with a heroin addiction themselves. At least one study found that children of addicted parents are eight times as likely as children of non-addicted parents to develop an addiction themselves.
Environmental: Highly stressful environments can be precursors to addiction, especially for individuals who have not developed healthy strategies for coping with such pressure. Other environmental influences on the development of an addiction to heroin can include a history of trauma or abuse, growing up around people who openly abused the drug, and associating with individuals who abuse and/or have easy access to heroin.
Gender (men are more likely than women to develop an addiction to heroin)
Heroin abuse by other members of one’s family
Mental illness within one’s family
Problems with anxiety, panic, or depression
Poor coping skills
Lack of effective support network
Prior drug abuse
Signs and Symptoms of Heroin Abuse
Deception and denial are key components of most addictions, and most people who have become addicted to heroin will go to great lengths to hide the signs of their addiction. However, the nature of heroin addiction and the drastic impact it can have on a person’s mind and body ensure that certain signs and symptoms will eventually emerge. Examples of such symptoms may include:
Secretiveness, unaccountability, and other signs of deception
Wearing long sleeves and long pants, even in hot weather
Out-of-character recklessness and risk-taking
Defensiveness, aggressiveness, and irritability
Unexplained financial problems
Withdrawal from family and friends
Drowsiness to the point of unconsciousness
Bloodshot eyes and runny nose
Nausea and constipation
Drastic weight loss
Scabs and sores (may indicate injection drug use)
Difficulties with concentration and focus
Impaired ability to make good decisions
Unexplained euphoria (usually followed by periods of disorientation)
Loss of interest in activities that were previously very important
Drastic mood swings
If you feel that you are in crisis, or are having thoughts about hurting yourself or others, please call 9-1-1 or go to the nearest emergency room immediately.
Effects of Heroin Abuse
It is difficult to overstate the destructiveness of heroin abuse and addiction. Abusing heroin can have a devastating impact on virtually all aspects of a person’s life, including his or her physical health, mental stability, financial status, employment, and interpersonal relationships.
The following are just a few of the many negative effects of heroin abuse:
Serious illnesses, such as Hepatitis B, Hepatitis C, and HIV/AIDS
Skin problems (including scars, scabs, and abscesses)
Impaired kidney and liver functioning
Increased risk of heart attack and stroke
Muscle and bone pain
Abdominal distress, including cramping, nausea, and diarrhea
Strained or destroyed interpersonal relationships
Decreased mental acuity
Panic, anxiety, and paranoia
In many cases, heroin abuse begins as an ill-informed means of attempting to cope with or self-medicate another condition. In addition to exacerbating these other conditions, heroin abuse can also then lead to the development of additional problems. Examples of disorders that are known to occur alongside the presence of an addiction to heroin may include:
Other substance use disorders
Posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
Effects of Withdrawal and Overdose
Effects of heroin withdrawal: Attempting to stop using heroin without the supervision of a qualified professional can be a dangerous and painful experience. The body can quickly develop a dependence upon heroin, which means that using the drug even once or twice can put a person at risk for experiencing withdrawal symptoms following the cessation of such use, of which may include the following:
Intense drug cravings
Nausea and diarrhea
Runny nose and watery eyes
Effects of heroin overdose: Heroin abuse can quickly lead to both tolerance and dependence. Tolerance occurs when users need to ingest increasingly large amounts of heroin in order to achieve the high that previously accompanied smaller doses of the drug. As a person’s tolerance of this substance increases, it is likely that an individual will develop a physical dependence on this life-threatening drug. Increased tolerance and physical dependence on heroin can significantly raise a user’s risk of overdosing, of which can cause the following:
Depressed respiration (shallow or labored breathing)
Low blood pressure and weak pulse
Dry mouth and discolored tongue
Severe disorientation, to the point of delirium
Uncontrollable muscle spasms
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