Heroin Addiction Signs & Symptoms

Understanding Heroin Addiction

Learn about heroin addiction & abuse

Heroin is an extremely addictive drug that is part of the opioid family. This substance is synthesized from morphine, which in turn is derived from parts of the Asian poppy plant. Though closely related to morphine, heroin is as much as four times more powerful and its effects are felt quicker than are those of morphine.

Heroin, which is also referred to by the street names H, smack, horse, and tar, is usually abused by being injected, smoked, or snorted. The drug is most commonly abused via intravenous injection, though certain forms may also be smoked or snorted.

When heroin enters the body, it interacts with brain cells that are affiliated with pleasure, arousal, blood pressure, and breathing. Heroin users initially experience an intense, euphoric high, followed by an extended state of drowsiness. Heroin users will also quickly develop a tolerance to the drug, meaning that they will need to take greater doses or more powerful strains in order to experience this high.

Because of its powerful analgesic, or painkilling, properties, heroin is used by physicians in some countries to treat patients who are suffering from acute pain, including pain caused by severe physical trauma or end-stage cancer. In the United States, heroin is classified as a Schedule I substance, meaning that the U.S. government considers it to have no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse.


Heroin abuse statistics

The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that about 9.2 million people abuse heroin, and that about 70,000 deaths can be attributed to overdoses of heroin or other opioids. In the United States between 600,000 and 700,000 individuals told researchers that they had used heroin within the previous twelve months.

Though the percentage of the U.S. population that abuses heroin is relatively low, the problem has risen dramatically in recent years. In 2006, about 90,000 people said they had used heroin for the first time in the past year; by 2012, first-use cases soared to 156,000.

Causes & Risks

Causes and risk factors for heroin abuse

The abuse of and addiction to heroin can be prompted by several factors, including both genetic influences and environmental causes. The following are among the several factors that may lead a person to abuse and become addicted to heroin:

Genetic: Many studies have shown strong evidence to support a genetic predisposition to substance abuse and addiction. People whose parents struggled with heroin addiction have an increased risk for the same problem, with one study suggesting that the children of heroin addicts are 80% more likely to become addicted than are people who do not have a family history of heroin abuse.

Environmental: Family history of heroin abuse and addiction can also be an environmental influence as well. People who grow up in families where the presence and use of heroin is commonplace are more likely to engage in this behavior themselves. Other environmental factors that can lead to heroin addiction include a having history of physical, sexual, or emotional abuse, associating with individuals who abuse heroin, and habitually abusing alcohol or other drugs.

Risk Factors:

  • Being male
  • Family history of heroin abuse
  • Family history of mental illness
  • Personal history of mental illness
  • Personal history of trauma
  • Problems with anxiety, panic, or depression
  • Prior sustained abuse of alcohol or other drugs
  • Prior development of an addiction to alcohol or other drugs

Signs & Symptoms

Signs and symptoms of heroin abuse

No two heroin addicts act exactly the same, but several signs and symptoms are common among people who abuse heroin or other opiates. The following symptoms may suggest that a person is abusing or has become addicted to heroin:

Behavioral symptoms:

  • Becoming secretive or deceptive
  • Never wearing short sleeves or short pants, even in hot weather
  • Exhibiting out-of-character risk-taking behaviors
  • Withdrawal from family and friends
  • Unreliability
  • Defensiveness and aggressiveness
  • Unexplained financial problems
  • Possession of heroin paraphernalia
  • Stealing from friends and family members

Physical symptoms:

  • Being drowsy to the point of unconsciousness
  • Highly constricted pupils
  • Runny nose
  • Watery and/or bloodshot eyes
  • Significant weight loss
  • Dry mouth and flushed skin
  • Open sores and scabs that don’t heal

Cognitive symptoms:

  • Confusion
  • Inability to concentrate or focus
  • Inability to think and/or express oneself clearly
  • Hallucinating
  • Paranoia

Psychosocial symptoms:

  • Irritability
  • Loss of interest in activities that were previously very important
  • Dramatic mood swings
  • Anxiety and/or restlessness


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. Professional treatment for heroin addiction is strongly advised.

The following are just a few of the many negative effects of heroin abuse:

  • Heart attack
  • Stroke
  • Kidney damage
  • Liver disease
  • Hepatitis B and C
  • Respiratory distress
  • Persistent flu-like symptoms
  • Pneumonia
  • Chronic pain in muscles and bones
  • Severe abdominal pain
  • Nausea and diarrhea
  • Financial problems
  • Legal problems
  • Separation and divorce
  • Loss of employment
  • Incarceration
  • Death

Co-Occurring Disorders

Heroin abuse & co-occurring disorders

In some cases, heroin abuse begins as recreational drug abuse, while in other cases it is an ill-advised attempt to self-medicate another condition. Many heroin addicts struggle with other physical, mental health, and behavioral problems, many of which either caused or were worsened by the addictive behaviors. The following are among the more common co-occurring disorders experienced by heroin addicts:

  • Abuse of or addiction to other drugs
  • Posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
  • Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
  • Chronic pain
  • Depressive disorders
  • Bipolar disorder
  • Panic disorder
  • Anxiety disorders

The Life Center of Galax provided the safe, supportive treatment I needed to overcome my heroin addiction. I will forever be thankful for the incredible help I received!

– Gary
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