Many people addicted to heroin will go to great lengths to hide their addiction. This can include telling lies about using the drug, stashing drug paraphernalia in their house or car, or isolating themselves from others. Hiding an addiction can also involve stealing money from friends and family members to cover up drug-related financial losses. Whether individuals addicted to heroin choose to flat out deny using the drug, make up excuses for unexplained changes in their physical appearance, or avoid time with people questioning their behavior, their goal is to cover up what they’re doing. This may work for a little while, but eventually, signs and symptoms of heroin addiction will start to appear. Being able to recognize these warning signs can be the difference between continued addiction and recovery and life and death.
What Is Heroin?
Heroin is an illegal opioid drug that comes from the opium poppy plant that grows in Asia, Mexico, and South America. Even though pure heroin looks like white powder, heroin can also be dark brown. Black tar heroin, which is black and looks like roofing tar, can be sticky or hard. Most people who use heroin also called “horse,” “smack,” “big H,” “black tar,” “Caballo,” “8-ball,” “junk,” and “TNT,” smoke, snort, or inject the drug into their veins.
When smoked, heroin produces a rush of pleasurable feelings. These feelings are a result of heroin’s interaction with the brain. When heroin enters the brain, the drug changes into morphine and binds to opioid receptors. This interaction triggers a series of chemical reactions that block pain signals and produce pleasurable sensations. Even though heroin provides temporary gratification, the drug has dangerous side effects and is very addictive.
Not long after heroin’s high ends, the drug can cause dry mouth, nausea, vomiting, difficulty breathing, a heavy feeling in the arms and legs, increased body temperature, and clouded thinking. Many people wrongly assume that using more heroin will help these side effects go away. Even though heroin may provide short-term relief, continuing to use more of the drug can lead to addiction.
Long Term Effects of Heroin Use
Being addicted to heroin can feel like an endless cycle of euphoric highs followed by disorienting lows. In addition, an addiction to heroin can cause physical illness and mental health challenges. Some of the long-term effects of heroin use include:
- Sexual dysfunction
- Weakened immune system
- Damaged teeth
- Inflamed gums
- Collapsed veins
- Blood and/or heart infections
- Muscle pain
- Bone aches
- Uncontrolled leg movements
- Increased risk of HIV/Hepatitis
Luckily, recognizing the signs and symptoms of heroin addiction can help individuals grappling with addiction enroll in a treatment program and recover their lives.
Warning Signs and Symptoms of Heroin Addiction
The signs and symptoms of heroin addiction can vary from person to person, but generally, individuals addicted to heroin:
1. Alternate Between Drowsy and Wakeful States of Consciousness
After the initial rush ends, people who use heroin experience a trance-like state that shifts between wakefulness and drowsiness. During this period of time, which is often referred to as “nodding out,” individuals’ minds become cloudy. Generally, individuals “nodding out” look like people who are trying to stay awake. Their heads “nod” and simultaneously drop as they get sleepy and then suddenly, they jerk awake. The process usually continues for a couple of hours.
“Nodding out” happens because heroin is an opioid sedative that causes individuals to feel alert one moment and sleepy the next. This may seem harmless, but the reality is nodding out is quite dangerous. Users can easily lose consciousness, slip into a comatose state, or nod off and never wake up again. Individuals using heroin may try to disguise “nodding out” as everyday fatigue, but alternating between wakefulness and drowsiness for hours after a euphoric high is most often a sign of heroin addiction.
2. Wear Long-Sleeved Shirts or Pants Regardless of The Weather
Many people addicted to heroin inject the drug into a vein with needles. Over time, the needle marks, which are also called tracks, can become permanent scars. To cover these scars, many individuals wear long-sleeve shirts and pants even when the weather is hot. Wearing these items, along with jackets and hoodies, throughout the summer season while showing signs of other addiction-related behavior is usually a good indication that the individual may be injecting heroin and other drugs into their veins.
3. Possess Drug Paraphernalia
Many individuals addicted to heroin have a stash of drug paraphernalia they use to get high. Some of the most obvious paraphernalia includes needles, pipes, spoons, and lighters for smoking and snorting the drug, but some people use rubber tubing and elastic bands as tourniquets to make their veins larger in order to inject heroin. Other equipment individuals use to consume heroin can include:
- Tiny orange caps from syringes
- Spoons with burn marks
- Aluminum foil or gum wrappers
- Shoelaces which are used to tie off injection sites
- Rubber straps or bands
- Small plastic bags
- Straws that are used to snort or smoke heroin
- Empty plastic pens cases which are also used for smoking or snorting heroin
- Empty drug capsules
- Nasal spray bottles which are used to snort a heroin and water mixture
- Antihistamine boxes which individuals use to counteract histamine release
- Small cotton balls, Q-tips, or pieces of a cigarette filter
4. Experience Excessive Itching and Pick Their Skin
Another common symptom of heroin addiction is itching skin. When consumed, heroin triggers the immune system to release histamine, a chemical that’s normally released when a person has an allergic reaction. When released, histamine activates the skin’s itch receptors, which commands the brain to scratch an itch.
In addition, heroin can:
- Irritate nerve fibers in the body, making itching worse
- Bind to specific receptors in the body that send itch signals to the brain
- Lead to injection injuries that cause abscesses and skin infections that may itch as they attempt to heal
Many heroin users pick their skin as well. Generally, the picking is a result of the intense itching heroin causes. However, the anxiety and restlessness associated with heroin withdrawal can also lead to skin picking.
5. Experience Unexplained Physical Changes
Since heroin often causes nausea and vomiting, many people using the drug lose their appetite. Because of this, the majority of people who abuse heroin lose weight. Oftentimes, weight loss is one of the first physical signs that friends and family members notice. In addition, many people who use heroin appear tired constantly and look older than their actual age. They may have dark circles around their eyes and a pale complexion. Some might even have a bluish tint to their skin because of the way heroin impacts blood pressure and heart rate.
Other unexplained physical changes commonly associated with heroin include:
- Difficulty breathing
- Scabs and bruises
- Constant runny nose
- Slurred speech
- Heavy-feeling limbs
Treatment That Empowers You To Take Charge Of Your Recovery
Here at Meta Addiction Treatment, we know how devastating and frustrating watching a loved one succumb to heroin addiction can be. But don’t give up hope. Knowing and recognizing the signs and symptoms of addiction can help save your loved one’s life.
Our intervention services can help your loved one realize they have a problem and encourage them to seek out the treatment they need. Our flexible, outpatient treatment programs can help them start to recover their life. Contact one of our recovery experts if you think or suspect someone you care for might be addicted to heroin.