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Heroin has regained popularity since the federal government began cracking down on prescription drug abuse. As an opioid, heroin blocks the body from receiving pain messages which helps to temporarily relieve pain. But the reality is that heroin does the body far more harm than good. If you think you might be addicted, we offer heroin addiction treatment programs in Massachusetts.

Abusing heroin can overheat the body, slow users’ heart rates, and make breathing difficult. Prolonged heroin usage can lead to collapsed veins, infections, liver and kidney disease, miscarriage, mental disorders, pneumonia, and tuberculosis. Abusing heroin can also lead to a higher risk of contracting HIV/AIDS and Hepatitis B and C. Luckily, heroin addiction can be treated. Medical detox, behavioral therapy, peer support groups, and lifestyle changes can all help people grappling with heroin turn their lives around.

Here’s what you need to know about heroin, how the drug leads to addiction, how the substance affects the body, and how professional rehabilitation programs like ours can help treat heroin addiction.

What Is Heroin?

Heroin is an opioid drug made from morphine, a natural substance extracted from the seed pod of opium poppy plants grown in Mexico, Colombia, and Southeast and Southwest Asia. Unlike legal opioids that doctors prescribe for pain relief, such as codeine and morphine, heroin is illegal. In fact, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) categorizes heroin as a Schedule I substance. This means that heroin has a high potential for abuse and no current medically accepted use.

Even though heroin originates from the opium poppy plant, the drug doesn’t always look the same. Pure heroin looks like a white powder, but the drug can also be a brown powder or black sticky substance known as black tar heroin. Generally, pure heroin originates in South America. By the time heroin reaches the U.S. street drug market, the substance is cut or diluted with sugar, starch, powdered milk, or quinine and sold as a white or brownish powder. Heroin that takes the form of a brown or black powder gets its color from additives and is more common than pure heroin. The dark color associated with black tar heroin comes from impurities in the substance. This particular form of heroin, which is mostly produced in Mexico, can be sticky like roof tar or hard like coal.

When produced, sold, or used recreationally, heroin may be referred to as “Dope,” “Smack,” “H,” “Junk,” “Skag,” “Snow,” “Horse,” “China White,” “Brown,” “Beast,” or “Hero.”

How Is Heroin Used?

Heroin can be used in several different ways. Users frequently mix heroin with water and inject the drug into their veins or muscles with a needle. But heroin can also be sniffed, smoked, or snorted. Some users smoke heroin from a pipe, marijuana joint, or regular cigarette. Other users inhale heroin through a straw, which may be referred to as “chasing the dragon.” Typically, the way heroin is used depends on the purity of the drug and the user’s preference.

Many users prefer a specific method of consuming heroin because their method of choice can affect how quickly they feel the effects of the drug. About 50% of heroin users choose to inject the drug because injection produces the quickest effects. When users inject heroin, they can experience a rush of euphoria within seconds. They may also experience dry mouth and a warming sensation. After this initial euphoria, many people experience a hazy state of being that alternates between drowsiness and wakefulness.

Users who smoke heroin generally start to feel the drug’s effects after 10 to 15 minutes. They may not experience the same intense rush that injection users feel, but they will experience the drug’s other effects.

Traditionally, the majority of heroin users preferred injecting the drug, but because of the availability of pure heroin, many new users, especially young adolescents, have started to shift toward sniffing and smoking the drug. Sadly, a preference for one method of use over the other doesn’t lessen the amount of harm heroin can cause to the mind and body.

What Does Heroin Do To The Body?

​Though illegal, heroin affects the body the same way other opioids do, including prescription medications. When heroin enters the body, the drug activates receptors in the brain called mu-opioid receptors (MORs). Brain chemicals called neurotransmitters bind to these receptors to regulate pain, release hormones, and increase feelings of well-being. When heroin activates receptors in the brain’s reward center, the drug stimulates the release of dopamine, causing users to feel good.

While dopamine makes users temporarily feel better, the neurotransmitter also unintentionally works against them. In addition to producing feelings of pleasure, dopamine blurs the difference between the expected reward and the reward actually received. Because of this, dopamine reinforces the behavior that caused a particular reward. In short, excessive amounts of dopamine encourages users to continue using heroin. The more they use heroin, the more the drug affects their body.

At first, heroin causes an intense, pleasurable sensation known as a “rush.” Usually, the intensity of the rush depends on how quickly heroin enters the brain and binds to the opioid receptors. The euphoria produced by the rush is usually accompanied by a warm flushing of the skin, dry mouth, and heavy-feeling hands, arms, and legs. But the rush doesn’t last long. Not long after heroin’s initial effects end, drowsiness and other adverse effects begin.

Many heroin users feel drowsy for several hours after using the drug. In addition, their cognitive functioning becomes clouded. Their thoughts are hazy, they can’t concentrate, and they find themselves trapped in a state of extreme brain fog. They may not realize it at the time, but their heart rate and breathing slows down. As the central nervous system struggles to maintain proper functioning, their risk of coma and brain damage increases.

Using heroin can lead to a number of physical problems related to breathing and other basic life functions. The drug can cause:

  • Severe itching
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Clouded thinking
  • Coordination problems
  • A heavy feeling in the arms and legs
  • Movement back and forth between consciousness and semi-consciousness

Heroin can also have long-term effects on the body.

Long-Term Effects of Heroin on The Body

Repeated heroin use can change the physical structure of the brain and the way the organ functions. When this happens, neural and hormonal imbalances can affect cognitive and executive functioning. Some studies have even shown that prolonged use of heroin can actually deteriorate the brain’s white matter. Losing large amounts of white matter can negatively impact users’ ability to reason, make decisions, and think logically. A decreased amount of white matter in the brain can also make regulating behavior and dealing with stress difficult.

Other long-term effects of heroin can include:

  • Collapsed veins
  • A heart infection
  • Trouble sleeping
  • Lung problems
  • Liver and kidney disease
  • Erectile dysfunction for men
  • Respiratory illnesses
  • Diminished sex drive
  • Cellulitis, a bacterial skin infection
  • A weakened immune system
  • Inflamed gums and bad teeth
  • Muscular weakness and partial paralysis
  • Infection of the heart lining and valves
  • Changes in menstrual cycle for women
  • Loss of memory and intellectual performance
  • Mental health problems such as depression
  • Pulmonary complications such as various types of pneumonia
  • Abscesses, painful areas of tissue in the body that are filled with pus
  • Damaged tissue inside the nose, especially for people who snort or sniff the drug
  • Tolerance, dependence, and addiction

Despite these effects, many people continue to use heroin, often leading to a number of different consequences.

Risks Associated With Using Heroin

Heroin is a dangerous drug that has many consequences. Even though every individual experiences the drug differently, some of the most common risks associated with heroin include:

Drug Overdose

Overdose is one of the main consequences of heroin abuse. In 2019, more than 14,000 people in the United States died from drug overdoses involving heroin. After users experience heroin’s initial effects, the drug heats up their body, dehydrates their system, and slows their breathing and heart rate. Heroin overdose can happen when users consume an excessive amount of the drug in a short period of time or mix heroin with prescription medicines, other drugs, or alcohol. Individuals who have overdosed on heroin should be treated by medical personnel immediately or given naloxone, a medicine that blocks the effects of the drug.

Increased Risk of Infections and Diseases

Another consequence of heroin abuse is an increased risk of HIV, AIDS, and Hepatitis B and C. This risk is especially true for individuals who use needles to inject the drug into their veins or muscles. Sharing needles and other drug injection equipment can easily increase individuals’ risk of exposure to various diseases and infections. But individuals who smoke or snort heroin may also have an increased risk of contracting HIV/AIDS because they’re more likely to have unprotected sex while under the influence of the drug.

Neonatal Abstinence Withdrawal Syndrome

Women who abuse heroin can face challenges during pregnancy. Since the drug passes from the mother to the fetus through the placenta, the unborn child becomes dependent on the drug. When this happens, the child can develop neonatal abstinence syndrome (NAS), a group of problems that occur to newborns exposed to opioid drugs in their mother’s womb.

Organ Damage

A large portion of heroin bought on the street contains other substances. One of the most common substances mixed with heroin is fentanyl, a dangerous opioid that’s 50 to 100 times more potent than morphine. Street dealers combine fentanyl with heroin to save money. Unfortunately, the combination of the two drugs can be deadly. Heroin, fentanyl, and other drugs can clog the blood vessels leading to the lungs, liver, kidney, or brain, which can cause permanent damage to the organs.

Tolerance and Dependence

Using heroin can also result in tolerance and dependence. Tolerance happens when the body is consistently exposed to an addictive substance. When users develop a tolerance for heroin, the current dosage of the drug they consume doesn’t produce the same effects it once did. In other words, the individual’s body has become accustomed to a certain amount of heroin. In order to continue to feel the heroin’s effects, the individual has to consume more heroin, which can lead to dependence.

Dependence is different from tolerance. When individuals become dependent on heroin, their body operates as though they need the drug to function normally. When they don’t have heroin or suddenly decrease the amount of the drug they use, the body functions abnormally and triggers symptoms of withdrawal. When left untreated, tolerance and dependence can lead to addiction.

Understanding Heroin Addiction

Heroin is one of the world’s most addictive drugs. Like many addictive substances, heroin hijacks the brain. During this chemical takeover, the brain becomes convinced that heroin is an essential chemical. As a result, the brain becomes focused on getting high at all costs. This is why individuals go to extreme measures to obtain and ingest heroin.

This process begins in the limbic reward system. When individuals consume heroin, the drug increases the amount of dopamine released in the limbic reward system, the part of the brain responsible for pleasurable feelings. Heroin takes over the limbic reward system, producing an excessive amount of dopamine in the brain that triggers the rush of pleasure and euphoria users initially feel. After the rush, the brain, motivated by dopamine, convinces users to repeat that pleasure-inducing behavior.

As individuals continue to use heroin, their tolerance for the drug increases, convincing them to use even more of the drug to get the same pleasurable effect. Following that pattern of behavior leads to dependence. Once individuals are dependent on heroin, they need to use the drug to avoid symptoms of withdrawal. At this point, their heroin usage is compulsive. Even if they don’t want to continue using heroin, they need to continue their drug use unless they’re ready to face a wide range of withdrawal symptoms. Unfortunately, individuals that continue to use heroin despite negative consequences have, in fact, become addicted to the substance.

Signs and Symptoms of Heroin Use

Recognizing the signs and symptoms of heroin use can be challenging. For starters, heroin affects each individual differently. In addition, the signs and symptoms individuals experience typically depend on how long they’ve been using the drug and how much of the substance they’ve consumed. Some users experience mood symptoms, while others have behavioral and physical symptoms. Using heroin can also trigger psychological symptoms.

Even though the signs and symptoms of heroin use can vary from person to person, the most common include:

Mood symptoms which typically involve:

  • Anger
  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Irritability
  • Aggression
  • Mood swings
  • Unpredictable mood
  • Decreased ability to enjoy things

Behavioral symptoms that consist of:

  • Lying
  • Violence
  • Aggression
  • Skin picking
  • “Nodding off”
  • Slurred speech
  • Lack of self-control
  • Bursts of hyperactivity
  • An increased need for sleep
  • An unkempt appearance
  • Engaging in risky behaviors
  • Interpersonal problems
  • Loss of relationships
  • Problems at work or school
  • Hiding heroin in various places
  • An inability to fulfill life responsibilities
  • Changes in normal behavior patterns
  • An inability to interact normally with others
  • Wearing long sleeves or pants, even when the weather is warm

Physical symptoms that encompass:

  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Itching
  • Fatigue
  • Cravings
  • Dizziness
  • Headache
  • Dry mouth
  • Malnutrition
  • Runny nose
  • Feeling disoriented
  • Loss of self-control
  • Rapid weight loss
  • Injection site track marks
  • Scabs or bruises on the skin

Psychological and cognitive symptoms that typically involve:

  • Paranoia
  • Psychosis
  • Delusions
  • Hallucinations
  • Disorganized thoughts
  • Personality changes
  • Emotional numbness
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • An inability to think clearly
  • A decreased ability to make good decisions

Commonly Asked Questions About Heroin Addiction

Research consistently shows that using heroin can take a toll on the mind and body in a number of ways. But many people still don’t understand important details about the drug. That’s why we’ve put together a list of some of the most frequently asked questions about heroin addiction.

Q: Can you become addicted to heroin the first time you use the drug?

A: Heroin is a powerful drug that can cause dependence and addiction. Even though it’s unlikely that you will develop a full-blown addiction to heroin the first time you use the drug, that introductory experience can be the start of a pattern of use that leads to addiction. Generally, the more often you use heroin, the more rapidly your brain and nervous system adjust to the chemical changes the substance causes. If you don’t want to get addicted to heroin, you shouldn’t experiment with the drug.

Q: Why does heroin make you itch?

A: Using heroin can lead to many unpleasant side effects. One of those side effects is severe itching. There are a few reasons why heroin makes the body itch. When the body detects foreign chemicals, infectious microbes, or allergens, the immune system produces histamines, which cause inflammation and itching. Scientists believe the body can react to the chemicals within heroin like allergens or other foreign invaders. Heroin’s interaction with certain receptors in your skin can also trigger neurons to send signals to your brain, provoking feelings of itchiness. Lastly, injecting heroin into your skin can lead to injuries, abscesses, and skin infections that will likely itch as they try to heal. But heroin isn’t the only drug that makes people itch — all opioids can make you feel itchy.

Q: Does prescription misuse open the door to heroin addiction?

A: Many people assume that prescription pain relievers are safer than illicit drugs because they’re medically prescribed, but when users take prescription drugs in ways not intended by a doctor, these drugs can cause severe adverse health effects, addiction, overdose, and death. In fact, almost 50 percent of opioid deaths in the United States involve a prescription opioid. Since federal and local governments have started to crack down on prescription drug abuse, many people are starting to use heroin because the drug is cheaper and easier to obtain. So yes, prescription misuse doesn’t always lead to heroin addiction, but it certainly can.

Q: How addictive is heroin?

A: Heroin is one of the world’s most addictive drugs. A large portion of heroin’s addictiveness has to do with the drug’s effect on the brain. Heroin floods the brain with dopamine. Over time, the brain becomes accustomed to heroin being the source of dopamine and stops producing the brain chemical on its own. When this happens, heroin becomes the brain’s primary way to experience feelings of pleasure, so individuals keep consuming heroin to experience the intense feelings of pleasure the drug provides. Unfortunately, that leads to increased tolerance, dependence, and eventually addiction. The National Institute on Drug Abuse suggests that approximately 23 percent of people who use heroin become addicted to the drug. That’s almost equivalent to 1 in every 4 people.

Q: What does a heroin overdose feel like?

A: Overdose happens when people consume more of the drug than their bodies can handle. This generally occurs when people have already developed a tolerance for the drug. Their body, which has become accustomed to a certain amount of heroin, no longer responds to the drug like it used to. As a result, they consume more heroin to achieve their desired effects. In doing so, they can accidentally ingest more heroin than their body can process, causing an overdose.

A heroin overdose is a shocking, scary, and potentially deadly experience. Often individuals experience slow, shallow breathing, slurred speech, a weak pulse, and may shift in and out of consciousness. Their tongue may become discolored and their lips and nails may turn blue. They might vomit and may become unresponsive at some point. Sometimes, individuals experiencing heroin overdose have seizures, heart attack, stroke, or fall into a coma.

Overdosing on heroin is a medical emergency that can result in death if not treated immediately. If you suspect someone has overdosed on heroin, call 911 immediately or the national, toll-free Poison Help Hotline at 1-800-222-1222.

Q: Can heroin addiction lead to mental health disorders?

A: Using heroin can negatively affect your mental health. Researchers aren’t completely sure if using the drug can trigger mental health disorders, but there are several types of mental health disorders that are known to co-occur with heroin abuse and addiction, such as:

  • Bipolar disorder
  • Schizophrenia
  • Depressive disorders
  • Anxiety disorders
  • Oppositional defiant disorder
  • Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder
  • Antisocial personality disorder

Individuals should also know that heroin can cause psychosis, hallucinations, and delirium which can make drug users more prone to developing mental health disorders.

If you or a loved one are struggling with mental health challenges, contact the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) National Helpline at 1-800-662-4357.

How Is Heroin Addiction Treated?

Even though heroin is highly addictive, this substance use disorder is also treatable. That doesn’t mean individuals should try to quit heroin on their own, however. Many people who have attempted to quit heroin cold turkey have relapsed. In addition to being difficult, quitting heroin cold turkey can be quite dangerous. One of the most effective ways to treat heroin addiction instead is through a medically supervised detox program followed by medication-assisted treatment (MAT).

Medically Supervised Detox: A Safe and Effective Way To Quit Heroin

The drug rehabilitation process begins with detoxification or detox. During detox, the body removes all the heroin out of your system. Since the body has grown accustomed to the presence of heroin, no longer having the drug around can be quite shocking. Essentially, the body has to relearn how to function without heroin. This isn’t an easy process. The shock of such a sudden and drastic change triggers withdrawal symptoms which can be, at best, uncomfortable and, at worst, deadly. Medically supervised detox can help keep you safe, comfortable, and healthy throughout the detoxification process.

Medically supervised detox programs provide medical personnel to monitor your physical and emotional health. In addition to that, medically supervised detox provides:

  • Around-the-clock medical care
  • A clean, safe, and supportive environment
  • Medication to help ease withdrawal symptoms
  • Care for any mental health disorders individuals may have
  • Treatment for co-occurring disorders and diseases

Medically supervised detox also includes counseling support which can help make the detox experience much easier, safer, and more effective. Medically supervised detox can be especially helpful with managing symptoms of heroin withdrawal.

Heroin Withdrawal: Re-Establishing The Brain’s Chemical Balance

Although painful and distressing, the heroin withdrawal process helps normalize the brain’s delicate chemical balance. In short, the brain has to relearn how to function without heroin. Heroin withdrawal can be more intense than withdrawal from other drugs, including prescription painkillers. Heroin withdrawal symptoms also tend to occur more quickly than symptoms from other drugs.

Generally, heroin users start to experience withdrawal symptoms 6 to 12 hours after their last dose of heroin. Although symptoms can last for up to a week, they usually peak during the second or third day of detox.

The symptoms of heroin withdrawal can be different for everyone, but they usually include:

  • Insomnia
  • Agitation
  • Diarrhea
  • Sweating
  • Anxiety
  • Muscle aches
  • Abdominal cramping
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Bone pain
  • Cold flashes
  • Cravings
  • Nervousness
  • Muscle spasms and involuntary movements

The amount of time needed for heroin withdrawal depends on several factors, including the:

  • Length of time an individual abused heroin
  • Amount of heroin consumed each time
  • Frequency of heroin consumption
  • Method an individual used to take heroin
  • Presence of any underlying medical or mental health issues

Sometimes, people recovering from heroin use experience post-acute withdrawal symptoms (PAWS). These symptoms, which can last anywhere from 18 to 24 months, can include:

  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Fatigue
  • Panic attacks
  • Hypersensitivity
  • Irritability
  • Mood swings
  • Restlessness
  • Memory loss

Fortunately, as time passes and the individual remains drug free, the symptoms typically diminish.

Here’s a common timeline of heroin withdrawal:

  • Days 1-2: Anxiety, panic attacks, insomnia, shaking, and diarrhea
  • Days 3-5: Abdominal cramping, sweating, shivers, nausea, and vomiting
  • Days 6-7: Muscle aches and nausea start to taper off. Individuals start to feel more normal although they may still feel tired and worn down
  • PAWS: Individuals continue to deal with anxiety, depression, fatigue, insomnia, and irritability for months after acute withdrawal symptoms diminish

While this part of the process may not feel like treatment, eliminating drugs from the body is one of the first and most important steps toward sobriety. Fortunately, medically supervised detox programs include medications that can help ease the discomfort associated with heroin withdrawal.

Medications Used To Help Ease Heroin Detox and Withdrawal

Medications approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) can help ease withdrawal symptoms and normalize the brain’s chemical balance. These medications interact with the same opioid receptors as heroin, but they are safer to use and less likely to produce harmful addictive behaviors. The medications fall into 1 of 3 categories:

  • Agonists activate opioid receptors like heroin would but are less habit-forming
  • Partial agonists activate opioid receptors but produce a smaller response than agonists
  • Antagonists block the receptor and stop the rewarding effects of opioids

The most commonly used medicines in medically supervised detox programs include:

  • Methadone is a slow-acting opioid agonist. Methadone works by changing how the brain and nervous system respond to pain. Essentially, the medicine lessens the painful symptoms of withdrawal and blocks the euphoric effects of heroin. Methadone can produce a high, but researchers have found that taking the medication orally helps dampen this effect. Only approved outpatient treatment programs can provide methadone.
  • Buprenorphine is a partial opioid agonist. This medicine works by binding to opioid receptors in the brain and preventing other opioids from being able to attach to opioid receptors, stopping individuals from getting “high.” Buprenorphine fulfills an individual’s need for an opioid, which helps relieve drug cravings.
  • Naltrexone is an opioid antagonist. Naltrexone blocks the euphoric effects of opioids and decreases cravings and the urge to use heroin.

After individuals successfully complete the heroin detoxification process, they should enroll in a professional addiction treatment program that consists of behavioral therapy, clinical services, and aftercare support.

Behavioral Therapies Used To Treat Heroin Addiction

There are many different types of behavioral therapies that can help effectively treat heroin addiction. Many drug rehabilitation programs use evidence-based therapies such as cognitive-behavioral therapy, dialectical behavioral therapy, and contingency management to treat heroin addiction. However, holistic therapies that focus on exercise, healthy eating, and mindfulness can also help individuals overcome addiction challenges.

Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT)

Cognitive-behavior therapy works to help change individuals’ mindsets. CBT is based on the idea that thoughts determine feelings which, in turn, become behaviors. By helping individuals identify and change harmful thought patterns that cause them to use heroin, cognitive-behavioral therapy can help individuals deal with distressing emotions and situations without turning to heroin.

Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT)

Dialectical behavior therapy helps individuals deal with painful emotions that lead to self-destructive behaviors. Many people who use heroin do so to escape some type of pain. DBT can help individuals endure distressing moments without turning to harmful habits like heroin abuse. Dialectical behavior therapy can also help individuals regulate their emotions, cope with their reality in a more positive way, and build healthy relationships. DBT can be especially helpful for individuals recovering from heroin addiction while living with depression, anxiety, bipolar, or borderline personality disorder.

Contingency Management

Contingency management is a behavioral therapy technique that uses motivational incentives and tangible rewards to help a person become abstinent from drugs or alcohol. This form of therapy relies on the idea that humans, by nature, pursue activities and behaviors that create a sense of reward, a behavior known as positive reinforcement. Contingency management helps individuals switch the positive reinforcement they receive from heroin to other incentives and tangible rewards. As individuals earn “points” for negative drug tests, participation in group meetings, and job interviews, they become motivated by healthier items, goals, and incentives.

Holistic Therapy

Even though holistic therapy isn’t a primary form of addiction treatment, healing the mind, body, and soul can help individuals recovering from addiction challenges experience a more comprehensive form of wellness.

Here at Meta, our mission is to empower individuals to take charge of their recovery. Often that means engaging in holistic therapy that includes:

  • Mindfulness meditation
  • Yoga and other forms of exercise
  • Nutritional counseling
  • Art and music therapy

Heroin is a highly addictive drug that can produce temporary feelings of pleasure, but ultimately does more harm than good. Abusing heroin can lead to kidney and liver disease, organ damage, cognitive decline, an increased risk of HIV/AIDS and Hepatitis B and C, overdose, and death. Luckily, heroin addiction can be treated.

Detox and addiction treatment that includes behavioral therapy, clinical support, peer support meetings, lifestyle changes, and aftercare support can help individuals recover from heroin abuse. Here at Meta, we specialize in outpatient addiction treatment. Our flexible treatment programs can help individuals get their life back on track and maintain many aspects of their daily lives. We also offer:

Heroin addiction doesn’t have to continue to affect you or a loved one’s life. Let us help you or a loved one get on the road to recovery. Contact us today to learn more about how we can help.