What is Heroin?

Heroin is classified as an opioid, a type of drug which eases the pain. It derives from morphine, which comes from opium poppy seedpods. These plants are grown in various parts of the world including several countries in Asia, Mexico, Columbia and the U.S.  Opium flowers aren’t difficult to grow as they live in temperate climates and can thrive in subtropical and tropical regions. Obtaining seeds to grow these plats are not illegal, and many seed catalogs will list the Papaver somniferum, the plant which makes the seeds from which morphine can be cultivated from. However, it gets into a grey area once the plant is grown, as the DEA has it listed as an illegal plant and schedule II drug. Heroin can be distributed in a white or brownish color, or a sticky black substance. A person may sniff, smoke or inject the drug and also mix it with other drugs. Heroin is a drug which is considered a rapid “brain changer” and enters the system quickly as it affects heart rate, feelings of pain and pleasure, and sleep. Heroin is often “cut” with other substances and additives such as powdered milk, sugar or starch. These can lead to severe or permanent damage to internal organs. There is also a significant risk from needle sharing to contract diseases like hepatitis and HIV.

Points to Understand about Heroin

  • A mixture of heroin with other drugs and injecting is called speedballing or hotshots when mixed with cocaine or methamphetamine.
  • People using heroin feel euphoric and get a “rush” from the drug, which then diminishes over hours.
  • Heroin is relatively cheap to buy.
  • Using heroin long term can cause many health complications including collapsed veins, abscesses, internal infections and contagious diseases.
  • Many people start using heroin after getting prescribes prescription painkillers that they build a tolerance to.
  • There has been a large increase in the percentage of white, middle-class women using heroin in the last five years. This population has shown the biggest expansion of this drug in the US.
  • It is easy to overdose on heroin.
  • Becoming addicted to heroin is easy.
  • Withdrawal from heroin includes symptoms of joint pain, nausea, problems sleeping, sweating, severe body aches, and cravings.
  • Treatment plans are often individualized to assist people addicted to heroin.
  • Some people try and detox from heroin on their own without the assistance of treatment program.
  • It is hard to detox from heroin, especially alone and can cause severe body pains, restlessness, and nausea.

 Short-Term Effects of Heroin Use

  • “Cotton” or dry mouth
  • The heaviness of the limbs
  • Impaired mental ability
  • Nodding out
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Severe itching, sometimes feelings of subdermal
  • Skin feeling warm, heart flushing
  • Euphoric rush

Long-Term Effects

Long-term health effects may include:

  • Sleep disorders
  • Collapsed or damaged veins for IV users
  • Nose tissue damage
  • Heart valve damage
  • Internal organ breakdown
  • Digestive problems
  • Lung and breathing issues
  • Mental disorders
  • Physical abscesses over the body
  • Impotence or sexual dysfunction
  • Irregular menstrual cycles
  • HIV/Hepatitis contractions (needle sharing)
  • Poor communication
  • Loss of appetite/weight loss

How Addictive is Heroin?

Putting it simply: heroin is a highly addictive drug. Like other opioids (painkillers), people who use heroin develop a tolerance to it and subsequently need more amounts, more often to obtain the same feelings and effects. When it is classified as a clinically diagnosed substance use disorder is when using it causes health issues, affects productivity at work, interrupts familial responsibilities, causes relationship dysfunctions, changes behaviors, and/or financial responsibilities and obligations. The diagnosis is classified in a range of mild, moderate and severe abuse. Many users fear to stop because of the intense withdrawal process.

How do Treatment Centers Help Heroin Addiction?

Many treatment centers are well=equipped to handle withdrawal, detox, and long-term care for the heroin addict. An integrative approach to helping treat the client is often used, which includes behavioral modification techniques, psychoeducational sessions, nutritional balancing, case management, peer support, individual and group therapies and most importantly: continued care. Many heroin addicts will relapse at times of transitioning home or away from treatment centers, so it is of the utmost importance to have a solid support group and treatment plan when leaving a treatment center.

Heroin Addiction in Treatment

Although some people still think they can “kick” the heroin habit on their own, it is extremely rare and can be very dangerous. Attending a rehab program that understands the complexities of heroin addiction is the safest and best chance for long-term recovery. Treatment facilities will provide emotional, psychological and medical support through detox, withdrawals, and physical stabilization in the initial days of programming. They will assist in behavioral changes, create a treatment plan, a continued care plan, and help break the cyclical “rollercoaster” of addiction. Having a team of people support a heroin addict through the process of recovery is key to sustaining abstinence from the drug and its cravings. Being at a treatment center greatly helps with the addict not returning to use while they are going through uncomfortable physical and emotional changes. If a heroin addict has gone through detox and withdrawal on their own, they will still need much-continued support. Many treatment centers have intensive outpatient programs (IOP) that can assist with the needs of the recovering addict who lives at home, attends school, or is working.  Many centers have options to attend IOP’s during daytime or nighttime hours. Many addicts who want to make the necessary changes in the safest and most stable environment admit to a residential treatment facility. People living in a destructive or dysfunctional living environment, finding that obtaining the drug is too accessible, or just need to get away from the surrounding triggers should consider residential treatment. Some treatment centers will only focus on heroin addiction, while others are fully equipped to handle all substance addictions, including multiple substance abuse.

Heroin Withdrawal

Heroin is a substance that strongly affects a person physically. Between use, or in detox, withdrawal from the drug is an inevitable part of the using cycle. Withdrawal symptoms are quite uncomfortable and often lead to continued use or relapse. Physical withdrawal symptoms include strong cravings, heavy sweating, nausea and digestive issues, body aches, joint pain, chills, and fever-like symptoms. Emotional and psychological withdrawal effects include anxiety, sleep disturbances, suicidal thoughts, hallucinations, and depression. Some centers will stabilize a client through the detox process by the use of lesser opioids, in order for them to “taper” off the stronger drug. These include Suboxone, naltrexone, buprenorphine and the controversial methadone treatment.  After the body adjusts to the taper, the client will then have to detox from these drugs, which may take a week or more. Tapering helps the body adjust gradually and not having to “cold turkey” heroin withdrawal is helpful for the addict’s cravings and physical effects to reduce. The body will eventually not need the drug and there will be only mild withdrawal symptoms. Methadone is not always used because it is a substance that the body also builds a tolerance for and a person can become addicted to it in place of heroin. While there are some people who believe that “methadone maintenance” is being clean from heroin, others do not deem it as being clean at all. There are some medications being developed to help with heroin withdrawal which are non-opioids such as lofexidine. A person can check with the medical staff at a center to see if this will be available. After detox is completed, the client will receive in-patient care and medical monitoring as there are times when withdrawal can occur later in the residential phase, though this is commonly more psychological and emotional issues, such as mood swings, irritability and “ghost” symptoms. During an in-patient treatment program for heroin addiction, a person will work with a qualified team of people to get to the underlying causes of the disease. Finding the reasons for using and learning new skills for ways to cope in recovery will be part of the residential program. Staying in residential treatment and IOP for as long as possible increases the chances for long-term recovery. A client in recovery from heroin addiction at treatment centers will receive individual and group therapy, family therapy, and medical monitoring. It is determined by the diagnostics of substance abuse criteria that a person who has 12 months of consecutive abstinence is considered stable. Therefore, attending a residential treatment center and following the aftercare protocols will help achieve staying sober for a longer length of time. Working with therapists and certified drug counselors to find and change the core beliefs of addiction will be an integral component of treatment used directly for relapse prevention. The heroin addict must have continued care in place for at least 6 months post-treatment as the next step in their recovery process to maintain a drug-free life. Detox and residential treatment can be expensive, though most insurance companies cover the majority of costs. There may be co-pays and out of pocket costs for some medications or specialized treatment. You’ll need to check with an admissions person to see what your coverage will be prior to admittance. If a person doesn’t have insurance, they can pay cash, which ranges from $600 -$3000 a day depending on the program. There are free of charge clinics in some cities, though they will generally have a long waiting list. Showing up and waiting in the lobby or calling in on a daily basis to see if there is a bed available is customary for people who aren’t able to pay but need help. Being an addict without insurance will make finding a treatment center a little more challenging, but not impossible. It is not uncommon that the wait list will shorten due to other people changing their minds and not showing up. Consistently calling or showing up to find availability is the best bet for someone without monetary means to get help. Intervention therapies in treatment centers commonly use Cognitive Behavioral (CBT) and Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT), experiential therapies and case management for an integrative model of heroin addiction recovery. Structural Family Therapy, psychodynamic, logotherapy and others may be incorporated and adjusted for the individual needs of the recovering addict.