Heroin Signs of Use and Side Effects

Heroin is an opioid-based drug that’s synthesized from morphine. Many components of heroin abuse are shared with prescription opioid dependence, but heroin has a deadly culture all its own. Signs of heroin use are not always easily identified.

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Signs of Heroin Use

Because heroin is an illicit drug with no medical indications, any use of heroin is considered heroin abuse. Dependence and addiction occur relatively quickly with this drug, and they can become concurrent problems. That means dependence can lead to addiction, although one doesn’t have to be addicted to heroin to become physically dependent.

The body becomes accustomed to the presence of heroin in the system and ceases to function properly without it. Abruptly stopping heroin use leads to withdrawal symptoms which are painful and unpleasant enough to make continuing the cycle of use preferable to quitting. When dependence is accompanied by addiction, ceaseless cravings for the drug can consume one’s life.

Among the first signs of heroin use is a mild euphoria that’s quickly followed by “nodding out”. Users appear to fall asleep for brief periods even while sitting and talking to someone. They’ll seem confused and slur their words, and it isn’t uncommon for them to crash out for a little while. Mild or recreational use can be masked for a long time, with users appearing to function normally at work and in social situations.

Eventually, the euphoric feeling fades as tolerance builds, and more heroin is needed to get the same effects. Most heroin abusers reach the point where using doesn’t provide any pleasure. It’s simply a means of trying to feel normal because their brain function is altered by the drug.

Signs of habitual heroin use are more social and financial. Heroin users often turn to crime to support their habits, drop old friends, and damage important relationships. Their appearance changes, too. Hygiene may fall by the wayside, and weight loss is common. They’ll develop open sores on the arms and legs from infected injection sites, and track marks will appear. These are scar-like marks on the arms caused by collapsing veins. Itchy skin and rashes develop, and the person may sweat excessively.

The Effects of Heroin Abuse

Heroin side effects are physical and psychological, and they become more pronounced the longer the drug is abused. The ultimate side effect is an overdose on heroin. A heroin overdose can happen at any time regardless of the duration or severity of use. Skin infections from track marks are common with intravenous use, which also correlates to rates of infectious diseases like HIV/AIDS and hepatitis types B and C from sharing needles. Pregnant women who use heroin are more likely to miscarry, deliver early, or experience stillbirths. Their babies can also be born with neonatal abstinence syndrome (NAS), a form of drug withdrawal suffered by newborns of addicted mothers. Children born with this syndrome must be treated for withdrawal, and they may experience developmental delays, behavior problems, and brain damage.

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Short-Term Effects of Heroin Use

In the short term, heroin side effects include alteration in brain chemistry and function, personality changes, and anti-social behavior. More specifically, one of the chief short-term effects of heroin is how the brain receives and processes information related to pain and pleasure. 

The drug binds to opioid receptors in the brain, which convert it back to morphine. This causes a flood of endorphins and an initial rush of euphoria, followed by a heavy sensation in the limbs, extreme drowsiness, and incoherence. Impaired respiration and heart function, dehydration, and nausea or vomiting follow. Repeated use alters the release of chemicals that control emotion and pain response. It also affects how the limbic system functions. Brain dysfunction can only be reversed with total abstinence from using heroin.

Long Term Effects of Heroin Use

The long-term effects of heroin on the brain and body can become irreversible even after treatment. White matter in the brain can deteriorate, permanently affecting decision-making abilities, emotional response, and self-control. Long-term users develop chronic constipation, depressed respiration, and sexual dysfunction in men or disrupted menstrual cycles in women. Infections in the lining of the lungs leads to frequent bouts of lung infection and pneumonia.

Intravenous drug users experience collapsed or weak veins and skin infections. Those who snort heroin will experience damage to the mucous membranes and nasal passages. Because heroin can be mixed with any number of substances, impurities can cause blocked veins and damage to internal organs. The heart valves, liver, and kidneys are especially susceptible.

Withdrawal symptoms occur within 24 hours of abstinence, resulting in stomach cramps, muscle pain and weakness, headache, and irritability. It’s the intensity of these symptoms that lead to continued use. Severely addicted individuals may need long-term medical maintenance support with methadone or suboxone to prevent relapse.

The Risk of Heroin Overdose

Heroin isn’t manufactured in a nice, clean lab with protocols and quality controls in place. That means the quality and purity differ greatly from batch to batch even when the source is the same. The strength depends on the amount of narcotic in the dose. User response and overdose risk are determined by strength, the frequency of use, and whether other drugs are mixed in with the heroin.

This makes the risk of heroin overdose higher than with other drugs; it’s not uncommon for someone to come out of rehab and OD on their first use when a relapse occurs. Tolerance is another risk factor for overdose, as the amount of the drug needed to obtain the desired effect changes, but the lethal amount doesn’t. Fast-acting, overdose-reversing drugs like Narcan are saving lives.

Heroin and Other Drugs

The common practice of cutting heroin with other drugs not only changes the nature of the side effects of heroin, it also increases the risk of death. Two commonly used substances are cocaine and meth, which are both powerful stimulants. The practice of cutting coke with heroin without the user’s knowledge is one cause of accidental overdose. Cocaine has a shorter half-life than heroin, and the urge to use more occurs sooner. This leads to an overdose on heroin as it builds to potentially lethal levels with each hit of adulterated coke.

Newer on the list of lethal drug interactions that lead to a heroin overdose is the introduction of fentanyl to the mix. This cheap, synthetic opiate is used to cut heroin, but it’s anywhere from 50 to 100 times more potent per dose than any other drug in this class. One use can be fatal, as proved by the latest statistics on drug overdose deaths.

How to Get Help for Heroin Addiction

There are numerous treatment facilities that provide medically assisted treatment (MAT) for heroin addiction. It’s used in conjunction with a range of therapies to deal with the underlying issues related to drug addiction. Medical care is available to address health problems caused by heroin addiction. By law, medical insurance must cover all or part of the cost of substance abuse treatment programs. Long time and severely addicted individuals also have medical maintenance support available to prevent relapse. Aftercare is critical to long-term recovery.

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