America has a devastating opioid problem, and heroin rates continue to rise every year, with about a million people using it in the past year. Heroin, of course, has its distinct, life-threatening risks. Every use results in potentially fatal consequences. Furthermore, as more and more drug dealers lace heroin with harder, cheaper substances like fentanyl, the risk for overdosing continues to remain incredibly high.

But how fast does one get addicted to heroin? Can the ‘obsession’ happen after just the first use? Or, is it more of a progressive, downward spiral? Let’s dig in.

Why Heroin Can Be So Addictive

All opioids have the potential for misuse. That’s because opioids act directly on the opioid receptors in the brain. These receptors control both pain and pleasure. Thus, taking opioids can help mitigate pain. Abusing them, however, can result in feelings of pleasure and even euphoria.

Many people describe ‘rush’ of heroin as better than any other sensation they’ve ever experienced. This is not to glorify the drug, but rather to shed light on the dangerous culprit that often causes the insidious addiction cycle.

When people first start taking opioids, they often start feeling those pleasurable experiences immediately. However, with time, the body develops a tolerance to the drug. This tolerance means that the person needs to take more and more of the substance to achieve favorable outcomes.

Understanding Tolerance

Tolerance is one of the dangerous cornerstones of any addiction. Opioid tolerance happens as the opioid receptors become gradually less responsive to opioid stimulation. In neurological terms, the brain requires more opioids to stimulate the VTA brain cells of the mesolimbic reward system.

Tolerance varies from person to person, and there are a variety of factors that appear to explain these differences. For example, genetics play a significant role in determining how each person’s body reacts to substances like alcohol and other drugs. Likewise, variables such as age, sex, and history of drug use may also impact tolerance. Finally, the route of administration (i.e., injected, smoked, snorted) can also make a difference.

That said, tolerance tends to propel the addiction. It often leads people to take serious risks to obtain the drug. To fund the habit, people may steal money from local establishments or loved ones, engage in prostitution, panhandle, or participate in dangerous criminal activities. Likewise, to maintain the cycle of using, people often must sacrifice other important elements of life, such as relationships, work, or school.

Many people who are addicted to heroin want to quit. That said, once dependent on opioids, people enter withdrawal once they stop taking the drug. Heroin withdrawal is one of the most challenging physical and emotional experiences a person can undergo.

Understanding Withdrawal

Heroin withdrawal can emerge in as little as 6-12 hours after the last heroin dose. The symptoms tend to start as mildly distressing. However, they peak in intensity within 2-3 days before tapering at around 5-10 days.

While each person has a varying severity of symptoms, withdrawal can be both painful and uncomfortable, with symptoms including:

  • Muscle and bone aches
  • Acute body pain
  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Flu-like, feverish symptoms
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Diarrhea and other gastrointestinal problems
  • Intense cravings for opioids
  • Sleep problems

Because withdrawal can be so difficult, many people relapse during this time. The relapse leads to a vicious cycle of continued addiction.

A young woman worried about her heroin use

How Fast Does Addiction Happen?

Although it’s a simple question, there isn’t a right, one-size-fits-all answer. Addiction looks different for everyone. Likewise, tolerance has individual effects on each person.

For example, some people experiment with opioids for several years before meeting the actual criteria for a substance use disorder. They may use opioids to compound or counteract the effects of other substances. Others report “falling in love” with heroin after the very first try, resulting in a quick and tumultuous decline.

Starting With Painkillers

Heroin usually isn’t the first opioid people try. Many people struggling with heroin addiction began using prescription painkillers before using the illicit substance.

These painkillers include the following medications:

Painkiller misuse is a devastating epidemic in our country, and it currently represents upwards of 75% of the overall prescription addiction phenomenon in America. Currently, 10% of high school seniors report abusing prescription painkillers.

While most painkillers are intended for short-term relief, they can also be incredibly habit-forming. People can and do develop a tolerance to these medications. As a result, they experience withdrawal effects once they stop taking the prescription.

Generally speaking, it is more challenging and costly to obtain painkillers than heroin. Up until just a few years ago, many people “doctor-shopped” to receive more medication. Today, however, in response to the addiction epidemic, most healthcare companies and physicians have cracked down on their opioid prescriptions.

While these crackdown efforts impact future addiction progression, they leave thousands of addicted Americans in a vulnerable position. Without access to their medication, many of these people turn to heroin as a cheaper and easier alternative.

Becoming Psychologically Addicted

As mentioned, people become physically addicted to heroin. That said, if physical addiction were the only issue, a simple detox would be sufficient for recovery. However, research continues to emphasize the alarmingly high relapse heroin rates, even after a successful detox episode. That’s because the emotional and psychological crutches of heroin maybe even more difficult to untangle than the physical symptoms.

Heroin affects one’s physical, emotional, and psychological well-being. Most people struggling with addiction experience tremendous guilt, shame, and humiliation over their struggles. They may withdraw or isolate from loved ones. They may face serious legal, financial, or medical consequences as a result of their lifestyle.

Furthermore, heroin use can become an all-encompassing venture. People spend a great deal of time trying to obtain, use, and hide the substance. They engage in risky and compulsive behaviors. They often neglect other physical and emotional needs to maintain their addiction.

Thus, the psychological component of recovery may seem like a foreign and strange concept. Many people feel afraid to surrender their coping mechanism or escape. They worry about being able to handle the magnitude of life’s problems without their crutch. They worry about facing stigma, judgment, and criticism if they seek help for their problems.

The first days of initial recovery can be incredibly hard. Even with the drug out of your system, you may feel anxious or depressed. You may experience intense cravings that seem unbearable. You may feel strange or socially awkward around loved ones. These symptoms represent some of the psychological cycles of heroin addiction.

A woman gets help for her heroin use

Getting Help For Heroin Addiction

While the decision to seek help for heroin addiction isn’t an easy one, it may be the choice that ultimately saves your life. If untreated, heroin use often continues to escalate, which results in more consequences for both you and your loved ones.

Professional treatment can help you find a healthier and happier way of living. It can also provide you with the resources and tools you need to manage a sustainable life in recovery.

Medical Detox

Withdrawal symptoms can be extremely dangerous. While detoxing from heroin is not inherently fatal, certain complications (co-occurring disorders, medical conditions, health status) can cause life-threatening issues. Medical detox provides a secure environment throughout both the intoxication and withdrawal phases.

The length of your detox depends on several variables including:

  • Severity and frequency of drug use
  • Other polysubstance (alcohol, benzodiazepine, stimulant) use
  • Medical health status
  • Psychiatric conditions
  • History of previous detoxes

That said, detox provides 24/7 support and stabilization for people struggling with heroin addiction. You will receive the appropriate psychiatric and medical services needed to ensure a comfortable stay. You may also receive detox medication ease some of the distressing withdrawal symptoms.

Addiction Treatment

Although detox provides acute stabilization, it should not be considered a form of viable treatment. Most people need structured, long-term aftercare to learn the appropriate coping skills and relapse prevention techniques.

The length of addiction treatment will depend based on the severity of your addiction, the presence of co-occurring conditions, and other environmental factors (family support, career considerations, legal issues).

In treatment, you will learn more about yourself, others, and your addiction. You will learn how to identify triggers, manage cravings, and build a more sustainable life free from heroin.

Final Thoughts

Heroin addiction can be devastating for both you and your loved ones. Even if it may seem impossible, help and recovery are available. At Stepping Stone Center For Recovery, we are passionate about providing our clients with quality, evidence-based treatment. If you are ready to take that next step, then we are ready to support you. Reach out today to learn more about our admissions process.