Heroin Addiction: Signs, Symptoms, & When To Get Help

Are you unsure whether you or your loved one is struggling with heroin addiction? Read below to learn how to spot the warning signs.

Understanding Heroin Addiction

Learn about heroin addiction

Heroin is commonly known for its dangerously addictive properties. When people consume heroin, they become overcome with feelings of euphoria, pleasure, and a sense of detachment from their surroundings. These feelings of pleasure often cause them to keep using this substance, increasing their risk for developing an addiction to it. Despite the pleasurable feelings that heroin elicits, the detriments of its use are much more severe. All areas of a person’s life can be negatively impacted when acquiring, consuming, and recovering from the use of heroin becomes his or her main priority. The longer that the abuse of heroin continues, the more likely it is that a person will develop a tolerance to it, followed up by the onset of chemical dependency, which means that his or her body no longer is able to function unless heroin is present. As soon as this dependency has developed, it can be increasingly challenging to defeat it without receiving treatment.


Heroin addiction statistics

Extensive research has offered evidence that approximately 13.5 million people worldwide abuse opioids, with an approximated 9.2 million using heroin. The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) reports that 1.8% of people between ages 18 and 25 have abused heroin, and roughly 2% of individuals aged 25 and older have abused the drug.

Causes and Risk Factors

Causes and risk factors for heroin addiction

There are many causes and risk factors that can impact a person’s chances of becoming addicted to heroin. Some of these factors are discussed below:

Genetic: Addictions have been considered to have a genetic link for a long time. Those who have family members who abused or who were addicted to heroin are more likely to battle with similar concerns than those who do not have the same history within their families.

Environmental: Specific environmental factors can increase one’s vulnerability for starting to experiment with the use of heroin. For example, those who are surrounded by others, including friends and family, who abuse substances such as heroin are more likely to partake in the behavior themselves than they would if they did not have this type of exposure. In addition, experiencing a traumatic event or being the victim of abuse or neglect can lead people to look for substances to abuse.

Risk Factors:

  • Having a low self-esteem
  • Chronic exposure to violence, crime, and stress
  • Possessing a novelty-seeking temperament
  • Possessing an impulsive personality
  • Having experienced a trauma
  • Personal history of abusing other substances
  • Ease of availability in obtaining heroin
  • Associating with peers who use heroin or other substances
  • Family history of substance abuse

Signs and Symptoms

Signs and symptoms of heroin addiction

The signs and symptoms that might be shown by someone who is battling heroin use disorder will vary from user to user, however they might include the following: Behavioral symptoms:

  • Wearing long-sleeved shirts or long pants, even when the weather in warm, in order to hide track marks from where the substance has been injected
  • Suicidal behaviors
  • Decline in occupational performance
  • Social withdrawal and isolation
  • Using heroin in situations where it is physically hazardous to do so, such as while operating a vehicle
  • Failing to put an end to the use of heroin despite frequent attempts to do so
  • No longer participating in activities that one once enjoyed
  • Frequent absenteeism from work
  • Using heroin in greater quantities or with more frequency than one initially intended
  • Failing to adhere to social, familial, personal, and occupational responsibilities

Physical symptoms:

  • Dry mouth
  • Noticeable weight loss
  • Frequent bruising or scabbing of the skin
  • Persistent flu-like symptoms
  • Constipation
  • Runny nose

Cognitive symptoms:

  • Inability to use sound judgment and reason
  • Inability to think clearly
  • Suicidal ideation
  • Confusion
  • Concentration difficulties

Psychosocial symptoms:

  • Hostility
  • Excitability
  • Anxiety
  • Frequent mood swings
  • Loss of interest in things that one once found enjoyable
  • Depression


Effects of heroin addiction

When individuals fail to obtain treatment for a heroin addiction, they are putting themselves at risk for experiencing a variety of detriments that have the capability to cause devastation in all areas of their lives. Some examples of these effects can include:

  • Homelessness
  • Onset of self-harming behaviors
  • Occupational failure
  • Financial strife
  • Interaction with the legal system
  • Incarceration
  • Lost friendships
  • Demise of marriages or partnerships
  • Loss of child custody

In addition, chronic heroin abuse can destroy the physical and mental health of those who consume it. Some of these detriments can include the following:

  • Stroke
  • Onset of new, or worsening of current, mental illness symptoms
  • Chronic suicidal ideation
  • Scars from injecting the substance intravenously
  • Contraction of viruses, such as HIV/AIDS, hepatitis, cellulitis, tuberculosis, and endocarditis
  • Clogged blood vessels
  • Erectile dysfunction in males
  • Disturbances of reproductive functioning, including irregular menses, in women
  • Seizures
  • Heart attack
  • Perforation of the nasal septum from snorting the substance
  • Irreversible cognitive impairment
  • Organ damage


Signs, symptoms, and effects of heroin withdrawal

When chronic heroin use is suddenly ceased, there is the possibility that withdrawal symptoms will develop. This period of withdrawal occurs as the body works to regulate itself once again to the way in which it functioned prior to the abuse of heroin. This withdrawal process can be very uncomfortable, and, in some cases, dangerous. Some signs and symptoms that might indicate that someone is struggling with heroin withdrawal can include:

  • Fever
  • Insomnia
  • Vomiting
  • Excessive sweating
  • Yawning
  • Feelings of restlessness
  • Intense cravings for heroin
  • Watery eyes and runny nose
  • Diarrhea
  • Bone pain
  • Abdominal cramping
  • Muscle pain


Signs, symptoms, and effects of heroin overdose

An overdose occurs when an individual ingests more heroin than his or her body is able to safely process. In some instances, the body will work to adjust to the excessive amount of the substance by excreting it, usually through vomiting. But this attempt is not always successful, leaving the person in a state of emergency. If a person shows any of the following symptoms, it should be viewed as a warning sign that an overdose has occurred and that medical attention is needed as soon as possible:

  • Seizures
  • Stroke
  • Extreme drowsiness
  • Tongue discoloration
  • Heart attack
  • Coma
  • Muscle spasms
  • Lips turning a bluish color
  • Disorientation
  • Labored breathing
  • Constricted pupils
  • Weakened pulse
  • Hypotension

Co-Occurring Disorders

Heroin addiction and co-occurring disorders

Sadly, it is not uncommon for individuals who are addicted to heroin to also be struggling with symptoms of other mental health conditions at the same time. Some examples of disorders that are known to occur alongside of heroin use disorder include:

  • Persistent depressive disorder
  • Posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
  • Conduct disorder
  • Major depressive disorder
  • Antisocial personality disorder
  • Other substance use disorders
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