Heroin Addiction & Abuse

Learn more about heroin addiction, signs, symptoms & treatment options

If you or a loved one is suffering from heroin (diamorphine) addiction, we can assure you there is hope for a permanent recovery. Heroin addiction won’t go away by itself, but with the right help and support from addiction specialists you can look forward to a new life without heroin.

Why Is Heroin So Addictive?

Heroin is an opiate, and as such, it is a psychoactive drug that attaches to specific receptors in the brain and increases the amount of dopamine (the “feel-good hormone”) released within our bodies. This leads to a more intense high than you could naturally experience without a stimulus. After you take heroin, your brain craves that intensity and seeks to re-experience it. (1)

Long-term heroin use can also prevent the brain from producing dopamine naturally because it now relies on the drug for dopamine production. As a result, many people who suffer from heroin addiction become depressed when they don’t take it. This creates an even more intense craving for the drug. (2)

Heroin has a particularly fast-acting mechanism, and users usually feel its effects quickly. The actual effects of heroin last only for two to six minutes, whereas controlled opiates like morphine have a half-life of one-and-a-half to seven hours. Because of this, people feel the need to use heroin multiple times a day to maintain its effect. (3)

A man with heroin on a spoon
Risk Factors on letters

What Causes Heroin Addiction?

Like all drug addictions, it’s just as impossible to name one single cause for heroin addiction. Anyone can become addicted to heroin due to its highly addictive nature, although there are some risk factors that may be important in order to make the difference between trying, abusing and being addicted to heroin. The commonly recognised risk factors include your environment, genetics, gender, age, repeated exposure and family history.

Environmental factors

The environment you live in has a considerable impact on your attitude towards drugs. If you live in an area where heroin use is common, and the drug is easily accessible, then your risk of developing an addiction is higher. Additionally, if your friends, or family members, use heroin, you are more likely to feel attracted towards the effects of the drug. It is also common for friends and peers to pressure people into taking heroin for the first time, particularly younger individuals. Sometimes, this is also a strategy used by dealers – becoming friends with more vulnerable individuals and using this friendship to sell drugs.

Stress caused by work, school, relationships or mental health conditions can also predispose you to heroin addiction. Heroin creates a false and very harmful feeling of pleasure, peace and satisfaction, so people who are unhappy or stressed are more likely to find heroin’s effects attractive. (4) However, keep in mind that these emotions are false, and once the effects are gone, within minutes after using, the emotional and even physical crash is very strong.

Genetic factors

Unfortunately, some people inherit a genetic disposition to drug use. It is widely believed that certain chemicals are responsible for your susceptibility to drug addiction and the genes that create these chemicals are hereditary. If you are born with these chemicals in your brain, once you have made the decision to try heroin initially, it may be harder for you to stop. Consequently, you are also at a higher risk of drug addiction if you have a family history of substance abuse. (4)

Additionally, if a mother uses heroin during pregnancy, her baby could be born with neonatal abstinence syndrome, meaning they are born addicted to heroin. Not only does this cause health problems, but also it increases the child’s risk of becoming addicted to heroin in the future. (5)

Repeat exposure

If you live in an environment where you are often exposed to heroin, you may feel like it’s something normal. Sometimes, people would think that they can try the drug because it’s used all the time around them. This often leads to unexpected developments, including drug abuse and, eventually, heroin addiction.

Heroin can change the chemistry of your brain if you use it regularly. Your brain adjusts its natural balance when you introduce the chemicals. Usually, this results in lowering of the natural production of dopamine in the brain, which can cause you to become anxious, to develop panic attacks and even to become suicidal. The effects of heroin on your brain can last long after you have stopped taking it, which is why rehabilitation and aftercare are considered important.(4)

Heroin and Physical Dependence

Heroin is one of the most addictive substances known to addiction specialises, and therefore your body can build a tolerance and subsequent physical dependence to it very quickly. Some people who take heroin may take longer to become physically dependent, but others may become dependent right away. It’s not just physical dependence that affects your body in this case; it’s also the psychological one. This is because it is very fast-acting and extremely addictive.

Some of the withdrawal symptoms you may experience include nausea, vomiting, cold flashes and insomnia. These symptoms can be very uncomfortable and sometimes distressing. (6) The withdrawal is one of the main reasons for people not seeking help, but these symptoms are manageable as part of a monitored inpatient heroin detox.

man in physical pain on a stairway

Signs and Symptoms of Heroin Addiction

Heroin affects the body and the brain, and so causes both physical and psychological symptoms, however, do take the following list as a guideline: it is possible that they are a symptom of other health issues. Do call us for advice if you are not sure if your loved one is suffering from heroin addiction or not.

Physical symptoms of heroin addiction include:

  • Depressed respiration
  • Irregular heartbeat
  • Fatigue
  • Dry mouth
  • Constipation
  • Bruising
  • Pneumonia
  • Kidney and liver damage
  • Watery eyes and runny nose
  • Flu symptoms

Psychological symptoms of heroin addiction include:

  • Feelings of shame and guilt
  • Depression
  • Mood swings
  • Agitation
  • Confusion and disorientation
  • Concentration issues

Heroin use can also cause noticeable behavioural changes. Some signs that a person is struggling with heroin abuse include becoming more isolated, possession of drug paraphernalia, a decreased interest in activities they previously enjoyed, lying and deceptive behaviour or criminal behaviour such as stealing.

Heroin can also influence how a person looks and cares for him/herself. Heroin users often lose a considerable amount of weight, have cuts, scabs and bruising from skin picking and may have visible needle track marks as a result of injecting. They often lose their usual hygienic habits.

Man speaking to therapist about his addiction

Getting Help for Heroin Addiction

Suffering from heroin addiction can be distressing and debilitating and negatively affect your life. You need to be clean and stay off heroin to, once again, become the active, positive person you used to be before you started taking it. If you think you or a loved one needs help for heroin addiction, then engaging with a rehabilitation programme is the best option.

Heroin rehabilitation programmes usually occur in a hospital or clinic setting and offer a combination of treatments, medicines and therapies to help your loved one lead a happier, healthier and drug-free life. Rehabilitation can be completed within an inpatient or an outpatient setting.

Inpatient Heroin Rehab

Inpatient treatment programmes staying in a residential setting where qualified staff can monitor your progress and work with you on your addiction, the programmes typically last between 28 and 90 days.

Inpatient rehab usually follows heroin detox, which involves lessening the amount of heroin in your body until you are able to function without it. As part of your rehab programme at Sanctuary Lodge, you will also receive a number of psychotherapies such as cognitive behavioural therapy, group therapy sessions, psycho-social workshops, family counselling and ones based on the 12-step programme. We also provide aftercare to everyone who successfully completes their rehab with us.

During inpatient treatment, you have round-the-clock care, including emotional and psychological support and medication if necessary, including for co-occurring conditions such as depression, anxiety and suicidal ideation. (7)

sanctuary lodge rehab

Outpatient NHS services

Rather than living in a rehabilitation facility, outpatient treatment allows you to stay at home during detoxification and rehabilitation. Outpatient NHS services are not as structured as inpatient rehabilitation facilities and involve regular meetings with counsellors, therapists and medical professionals on a per-visit basis.

This type of treatment allows people to get limited attention, support and professional help and supposedly doesn’t restrict their life as much. (8)

However, outpatient programmes do not have as high a success rate as inpatient programmes and sometimes result in relapse. This is because many people still have the same people and temptations around them that enabled their addiction. (9) In addition, the waiting lists for NHS-supported programmes as very long while private rehab centres can usually admit your loved ones within a 24-hour period.

Support groups

Gaining support from others who are or have been in the same situation as you is an invaluable addition to your recovery. Peer support groups like Narcotics Anonymous involve discussions between a group of mutual understanding, support and assistance between people who are in recovery, those who seek help and their loved ones. The focus is sharing experience, giving and asking for advice.

The bonds you will make with other members will help you to feel responsible not only for your own recovery but also acknowledge how much of help you can be for the recovery of others. Feeling accountable for another person’s recovery motivates many people to remain sober. (10)

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Heroin Addiction FAQ

How long does it take to get addicted to heroin?
Some people become addicted to heroin immediately after taking their first dose, whereas, for others, it could take months of regular use. It depends on the individual and their history, genetic makeup and environment.
Can heroin addicts ever really recover?
Yes. We have helped hundreds of people who suffered from heroin addiction and have remained permanently sober after treatment. Even people with the most severe cases of addiction can recover when they have a strong support network and a reliable professional at their disposal. Addiction is a chronic condition that needs continuous management, and if you follow the treatment plan you are given, your recovery will be easier and more consistent. (11)
How can I support a heroin addict?
What you should never do is enable their negative behaviours – lying for a heroin addict or taking the blame for their actions can prevent them from understanding the effects of their actions, as well as acknowledging their responsibilities. It is also important to intervene when necessary, to discuss their addiction and suggest professional help. Before doing this, learn about the addiction they are suffering with, so you can discuss it in a firm and knowledgeable but compassionate way. (11) We can help you find the best way to discuss their problem with them.
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