a woman who is addicted to heroin

Understanding Heroin Addiction

In 2012, almost 700,000 Americans reported using heroin, according to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health. If you or a loved one is among those addicted to heroin, understanding this dependency and possible treatment options can lead to a healthier, more fulfilling drug-free lifestyle.

What is heroin?

Heroin is a type of opioid drug that is illegal and highly addictive. There are different kinds of heroin. Pure heroin is a white powder and does not have to be injected; it can be snorted or smoked. More commonly, people addicted to heroin will be using impure heroin, which is darker in color and must be diluted before being injected into the veins or the muscle. Injecting heroin comes with a unique set of health risks, such as dirty needles causing AIDS or other diseases.

Heroin works by binding to certain receptors in the brain, which triggers the release of dopamine and causes a sensation of pleasure, or a “rush” as it is described by many users. The intensity of the rush will depend on how much heroin was ingested. After the effects wear off, the user will feel extremely drowsy, with their heart beat and breathing severely slowed to the point that it can be life-threatening. This can lead to permanent brain damage or a coma.

After just one use, a person is already at risk for addiction. Users report that even if their first experience with heroin was unpleasant or uncomfortable, they still felt a strong urge to use the drug again.

What are the long-term effects?

People who use heroin repeatedly will experience long-term imbalances in their neuronal and hormonal systems that are not easily reversed. This can affect how people regulate behavior, respond to stressful situations, and make decisions. Heroin users will also develop high levels of tolerance, which will quickly lead to physical dependence. Physical dependence means that the body has adapted to the presence of the drug and will therefore experience withdrawal symptoms as soon as a few hours after the last dose of heroin.

More than physical dependence though, addiction to heroin occurs when an individual develops an obsession with using and will seek the drug even despite negative or potentially dangerous consequences. Addiction typically happens faster when the route of administration allows the drug to reach the brain faster—injection or smoking. However, an individual’s risk for addiction depends on many personal factors, so heroin addiction can occur after several months or after only a few uses.

What is heroin withdrawal?

The symptoms of withdrawal from heroin can include:

  • Pain in the muscle or bone
  • Diarrhea
  • Vomiting
  • Restlessness
  • Cold flashes accompanied by goose bumps
  • Leg movements
  • Insomnia

Most of the severe withdrawal symptoms will be the worst at one or two days after the last use, and they will typically fade after about a week. There have, however, been some cases of people who have experienced withdrawal symptoms for several months.

How is heroin addiction treated?

Usually, a combination of behavioral therapies and prescription medications is the most effective approach for heroin addiction. Used together, these treatments work to restore normalcy to brain function and behavior. Medications that are typically prescribed to help with withdrawal symptoms and break addiction include Methadone, Buprenorphine, or Naltrexone. Behavioral approaches such as contingency management and cognitive-behavioral therapy can be utilized through residential programs or in an outpatient setting. The specific treatment approach will vary depending on each patient’s particular needs. 

Last Updated: March 18, 2015