Heroin Addiction Signs & Symptoms

Heroin addiction is frightening and isolating. This potent narcotic was involved in more than 13,000 deaths between 2019 and 2020 – and is responsible for harm to the health and lives of many more.

Heroin has similar structures to naturally occurring endogenous opioids that the body produces to relieve pain, produce a sense of wellness, signal dopamine release, and regulate many of the body’s critical life-supporting functions. Heroin can briefly eliminate pain, alleviate anxiety, or emotional hurt, produce a euphoric rush, and profoundly slow down bodily functions – consequences that encapsulate its appeal as well as its incredible dangers.

Recognizing the Signs of Heroin Addiction

It can be very difficult to tell if someone has a drug addiction as most users work hard to hide their consumption of illicit symptoms and avoid detection. This is often for fear of judgment and stigma that comes with heroin use.

Staying informed could help you to spot signs of addiction in a loved one, help them stay safe and encourage them to get help sooner rather than later. There are a range of signs that a person is struggling with heroin addiction:

  • Personality changes
  • Changes in mood and behavior including extreme mood swings
  • Decreased interest in previously enjoyed activities or hobbies
  • Changes to appearance such as a decrease in personal hygiene, bloodshot eyes or weight loss
  • Alcohol containers or drug packets/paraphernalia lying around

If you or your loved one have signs of heroin addiction, consider getting help. Once you make this decision, you have started on the road to recovery.

Heroin Dependence

When heroin use continues over a prolonged period, our nervous systems adjust their own natural opioid production – slowing down or even fully stopping the production of endorphin and enkephalin. This process has two consequences: contributing to the development of heroin tolerance (needing to take higher doses to maintain the same effects) as well as heroin dependence (the body’s need for minimum levels of synthetic heroin in the system in order to function “normally”).

Dependence is dangerous and complicates the addiction recovery process. When a chemically-dependent person quits using heroin without adequate medical support, they experience intense withdrawal symptoms, including:

  • Fever
  • Runny nose
  • Extreme sweating
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Muscle cramping
  • Severe pain in muscles and bones
  • Jitteriness or restlessness
  • Muscle spasms
  • Feelings of heaviness
  • Feelings of joylessness
  • Intense anxiety

The most universal symptom of heroin withdrawal is cravings, or intense compulsions to use again, often to alleviate the physiological and psychological symptoms of withdrawal.

Symptoms of Heroin Abuse

In the long run, heroin can cause real damage to the functioning of our bodies and minds. Prolonged use of heroin can result in:

  • Cognitive decline
  • Frequent confusion
  • Personality changes (e.g., development of anxiety, agitation, or other emotional dysregulation)
  • Insomnia
  • Brain damage
  • Tooth rot
  • Extreme weight loss
  • Skin pocking
  • Tissue damage to the liver, kidneys, and heart
  • Elevated risk of bloodborne illness

The process of reversing these types of system damage takes time and commitment. In cases of heavy prolonged use, it may not be possible to return to an identical state. Commitment to recovery as early as possible is the best preventative measure to take against the long-term effects of heroin addiction.

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Diagnosing Heroin Addiction

A doctor will ask you a range of questions to determine how your drug use is affecting your life. Medical professionals use a standardized tool for diagnosis called the Diagnosis and Statistical Manual for Mental Disorders (DSM).

To receive a diagnosis of substance use disorder (SUD), a person must demonstrate two of these criteria within a 12-month period:

  • Taking larger amounts of heroin or taking heroin over a longer period than intended
  • Attempting to or expressing intent to reduce heroin consumption without managing to
  • Spending a lot of time getting hold of, consuming, or recovering from use of heroin
  • Craving heroin or experiencing a strong urge to consume heroin
  • Not managing to do what you should at work, home, or school because of heroin use
  • Continuing to consume heroin, despite social, emotional, or personal issues it is causing or exasperating
  • Not doing social, occupational, or recreational activities because of heroin use
  • Using heroin repeatedly, despite knowing the dangers
  • Continuing to use heroin, even when you know a psychological problem has been caused or made worse by heroin use
  • Finding your tolerance to heroin increases, so you need more to feel the effects
  • Experiencing withdrawal symptoms, which are relieved by taking more heroin

Treating the Symptoms of Heroin Abuse & Addiction

Heroin addiction is a physiological condition that can be treated in both inpatient and outpatient settings with FDA-approved pharmaceutical interventions. Treatment centers offer this during the detox period. Undergoing medically-assisted detox eases this process, reduces the likelihood of relapse, and galvanizes clients for the recovery journey ahead.

In many cases, this process involves evaluating the client’s existing level of tolerance, before prescribing and administering a well-tolerated low dose of a safe opioid medication. Slowly tapering these medications off gives the nervous system time to kick start its natural opiate production and return to baseline safely.

Medically-assisted detox is designed on a case-by-case basis. Healthcare professionals may prescribe any of the following to treat symptoms or as a part of a taper method:

  • Suboxone
  • Subutex
  • Naltrexone
  • Methadone
  • Buprenorphine

It’s important to note that these medications ease symptoms and diminish cravings during a critical period.

Heroin addiction is more than physiological dependence; it also is a psychological condition.Some evidence-based modalities that guide each client’s recovery journey include:

  • Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT)
  • One-on-one individual counseling
  • Group therapy
  • Ongoing peer support
  • Dual diagnosis
  • Alternative therapies

Treatment plans are developed and adapted according to your assessment, and individual recommendations and programs may differ.

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