What Is a Heroin Abscess?

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Heroin is a highly addictive opioid that can lead to various negative health effects. Heroin is made from a natural substance, known as morphine, that is found in various poppy plants. (1) Heroin can be ingested into the body through snorting, smoking, sniffing, and injecting it intravenously. Heroin can impact heart rate, sleep, the brain’s reward system, pain, and emotions. Heroin can lead to both short-term and long-term negative effects.

Negative health effects associated with heroin use include: (2)

  • Extreme itchiness
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Constipation
  • Mental fogginess
  • Insomnia
  • Lung impairment
  • Liver disease
  • Kidney disease
  • Fluctuations between consciousness and semi-consciousness

Heroin use can also lead to physical consequences such as damaged nose tissue, collapsed veins, and abscesses. (3) Many individuals, regardless if they have an in depth understanding of substance use or not, may wonder what is a heroin abscess. A heroin abscess is a bacteria and pus filled sac that grows beneath the skin. They can be extremely painful and get worse if not properly treated.

Though heroin use can lead to unwanted side effects and abscesses, its use has been on the rise since 2007. (4) In 2021, approximately 1.0 million individuals, 12 years of age or older, were diagnosed with a substance use disorder due to heroin use. (5) Luckily, treatment for opioid use disorder, the term used for those who have difficulties controlling their heroin use, is available. Here at Guardian Recovery, we offer opioid and heroin specific detoxification services to help individuals stop their substance use in a safe and supervised environment. Our skilled staff can provide you or a loved one with comprehensive and individualized care. Reach out today to start your wellness and health journey.

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What Does a Heroin Abscess Look Like?

A heroin abscess usually starts off looking like a red, raised bump, similar to a pimple. As the abscess continues to develop, it begins to swell and the bump grows larger and wider. Heroin abscesses can quickly turn into a medical emergency. A doctor must drain the abscess in order for proper treatment to occur. It is important to never pop a heroin abscess as the bacteria may begin to spread faster and make the condition worse.

How Do Abscesses Form on Heroin Users?

A heroin abscess forms when needles used for intravenous injections present bacteria to the skin and puncture sites, leading to infection. The bacteria involved in heroin abscess formation can be produced from dirty or used syringes, contaminates, the surface of the skin, or the substance itself. Approximately 33 percent of those who inject substances intravenously develop an abscess. (6)

What Can Happen If Left Untreated?

Some individuals may not seek treatment for their heroin abscess due to the negative stigma associated with substance use. However, serious consequences can occur if a heroin abscess is left untreated. An untreated abscess can rupture and leak out pus. If ruptured, infection can spread throughout the body due to the open wound.

Untreated heroin abscesses can lead to: (7)

  • Bone infection
  • Heart infection or endocarditis
  • Skin necrosis
  • Septic shock
  • Chills
  • Fever
  • Swollen lymph nodes
  • Elevated heart rate

Spread of Infection

Heroin abscesses can spread bacteria to important organs such as the heart and kidneys.

Symptoms associated with the spreading of an infection due to a heroin abscess include:

  • Chills
  • Fever
  • Swollen lymph node
  • Elevated heart rate

The symptoms associated with an untreated or infected abscess can be serious and lead to life threatening consequences. Seek medical attention if you or someone you love are experiencing any of the symptoms listed above.

Gangrene Growth

Gangrene occurs when blood flow to a large tissue is blocked or cut off. The tissue then dies leaving the affected area a blackish-green color. Gangrene can develop due to a heroin abscess infection or the wound caused by injecting heroin.

Symptoms associated with gangrene growth include: (8)

  • Pain
  • Numbness
  • Pus
  • Blisters
  • Persistent fever
  • Odor near the site of the abscess
  • Skin discoloration
  • Confusion
  • Low blood pressure
  • Swelling and redness near the heroin abscess
  • Shock

Treatment for gangrene growth is most effective when it is done as soon as possible. Without treatment, a gangrene growth can lead to serious health consequences. Seek immediate medical attention if you or a loved one are experiencing any of the above symptoms.

Possible Amputation

Amputation may be needed depending on the severity of a heroin abscess infection. If the abscess has developed into a gangrene growth, surgery may be necessary in order to remove the dead tissue. In some cases, limbs may need to be amputated in order to stop the infection from spreading, or simply due to the damage caused by the infection. (9)

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Symptoms of Heroin Abscesses

Signs and symptoms of heroin abscesses include: (10)

  • Redness and swelling
  • Feelings of warmth around the abscess
  • Pain near the abscess
  • Itchiness
  • Drainage of pus

Other Infections That Can Be Contracted From Intravenous Heroin Use

Heroin use can increase an individual’s chances of contracting other illnesses. (11) Infectious diseases may be spread from sharing needles and other paraphernalia used during heroin use.

HIV

HIV, or the human immunodeficiency virus, is a virus that attacks the body’s immune system. (12) HIV can be transmitted from blood or bodily fluids from individuals who are infected. There is currently no cure for HIV.

Hepatitis

Hepatitis B is a virus that is spread from blood or other bodily fluids from an infected individual. Hepatitis B can lead to jaundice and serious conditions, such as liver cancer. Hepatitis B is preventable with a vaccine. (13)

Hepatitis C is a virus that is highest among those who inject substances intravenously. Hepatitis C can lead to liver inflammation. Hepatitis C is spread through contaminated blood that can be present when sharing needles. There is currently no vaccine for Hepatitis C. (14)

How Are Abscesses From Heroin Treated?

Treatment for a heroin abscess begins with no longer injecting any substance into the area. (15) A doctor can drain the abscess by making an incision to clean and clear the area. They may also prescribe antibiotics to help alleviate the infection. After proper treatment, heroin abscesses can heal within a few weeks. Using a cold compress, elevating the limb, and drinking plenty of water can help relieve some pain associated with mild heroin abscesses. It is important to seek treatment for a heroin abscess in order to avoid any negative health effects.

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Treating the Underlying Substance Use Disorder

Regardless of if a heroin abscess is treated or not, it is important for the underlying substance use issue to be addressed. More abscesses can develop if intravenous injections continue. Guardian Recovery can help you or a loved one break free from the chains of heroin use or other substance use. Here, we offer psychoeducation and life skills training to help individuals develop effective and adaptive coping strategies to reach sobriety. We can offer a free, no obligation insurance benefits check if requested. Contact us today to speak with a Treatment Advisor and to get started. Start your recovery here at Guardian Recovery.

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Disclaimer: Does not guarantee specific treatment outcomes, as individual results may vary. Our services are not a substitute for professional medical advice or diagnosis; please consult a qualified healthcare provider for such matters.

  1. https://nida.nih.gov/publications/drugfacts/heroin
  2. https://nida.nih.gov/publications/drugfacts/heroin
  3. https://nida.nih.gov/publications/drugfacts/heroin
  4. https://nida.nih.gov/publications/research-reports/heroin/overview
  5. https://nida.nih.gov/publications/research-reports/heroin/scope-heroin-use-in-united-states
  6. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4334130/
  7. https://www.nidirect.gov.uk/conditions/abscess
  8. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK560552/
  9. https://www.bbc.co.uk/bbcthree/article/91e06126-1139-4ad3-8200-1e049eb05cfe
  10. https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/abscess/symptoms/
  11. https://nida.nih.gov/publications/research-reports/heroin/why-are-heroin-users-special-risk-contracting-hivaids-hepatitis-b-c
  12. https://www.cdc.gov/hiv/basics/whatishiv.html
  13. https://www.cdc.gov/hepatitis/hbv/index.htm
  14. https://www.cdc.gov/hepatitis/hcv/index.htm
  15. https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/abscess/treatment/

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Reviewed professionally for accuracy by:

Ryan Soave

L.M.H.C.

Ryan Soave brings deep experience as a Licensed Mental Health Counselor, certified trauma therapist, program developer, and research consultant for Huberman Lab at Stanford University Department of Neurobiology. Post-graduation from Wake Forest University, Ryan quickly discovered his acumen for the business world. After almost a decade of successful entrepreneurship and world traveling, he encountered a wave of personal and spiritual challenges; he felt a calling for something more. Ryan returned to school and completed his Master’s Degree in Mental Health Counseling. When he started working with those suffering from addiction and PTSD, he found his passion. He has never looked back.

Written by:

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Cayla Clark

Cayla Clark grew up in Santa Barbara, CA and graduated from UCLA with a degree in playwriting. Since then she has been writing on addiction recovery and psychology full-time, and has found a home as part of the Guardian Recovery team.

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