What Is a Heroin Addict?

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Heroin, in its purest form, is a fine white powder. However, most people will see it as gray, brown, or black. Heroin is known as an opioid and is created from the Asian poppy plant. Heroin can be injected directly into a person’s vein using a needle or syringe. Additionally, it can be snorted or smoked. All ways of use can quickly enter the bloodstream, instantly causing a person to feel high. This intense high is what leads to heroin being very addictive.

In 2021, 1.1 million people aged 12 and older reported using heroin in the past 12 months.

Guardian Recovery will discuss the signs and symptoms of heroin addiction, signs of heroin use, and how to seek addiction treatment.

If you or someone you love has a heroin use disorder, Guardian Recovery is available to help. We are dedicated to providing the most comprehensive and individualized medically monitored detox program. To learn more about our programs, contact us today.

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How Does Someone Become Addicted to Heroin?

Heroin is a powerful opioid drug made from the opium poppy plant. No matter how it is taken, when heroin enters the body, it moves to the brain quickly and changes how the central nervous system functions. In the brain, heroin binds to specific receptors responsible for sensations of pain and pleasure.

While heroin dulls pain and delivers a euphoric rush of pleasure, it also sends signals to parts of the brain responsible for regulating heart and breathing rates, memory, motor control, alertness, and emotional control. The limbic system, in particular, and the reward-response reactions that occur there play a significant role in the development of addiction. Heroin causes this system to release dopamine, leaving the individual with feelings of satisfaction and well-being for a short time. However, drowsiness and mental impairment follow for hours afterward.

Another indicator contributing to addiction is how quickly a person may feel euphoric. For snorting heroin, it takes about 5 minutes to feel the effects of the high of heroin. For smoking and injecting heroin, a person will experience the high immediately. This is why all forms of heroin use are highly addictive and dangerous.

Can Someone Become Addicted to Heroin at First Use?

While it is unlikely a person will become addicted to heroin at first use, heroin is a highly addictive drug that impacts people very soon after use. In addition to the euphoria a person experiences when using heroin that leads to addiction, a person will quickly begin feeling withdrawal symptoms after they come down from the high, which also can lead to addictive tendencies.

Heroin use disorder is a medical condition characterized by an addiction to heroin.

Common Symptoms of Heroin Use Disorder:

  • Cravings for the drug.
  • Decreased mental clarity or focus.
  • Difficulty concentrating.
  • Withdrawal symptoms such as nausea and irritability when unable to access the drug.
  • Other physical symptoms may include sweating and shaking or muscle tension.

Breaking free from heroin can be challenging because of its highly addictive nature. Successful addiction treatment is best found through a comprehensive recovery program like the one offered at Guardian Recovery, which provides the support you need to detox in a safe and comfortable environment.

Is There a Difference Between Heroin Dependence & Addiction?

Heroin addiction is a powerful urge to use the drug, despite the consequences it may bring. Heroin has a high potential for causing addiction in some people, even after minimal use.  Individuals who become addicted may prioritize getting and using these drugs over other activities in their lives, often negatively impacting their professional and personal relationships. It is unknown why some people are more likely to become addicted than others.

Heroin changes the brain’s chemistry and leads to drug tolerance, which means that the dose needs to be increased over time to achieve the same effect. Taking a drug over time produces dependence.

When people stop taking the drug, they have physical and psychological withdrawal symptoms. Dependence is not the same thing as addiction; However, everyone who takes heroin for an extended period will become dependent, and only a small percentage also experience the compulsive, continuing need for the drug that defines addiction.

Visual Signs Someone May Be Using Heroin

The first thing to look for is paraphernalia that may be used when a person is using drugs regularly. Here are the standard tools a person may use if injecting, snorting, or smoking heroin.

Heroin Paraphernalia

With intravenous use, expect to see needles, syringes, and tourniquets. Homemade tourniquets could include shoelaces, rubber tubes, or belts. You might find torn-up and stained cotton balls or q-tips used to remove impurities from the heroin after it has been melted down. Metal spoons are frequently used to melt down the heroin; paraphernalia includes spoons that have been bent and burned (you might notice spoons are missing from your utensil drawer). Bottle caps can also be used to reduce heroin to a liquid. You might also find one or several lighters stashed away.

If your loved one is snorting heroin, you might find rolled-up money (bills), cut-up straws, razor blades (used to cut the substance into thin lines), and an off-white or brown powder residue.

If your loved one is smoking heroin, you might find burnt pieces of aluminum foil, which can hold the heroin as it is being smoked. You will also likely find several lighters, matchbooks, candles, rolling papers, or a glass pipe. If your loved one is smoking heroin, they might mix the substance with tobacco or marijuana, attempting to disguise the distinct smell.

In addition to keeping an eye out for heroin paraphernalia, several behavioral symptoms indicate the presence of a heroin use disorder.

Signs Your Loved One Might Be Using Heroin:

  • They spend more time alone, socially isolated.
  • They neglect personal responsibilities and activities previously enjoyed.
  • They exhibit regular mood changes, they sleep strange hours, and their eating patterns have changed significantly.
  • They pay little attention to personal hygiene.
  • They spend time with a new group of people they have never been introduced to.
  • They frequently visit the restroom.
  • They seem excessively sleepy throughout the day or regularly slip in and out of consciousness.

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Signs, Symptoms, & Side Effects Heroin Addicts May Experience

The immediate sensation and intensity of the high are what leads to substances being highly addicting. With smoking, snorting, and injecting heroin, a person may experience an intense high within minutes or immediately. This is why all forms of heroin use are highly addictive and dangerous.

As mentioned, there are three main methods of using heroin. These methods include smoking, injecting, and snorting.

For snorting, it takes about 5 minutes to feel the effects of the high of heroin.

For smoking and injecting, a person will experience the high immediately.

Because it can take a few minutes for a person to experience a high with heroin, there is a significant risk of overdose when snorting heroin.

You may wonder, how long does a heroin high last? Heroin’s duration depends on the method of administration. Heroin use by injection produces a high within 20 seconds, peaks around 2 hours, and lasts up to 4 hours or longer. For people who snort or smoke heroin, the effects of heroin may peak within ten minutes, with the nodding effect lasting as long as 4-5 more hours.

Heroin withdrawal can occur within hours of someone’s last dose of heroin. Typically, heroin withdrawal starts around 8 to 24 hours after a person’s previous use. Heroin withdrawal can last anywhere from 3 to 10 days.

Short-term Signs & Symptoms of Heroin Withdrawal May Include:

  • Fast pulse.
  • Increased breathing rate.
  • Increased blood pressure.
  • Elevated body temperature.
  • Sleep disturbances such as insomnia.
  • Dilated pupils.
  • Unusually heightened reflexes.
  • Sweating.
  • Goosebumps.
  • Watery discharge from eyes and nose.
  • Muscle spasms, cramps, and pain.
  • Bone pain.
  • Nausea and vomiting.
  • Diarrhea.

Signs of an Overdose

You may still have time if you catch the signs of a possible heroin overdose. Here is what to look for and what to do if you think someone may be overdosing from heroin.

Common Signs of Heroin Overdose: 

  • Loss of consciousness.
  • Limp body.
  • Pale skin.
  • Heartbeat is slow, weak, or erratic.
  • Clammy skin.
  • Bluish tones on fingertips, lips, and skin.
  • Unresponsive.
  • Choking or gurgling sounds.
  • Vomiting.

If you find someone displaying these symptoms, whether or not you know if they’ve taken anything, call 911 immediately.

Co-occurring Disorders a Heroin Addict May Have

Unfortunately, mental illness and addiction have high comorbidities. Many people who have heroin use disorders also have mental health illnesses. Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder is also a common occurrence and the reason people may become dependent on drugs due to self-medicating mental health symptoms that are interfering with daily life.

In addition to mental illness, people who use drugs intravenously are at higher risk for diseases such as HIV and hepatitis. Here are the following co-occurring disorders outlined by SAMHSA.

The Most Common Mental Disorders Seen in Substance Use Treatment:

  • Anxiety and mood disorders.
  • Schizophrenia.
  • Bipolar disorder.
  • Major depressive disorder.
  • Conduct disorders.
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder.
  • Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.

Hepatitis, HIV, and other diseases can spread through the injection of heroin if people use needles, syringes, or other tools used by someone who has had one of these infections.

During the last decade, the United States has seen an increase in injection drug use, primarily the injection of opioids. Outbreaks of hepatitis C, hepatitis B, and HIV infections coincide with increased injection use.

Most new hepatitis C diseases are due to injection drug use, and the country has seen hepatitis C increase 4.9 times from 2010 to 2019. New hepatitis C infections are increasing most often among young people, with the most significant occurrence among individuals aged 20-39.

Until recently, CDC had observed a decline since the mid-1990s in HIV diagnoses associated with injection drug use. However, new HIV infections among people who inject drugs increased by 12% from 2014 to 2019.

Risk Factors That Increase Chances of Addiction

People of all backgrounds can be impacted by addiction. It is unknown why some people are more prone to substance use and addiction than others. Here are some common factors that can raise your risk of becoming addicted to alcohol and drugs. Genetics, environment, medical history, and age play a role. Certain types of drugs, and methods of using them, are also more addictive than others.

Research indicates that intravenous drug users are more likely to be 35 years and older, unemployed, possess less than a high school education, and reside in rural areas. Additionally, people who used injection as a primary source of heroin exhibited higher abuse rates, a higher need for substance abuse treatment, and experienced higher rates of physical and psychological problems.

As research has indicated, the reason people may use heroin intravenously is that users may have a more serious addiction than people who use heroin in other ways. This may be because the high is more intense with an injection or because this may be the most easily accessible way of obtaining heroin in the region.

Addiction Treatment & Recovery Help for Heroin Addicts

At Guardian Recovery, we understand how difficult heroin withdrawal can be. Often, withdrawal symptoms are so severe that those struggling with heroin addiction return to using within 24 hours. The key to overcoming this obstacle is a medically supervised detox where withdrawal symptoms can be identified and treated immediately. Our team performs an in-depth initial evaluation and tailors a treatment plan unique to each client’s needs and recovery goals. We can provide 24-hour medical supervision and comfort care for our detox clients. Our medical and client support team’s goal is to ensure all clients have a safe and comfortable detox so they can begin the next phase in their recovery journey.

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At Guardian Recovery, we remain dedicated to providing our clients with a comprehensive program of heroin detox — one that focuses on much more than physical stabilization. In addition to emphasizing physical recovery, we tackle mental, emotional, and spiritual well-being. While we prioritize a safe and pain-free cocaine withdrawal, we offer individualgroup, and family therapy sessions, case management services, relapse prevention training, and aftercare planning.

Contact us today if you or your loved one is ready to begin an entirely new way of life and commit to long-term recovery. As soon as you call, we start developing a plan of action that begins with an initial pre-assessment. This assessment helps us determine which level of care is the most appropriate for each unique case. We identify potential coverage options if our medically monitored detox program is a good fit. We work closely with most major regional and national insurance providers. Contact us today for a free, no-obligation insurance benefit check.

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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/research-reports/heroin/scope-heroin-use-in-united-states
  3. https://medlineplus.gov/genetics/condition/opioid-addiction/#:~:text=Dependence%20is%20not%20the%20same,the%20drug%20that%20characterizes%20addiction.
  4. https://www.samhsa.gov/medications-substance-use-disorders/medications-counseling-related-conditions/co-occurring-disorders
  5. https://www.cdc.gov/ssp/syringe-services-programs-summary.html#:~:text=Viral%20hepatitis%2C%20HIV%2C%20and%20other,had%20one%20of%20these%20infections.
  6. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3225003/

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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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