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Editorial Policy | Research Policy
Heroin abuse and addiction is a growing concern in the United States. In 2019 alone, 745,000 Americans used heroin, and more than 14,000 died of a heroin overdose, over seven times as many as in 1999.
The increasing number of heroin overdoses means it is vital to recognize the signs of heroin abuse and addiction. The following provides an overview of heroin’s risks, the key symptoms of heroin abuse and ways to find professional treatment for heroin addiction.
Heroin is an illicit opioid drug that is classified as a Schedule I controlled substance, meaning that it has no accepted medical use in the United States. The drug is derived from morphine and comes from the seed pod of poppy plants.
Heroin exists in two main forms: white powder and black tar. Although they both contain heroin, these forms have several important differences:
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Heroin can be injected as well as smoked, snorted or sniffed. Generally, the purer the heroin, the more likely it is to be snorted or smoked. Sometimes, heroin is mixed with stimulants like methamphetamine or cocaine, or it is taken right before or after using these substances. This is referred to as “speedballing.”
If you suspect a loved one might be abusing heroin, it is common to find drug paraphernalia. This term refers to items that a person uses when taking the drug. Common heroin paraphernalia includes:
As a Schedule I controlled substance, heroin is among the drugs that carry the highest risks of addiction, abuse and dependence.
When someone takes heroin, it quickly acts on the brain by binding to opioid receptors. This stimulates the brain’s reward center, causing the release of dopamine — the brain’s feel-good chemical.
The surge of dopamine in the brain drives addiction to heroin, as it reinforces heroin use and makes someone crave more of the drug. Your brain is inherently meant to seek out the things that bring you reward or pleasure. Craving heroin is the brain’s way of trying to keep getting the positive feelings of the drug.
When you take heroin, your brain starts to become used to its presence. The biochemistry of your brain changes because it expects heroin to be present. This phenomenon is called physical dependence. It means that if you suddenly stop using heroin, you will start experiencing withdrawal symptoms as your body struggles to adjust to being suddenly heroin-free.
A psychological addiction to heroin is linked to the toll that drug use takes on your mental health. When you are psychologically addicted to heroin, you may have strong cravings for it and be unable to get your mind off using the drug.
Heroin can have a variety of short-term effects immediately after a person uses it. These include:
Heroin has many different long-term effects on your well-being. These include the financial burdens of an expensive addiction and the legal problems from poor decision-making that go alongside an addiction. Your health can also suffer from chronic heroin use in multiple ways, including:
According to a survey from The Recovery Village, respondents who used opioids like heroin struggled most with nausea and vomiting (50%), gastrointestinal issues (43%) and depression (42%). One in ten also reported going into a coma due to opioid use, while nearly half (48%) of the respondents had been to the hospital for an opioid-related medical emergency — usually, an overdose.
Heroin overdose is common, and it can also be fatal. It’s difficult to determine how many people overdose and survive each year, but in 2019, there were 14,019 overdose deaths involving heroin in the United States.
When someone overdoses on heroin, they take such a high dose that their breathing and respiratory system slows to the point that they slip into a coma or die. Heroin overdose can occur even if a person takes the drug often without problems. This is because it is hard to know the exact potency of the heroin that is being used. Further, if a person quits heroin for a while and then relapses, they are at high risk of an overdose because their body is no longer used to the drug.
Heroin overdose symptoms include:
Drug overdoses can be fatal. If you suspect someone is experiencing an overdose, administer naloxone (Narcan) if you have it available and call 911 immediately. Do NOT be afraid to seek help. If you do not have access to a phone, contact Colorado Poison Center for online assistance.
When a person is addicted to heroin, they often know that they are struggling with the drug. However, addiction means that a person has a hard time quitting a substance, even though they are suffering ill effects from its use. These effects can be physical, mental, social or even legal.
Addiction causes changes in the brain that distort a person’s behaviors. This can cause cravings, personality changes and problems with judgment and decision-making. It is for these reasons that addiction is not considered a moral failing, but an illness.
Nationally, heroin abuse was fairly consistent in the several years leading up to 2019, with a spike during the COVID-19 epidemic in 2020. According to a survey from The Recovery Village, around 25% of respondents who took opioids used heroin.
As of 2019, 745,000 Americans misused heroin annually, with 50,000 of those being new heroin users. As of 2019, the overall rate of heroin use by age was:
Heroin overdose deaths in Colorado jumped in 2020 despite stabilizing over the previous few years. However, heroin abuse in Colorado has recently been overshadowed by fentanyl abuse.
Although previously linked to young people in urban areas, heroin is now a common drug of abuse across multiple demographics. It has been found in rural, suburban and urban areas and is abused by people of all genders, races and ages.
That said, certain factors can put a person at a higher risk of heroin addiction. These include:
Although addiction to heroin can seem insurmountable, it is not hopeless. Multiple treatment strategies exist to help a person quit heroin for good. These include:
If you or someone you love struggles with heroin use, you do not have to face your addiction alone. The Recovery Village at Palmer Lake is here to help you begin the path to a healthier, heroin-free life.
One of the cornerstones of addiction treatment in recent years is medication-assisted treatment. With MAT, we can help people with opioid addiction begin and maintain a long-term recovery.
Because heroin is an addictive, deadly and illegal substance, it’s common for people to wonder about what heroin looks like and how to recognize it – especially those who suspect a friend or loved one may be using.
Inpatient rehabilitation offers constant live-in care for people with substance use disorders. At an inpatient care facility, all evaluation, treatment, and rehabilitation is supervised by medical professionals.
Women who are pregnant may find themselves wondering if it is safe to use hydrocodone during pregnancy or while breastfeeding. Ultimately, using any kind of opioid while pregnant or breastfeeding should generally be avoided.
Medical detoxification, more commonly known as medical detox, this process is crucial to successful recovery. When you’re dependent on a substance, your body has to compensate for the constant presence of that substance.
McCance-Katz, Elinore F. “The National Survey on Drug Use and Health: 2019.” Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, September 2020. Accessed May 2, 2021.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Heroin Overdose Data.” March 25, 2021. Accessed May 2, 2021.
National Institute on Drug Abuse. “Overdose Death Rates.” January 29, 2021. Accessed May 2, 2021.
U.S. Department of Justice, Drug Enforcement Administration. “Drugs of Abuse.” April 2020. Accessed May 2, 2021.
Florida Department of Children and Families. “Speedballing: Mixing Stimulants and Opioids.” Accessed May 2, 2021.
Drug Enforcement Administration. “How to Identify Drug Paraphernalia.” Get Smart About Drugs, March 8, 2021. Accessed May 2, 2021.
ELife. “Dopamine drives early addiction to heroin.” October 30, 2018. Accessed May 2, 2021.
Foundation for a Drug-Free World. “The Truth About Heroin.” Accessed May 2, 2021.
American Psychiatric Association. “What is a Substance Use Disorder?” Accessed May 2, 2021.
Brown, Jennifer. “Fentanyl overdoses are surging in Colora[…]uised as other drugs,” The Colorado Sun, February 4, 2021. Accessed May 2, 2021.
National Institute on Drug Abuse. “Colorado: Opioid-Involved Deaths and Related Harms.” April 3, 2020. Accessed May 2, 2021.
Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. “Key Substance Use and Mental Health Indi[…] Drug Use and Health.” September 2020. Accessed May 2, 2021.
National Institute on Drug Abuse. “What is the scope of heroin use in the United States?” June 2021. Accessed October 3, 2021.
National Institute on Drug Abuse. “A subset of people who abuse prescriptio[…]ogress to heroin use.” January 2018. Accessed May 2, 2021.
The Recovery Village at Palmer Lake aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with substance use or mental health disorder with fact-based content about the nature of behavioral health conditions, treatment options and their related outcomes. We publish material that is researched, cited, edited and reviewed by licensed medical professionals. The information we provide is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be used in place of the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare providers.