Heroin Addiction & Treatment Options

Heroin use has climbed steadily for nearly a decade, and in 2019 an estimated 438,000 Americans aged 12 or older reported struggled with a heroin use disorder, up from 214,000 in 2002.1 This page will cover what heroin is, why it’s so dangerous, and what treatment for heroin addiction may entail.
Did you know that most insurance plans are required to cover heroin addiction treatment?
Heroin Overview

What Is Heroin?

Heroin is an opioid drug that’s made from morphine, which is a natural substance taken from the seed pod of opium poppy plants.2, 3 It can be a white or brown powder or a sticky black substance known as “black tar heroin.” It is commonly snorted, smoked, or injected when used.2, 3

Opioids are central nervous system (CNS) depressant drugs that block pain receptors and slow down breathing and heart rate, while producing a euphoric rush, or “high.”2

Prescription opioid painkillers like OxyContin, Vicodin, and hydrocodone-based products have effects that are very similar to heroin.4

When the body’s opioid receptors are activated, it stimulates the reward center of the brain, which serves to reinforce the drug-taking behavior and contributes to their abuse potential.4,5

Heroin is considered a Schedule I controlled substance in the United States by the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), as it has no accepted medicinal use in this country and is considered to have a high potential for abuse.3

Depressed man

How Addictive Is Heroin?

Heroin is a highly addictive drug. The body begins to develop a tolerance to the drug after regular use, and a person quickly finds they need higher—or more frequent—doses to get the desired effects.2

As tolerance builds and a person continually uses more and more heroin, they may find themselves neglecting other important parts of their life, such as their health, their job or going to school. This is indicative of a substance use disorder; a person with a substance use disorder may need professional help in order to quit using heroin.

Health Effects

What Are the Effects of Heroin?

In addition to the “rush” of pleasure associated with using heroin, other common short-term effects include:2

  • Flushed skin.
  • Nausea and vomiting.
  • Itching.
  • Heavy feeling in legs and arms.
  • Nodding off—going back and forth from being conscious and semiconscious.

Overdose Dangers

Heroin-related overdose is common among those who use heroin, and an overdose can occur after just one dose of the drug.6,7 Heroin users can never be certain of the actual strength of what they purchase on the street, which is increasingly being cut with fentanyl or other highly potent synthetic opioids.8,9 Fentanyl is involved in more deaths than any other illicit drug and is increasingly being included in illicit heroin supplies.8,9 The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration reports that in some areas, fentanyl has supplanted traditional heroin supplies.9

In 2018, nearly 15,000 people dying from heroin overdose.8,10 Many more—approximately 31,335 people—died from an overdose of synthetic opioids other than methadone. These synthetic drugs include fentanyl and fentanyl analogs.8

What Are the Long-Term Effects of Heroin Abuse?

There are many long-term effects that may result with regular heroin use, from health effects like constipation or stomach cramping or liver and kidney disease to the development or worsening of mental disorders.2

Those who snort heroin may permanently damage the tissue inside their noise. Smoking heroin is associated with an increase in asthma symptoms and a recent study demonstrates that smoking heroin is likely associated with a higher risk of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.11,12

Injecting heroin has many medical consequences, including scarred veins, collapsed veins, bacterial infections of heart valves and blood vessels, boils (i.e., abscesses), and other soft-tissue infections.13 Additives used to “cut” street heroin often aren’t readily dissolved and may clog blood vessels leading to the lungs, liver, kidneys, or brain. This can cause infections in vital organs and even death.13

Heroin Addiction Signs

What Are the Signs of Heroin Addiction?

Sad woman

The American Society for Addiction Medicine (ASAM) defines addiction as a chronic, treatable medical disease.14 It is characterized by the loss of control over drug-seeking behaviors and drug abuse.14,15

Those addicted to heroin likely spend most of their time thinking about the drug, finding a way to get a hold of it, using heroin, and recovering from its use.15 

School, work, or family responsibilities and obligations may take a backseat, and heroin may cause people to engage in risky or dangerous behaviors while using the drug.15 Those addicted to heroin are less likely to care about consequences related to their drug abuse and may get into legal trouble, or continue to use drugs even when understanding that in doing so they may be damaging personal relationships, their health, or emotional state.14,15

Heroin addiction is a treatable disease, and several different types of treatment programs are open to individuals and families to help foster recovery.

Heroin Detox & Treatment

Treatment for Heroin Addiction

People who are addicted to heroin will experience an often-severe withdrawal syndrome upon abrupt discontinuation of the drug. Symptoms of heroin withdrawal begin anywhere from a couple hours to a day after last dose and can include flu-like symptoms along with intense cravings.2,6

The intensity of withdrawal often leads people to continue to use or to relapse, and current guidelines for opioid withdrawal recommend the use of FDA-approved medications over abrupt cessation.6

Individuals who are addicted to heroin can benefit from medical detox and treatment programs that offer continual medical supervision and use FDA-approved medications for opioid use disorder—such as methadone, buprenorphine, or naltrexone—to reduce cravings and withdrawal symptoms.6 These medications are proven to be effective in reducing the risk of relapse. Other medications, such as antidepressants or anti-anxiety drugs, may also be used to minimize specific symptoms or help manage cooccurring disorders.6

convincing loved one to get treatment for heroin addiction

When treating a person with a heroin addiction, substance abuse treatment programs typically combine the use of medications with therapy sessions, counseling, educational opportunities, occupational and life skills training, and support services.Behavioral therapies like motivational interviewing and cognitive behavioral therapy are often helpful during heroin addiction treatment. They can assist a person in modifying the attitudes and behaviors they have which reinforce drug abuse, increasing a person’s life skills to handle stressful moments or the cues around them that may trigger intense cravings for drug—things that may cause a person to relapse and being another cycle of compulsive abuse.16

At Greenhouse Treatment Center, we can help you or your loved one to stop using heroin, maintain a lifestyle that’s drug-free, and contribute to all aspects of life, including work, family and community. Most insurance plans are required to offer some form of coverage for rehab.

Learn how to use health insurance to pay for rehab and what your plan covers by checking your insurance benefits with our free, secure tool.