Heroin is a highly addictive street drug derived from morphine, a common opiate used in medical settings for pain relief.
Heroin works by binding to opioid receptors in your brain, particularly those linked to feeling pain and pleasure and those that control your breathing, sleeping, and heart rate.
Often, people turn to using heroin after becoming addicted to prescription opiates like hydrocodone (Vicodin) or oxycodone (OxyContin). Once you build a tolerance to opiates, you need to take more to feel the same effect – an expensive and difficult habit to maintain.
As heroin is an illicit drug, it’s unregulated and is often cut with dangerous substances. Sometimes heroin is cut with flour, sugar, or other fillers that can clog the blood vessels for anyone who shoots the drug intravenously. Or, heroin may be cut with powerful painkillers like morphine and or Fentanyl, which can drastically increase the risk of overdose.
Heroin addiction has a particularly high risk of fatality. Opiates—mostly heroin—cause four out of every five drug-related deaths in Europe.
The drug goes by many street names, including dope, smack, H, junk, and brown. People typically snort, smoke, or inject heroin.
The Effects of Heroin
When you use heroin, you first feel a surge of intense pleasure: what many describe as a ‘rush’ of euphoria. The intensity and length of this rush depend on how much you take, what you combine it with, and how you administer it.
This rush is often followed by warm, flushed skin, a heavy feeling in the limbs, and/or dry mouth. Severe itchiness or nausea may also occur.
After these initial effects, you become content and drowsy for a few hours. Concentration and mental function become clouded, and your heart rate and breathing slow down significantly from the depressant effects the drug has on your central nervous system. Sometimes, your heart rate might lower so much that you become at risk for a coma or even death.
When using heroin, you may immediately notice the following effects:
- flushed skin
- dry mouth/heaviness in limbs
- pain relief/nausea or vomiting
With chronic use over an extended period of time, you may suffer from insomnia, tissue damage in the nose from snorting heroin, or collapsed veins from shooting it. Sexual dysfunction in men and irregular cycles in women have also been reported.
After using heroin, you may immediately experience:
- contentment/reduced anxiety
- apathy/clouded thinking
After chronically using heroin over a period of time, you may struggle with mental health conditions such as depression or antisocial personality disorder.
When using heroin, you may find yourself taking on new behaviours indicative of drug misuse:
- hiding your drug use from friends and family
- spending all your money on acquiring drugs
- letting other life responsibilities fall away in order to take heroin
- obsessively thinking about how and when you’re going to get more heroin
- the inability to control your use
- stealing in order to buy more drugs
What Causes Heroin Addiction?
At first, the side effects of heroin may seem harmless when you first experiment with it. Unlike many other drugs, heroin usually doesn’t come with a hangover or ‘comedown’ the first few times you try it.
People take heroin to feel a sense of euphoria, as well as relief from pain or difficulty in life.
If you suffer from mental conditions like anxiety or depression, heroin may be especially appealing because of the pleasurable sense of contentment it provides.
Or you might use heroin to find relief if you struggle with chronic physical or emotional pain.
Many people who become addicted to heroin start by abusing prescription opiates or benzos. Because these drugs are more expensive and difficult to obtain without a prescription, you may turn to heroin for its easier accessibility.
Heroin Tolerance and Dependence
Drug tolerance takes hold when your body and brain become accustomed to a certain dosage over time. With heroin, tolerance can happen very quickly.
Your body adapts to each dose of heroin you take, requiring you to take more and more each time. Tolerance leads to dependence, which can rapidly develop into an addiction.
You experience cravings for the drug and struggle to stop using it. This dependence can be physical, psychological, or both.
Physical dependence occurs when your body can no longer function normally without heroin. Addictive drugs like heroin change the circuitry in your brain.
Each time you use the drug, this rewiring grows stronger and physically compels you to continue using it. If you stop using heroin when physically dependent, you’re likely to experience withdrawal symptoms.
Psychological dependence occurs when you experience the emotional and mental reliance that comes with continued use, such as intense cravings.
When you’re psychologically dependent on heroin, you feel like you have to use it in order to function normally. Much of your life comes to revolve around thinking obsessively about, acquiring, and using it.
Signs and Symptoms
Heroin addiction can happen very swiftly. What begins as occasional use often devolves into addiction because of how quickly your tolerance builds.
Once your brain comes to rely on heroin to maintain its dopamine levels, you experience withdrawal symptoms without the drug.
Suddenly, you need heroin just to function normally. You may try and fail to quit or cut down your use repeatedly. Over time, you may change how you self-administer heroin, moving from snorting or smoking it to shooting it intravenously in order to feel the effects more intensely.
You might begin to experience constant cravings for heroin. Relationships, work, and other life responsibilities fall by the wayside as you become consumed with using.
Eventually, you may feel as though the drug has completely taken over your life. If you inject heroin, you could also be at risk of contracting hepatitis C or HIV/AIDS from sharing contaminated needles.
You might continue using heroin despite facing these substance-related problems.
If you do try to quit, you can experience uncomfortable withdrawal symptoms that feel impossible to withstand, because you’ve come to rely on it to function normally.
You may find yourself only associating with other drug users, or even lying to your loved ones about your whereabouts and the extent of your use.
Heroin withdrawal symptoms are often the opposite of what you experience when using heroin. For example, when using heroin you feel a rush of intense pleasure, so when in withdrawal you might feel irritable, upset, or anxious. Other common symptoms of heroin withdrawal include:
- intense cravings/nervousness
- stomach cramping or nausea
- vomiting or diarrhoea/anxiety or depression
- paranoia/chronic insomnia
- muscle and bone pain
- extreme flu-like symptoms
- uncontrollable shaking or muscle spasms
It is extremely difficult and dangerous to detox from heroin on your own. The symptoms of heroin withdrawal are highly uncomfortable, and you could experience life-threatening complications. Medically assisted detox is strongly encouraged for those wanting to quit their heroin addiction.
Heroin Withdrawal Timeline
Heroin is classified as a short-acting opioid. This means the drug takes effect rapidly and also leaves the bloodstream rather quickly. That being said, heroin withdrawal is different for everyone. The exact timeline for withdrawal depends on a few factors, like how long you’ve been using and whether or not you struggle with other addictions or mental health conditions.
Typically, heroin withdrawal symptoms start within 6-12 hours of the last dose. They peak in the first two or three days and taper off after 5-10 days. Some people experience post-acute withdrawal syndrome, in which symptoms persist for weeks or even months.
Detox is the first step on the road to recovery from heroin addiction. Here at Castle Craig, we operate our own, specialised medical detox centre to help you stop using heroin and safely move through the withdrawal process before seamlessly transitioning into inpatient care.
Detoxing from heroin is best done with professional support. During medically assisted detox at Castle Craig, your safety and comfort are our highest priority. You’ll receive 24/7 care from our highly trained staff, with the ability to request medical attention at the press of a button.
Quitting heroin on your own is extremely difficult and can be dangerous. At Castle Craig, your detox is overseen by a team of psychiatrists, doctors, and nurses. You receive a custom detox plan fit to your unique medical history and personal needs. Our team meets regularly throughout the detox process to monitor your condition and update your treatment plan accordingly as you progress.
As you move through the detox process, you’ll have the opportunity to start integrating into our treatment program. This creates a smooth transition to inpatient care, where you’ll begin intensive therapy work to heal from your addiction.
Treatment for Heroin Addiction
We know that everyone comes to treatment with a unique set of life experiences. That’s why we create a custom treatment plan for each and every patient that takes into account their singular situation.
After detoxing from heroin, you’ll enter our recovery programme where you’ll benefit from a personalised focus on your unique life situation. No matter what underlying difficulties or co-occurring conditions in your life may have led to or exacerbated your heroin addiction, you can begin to heal the root causes in individual and group therapy sessions, including targeted programs to address conditions such as eating disorders and trauma.
Your days at Castle Craig are thoughtfully constructed to create a restorative experience where you can heal from addiction, address underlying traumas, build lasting healthy habits, and connect with others in recovery.
Situated in the beautiful countryside of the Scottish Borders, Castle Craig’s location is highly conducive to addiction recovery. You receive a variety of wholesome meals and have plenty of opportunities to exercise and rest while receiving clinically excellent, therapeutic care.
Because addiction recovery is a lifelong process, your relationship with Castle Craig doesn’t end when you complete residential treatment. Before you leave, you’ll receive a customised, two-year continuing care plan so you can successfully continue into a meaningful and inspired life in sobriety.
If you think you may be addicted to heroin, recovery is within your reach. A fulfilling and rewarding life is possible no matter how hard you may be struggling with heroin right now—contact us today to learn how we can help.
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Page last reviewed and clinically fact-checked January 25, 2022