Heroin addiction is a widely prevalent problem with potentially life-threatening consequences. The number of heroin users is on the rise. For instance, in 2016, about 948,000 Americans reported they used heroin in the past year. A staggering number! Most of us know someone who is using heroin, and the fact is we are in a position to help them. Or even if you’re using heroin, you need to know it is entirely possible to get sober. In this post, we are going to focus on heroin addiction, its signs and symptoms, and the role of medication-assisted treatment.

What is Heroin Addiction Like?

Heroin exhibits the well-known “downer” effect that makes a person feel calm and relaxed. The drug blocks the brain’s ability to feel pain, which is why many people with chronic pain conditions use heroin or Morphine to feel better by escaping the excruciating pain they experience. Even though heroin addiction is common, there are tons of misconceptions about it. For example, people think someone takes heroin and becomes hooked immediately. The reality is that the majority of heroin addiction cases started with a dependency on opiate medications that were prescribed to patients to treat some illnesses. Heroin addiction is a serious problem, but it is entirely manageable with the right approach, support from the loved ones, and strong willpower. 

Heroin Addiction Signs

Signs and symptoms of heroin addiction can vary from one person to another as they largely depend on multiple factors such as the amount of drug used, frequency of heroin use, genetic makeup, just to name a few. At the very beginning, signs, and symptoms of heroin addiction are usually unnoticeable due to the fact that many people, especially previous drug users, hide their addiction well. As the addiction becomes worse, the intensity of symptoms increases, and friends, family members, and even coworkers start noticing changes in an affected person. We can divide heroin addiction signs into several categories.

Behavioral changes associated with heroin addiction include:

  • Avoiding eye contact
  • A decline in self-esteem and negative body image
  • Decreased motivation
  • Engaging in risky and dangerous behaviors
  • Hostile behavior toward loved ones
  • Incoherent speech
  • Lack of basic hygiene
  • Lack of interest in favorite activities and hobbies
  • Lying or deceptive behavior
  • Repeatedly borrowing money or stealing from family members and money-related problems
  • Sleeping too much
  • Wearing long-sleeved clothes and long pants even in warm weather to hide needle marks
  • Worsening of performance at work or school

A person who is addicted to heroin also has burned spoons, needles, and syringes in their possession. They may stash the drug at different places around the house and experience periods of exhaustion followed by periods of hyperactivity.

Psychological signs of heroin addiction include:

  • Agitation
  • Depression
  • Despair and hopelessness
  • Disorientation and confusion
  • Feelings of shame and guilt
  • Impaired judgment
  • Inability to focus and concentrate

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Physical signs and symptoms of heroin addiction include:

  • Amenorrhea or absence of menstrual cycle in women
  • Burning sensation and scabby skin
  • Constipation
  • Constricted pupils
  • Decreased sense of pain
  • Exhaustion
  • Flu-like symptoms (persistent)
  • Flushed, warm skin
  • Infection at the injection site

Heroin Addiction Withdrawal

Drug withdrawal is defined as the onset of symptoms, both mental and physical, when a substance is not given to the body or reduced. In this case, withdrawal symptoms occur when a person stops taking heroin.

Heroin withdrawal is one of the biggest obstacles in the treatment of addiction to this drug. Why? The reason is simple, heroin withdrawal can be uncomfortable and painful, and many patients give up the effort to get sober. The reason why people go through withdrawal symptoms is due to tolerance they have developed after long use of the drug. Also, heroin is a type of drug that makes people crave it. When you combine craving and tolerance that makes people take more heroin, it becomes evident why withdrawal symptoms may occur.

Withdrawal symptoms that occur after cessation of heroin use can be serious, and it’s not recommended for people to go through this process on their own. It’s safer to have medical supervision during withdrawal.

What symptoms might one expect? They depend on various factors, but primarily on the severity of the addiction. The most common heroin addiction withdrawal symptoms include:

  • Anxiety, depression, and suicidal thoughts
  • Convulsions and tremors
  • Insomnia
  • Intense craving for heroin
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Nervousness
  • Nightmares or hallucinations
  • Problems with breathing and heart rate
  • Severe stomach and muscle cramps
  • Sweating

Nowadays, people addicted to heroin have the opportunity to access withdrawal programs that help them recover from the above-mentioned symptoms safely. Acute heroin withdrawal symptoms last about a week. Some symptoms may last for several weeks. Post-acute withdrawal symptoms may persist for 24 months.

Medication-assisted treatment for heroin addiction

Medication-assisted treatment (MAT) is defined as the usage of medications along with behavioral therapies and counseling to treat Opioid use disorders and aid the recovery process to a sober life. Although a common approach in drug addiction treatment, MAT is largely misunderstood. You see, MAT is not meant to work on its own but to pose as one piece of a puzzle i.e., it is just one of several approaches for addiction treatment.

In medication-assisted programs, patients get prescription drugs that make withdrawal symptoms and the road to sobriety easier. It is worth mentioning that medications are generally a short-term strategy.

Two medications that are primarily used for heroin addiction treatment are methadone and Suboxone (Buprenorphine and Naloxone). Both of them are replacement medications that trick the brain into believing a person took heroin. Although their purpose is the same, Methadone and Suboxone have different mechanisms of action. For instance, while Suboxone can contribute to higher mental clarity and boosts confidence, it can only be taken in a certain dose before it stops working. Generally speaking, the seriousness of the addiction is the main factor that determines which medication to use.

Not only does the MAT reduce the intensity of withdrawal symptoms, but it also decreases the risk of relapse and prevents future addiction.

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