Signs and Symptoms of Heroin Abuse

Heroin is a synthetic opioid that shares similarities with opium, morphine, and other natural derivatives from the poppy plant. Also known as smack, tar, or horse, heroin is extremely addictive and brings about a strong sense of euphoria when consumed. This drug typically appears as a powder or a sticky black solid. Most who abuse heroin do so by smoking, snorting, or injecting the drug.

Regardless of how heroin is consumed, when it enters into the body, it is converted into morphine. Once this occurs, it stimulates areas of the brain that are linked to pleasure, pain, and reward. The receptors, which are found in the brain stem, control automatic processes like breathing and blood pressure. Therefore, the use of heroin can be highly dangerous, as overdose can bring about low blood pressure and slowed breathing.

The intense effects of heroin will prompt individuals to start wanting more doses once the effects of the drugs have worn off. The addictive properties of heroin place individuals at risk for easily becoming dependent. As soon as an individual’s body begins craving heroin, trying to stop use or cease it can bring about withdrawal symptoms, which can be so painful and powerful that they stand in the way of an individual getting the appropriate treatment. Therefore, if you suspect someone is abusing heroin, seek help as quickly as you can.

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The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) reports that roughly 1.8% of young adults between 18 and 25 have abused heroin at least one time in their lives, and about 0.7% of individuals in this age range have participated in heroin abuse within the past year. Approximately 2% of adults over age 25 have abused heroin at least once, with 0.2% of those adults abusing heroin over the past year. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that in 2013, heroin overdose caused over 8,200 deaths.

Causes and Risk Factors for Heroin Abuse

Abusing heroin or developing heroin use disorder can be impacted by a number of genetic and environmental factors, including:

Genetic: Numerous studies, including those with adopted children whose biological parents had a substance use disorder but whose adoptive parents did not, show that genetics can dramatically increase one’s chances of developing a substance use disorder. A genetic predisposition to impulsivity is also connected as a risk factor for heroin use disorder.

Environmental: Research shows that the strongest environmental factors for developing heroin use disorder include stress that an individual is unable to properly cope with, having access to heroin, and hanging out with those who abuse heroin or other substances.

Risk Factors:

  • Impulsivity
  • Trauma
  • Access to heroin
  • Family history of mental illness
  • Gender (males are more likely to abuse heroin than females are)
  • Age (most heroin abuse starts in one’s teens or early 20s)
  • Personal history of mental illness
  • Poor stress management skills
  • Family history of substance abuse or substance use disorders
  • Prior substance abuse

Signs and Symptoms of Heroin Abuse

Below are some of the signs and symptoms that one might display if he or she is abusing heroin or has developing heroin use disorder:

Behavioral symptoms:

  • Lack of participation in significant activities
  • Constantly scratching oneself
  • Possession of injection paraphernalia, including syringes and hypodermic needles
  • Lying or being deceptive about one’s whereabouts and/or activities
  • Social withdrawal

Physical symptoms:

  • Flushed skin
  • Pupil constriction
  • Slowed breathing
  • Lowered heart rate
  • Vomiting
  • Scabs, sores, and other skin problems (if injecting heroin)
  • Itchiness
  • Nausea
  • Insomnia
  • Weight loss
  • Dry mouth
  • Watery eyes
  • Runny nose
  • Lethargy

Cognitive symptoms:

  • Poor judgment
  • Inability to think clearly
  • Confusion

Psychosocial symptoms:

  • Anxiety
  • Euphoria
  • Mood swings
  • Desire for isolation
If you feel that you are in crisis, or are having thoughts about hurting yourself or others, please call 9-1-1 or go to the nearest emergency room immediately.

Effects of Heroin Abuse

Continued heroin abuse can cause an individual to suffer many negative outcomes, including:

  • Homelessness
  • Suicidal ideation and attempt
  • Chronic unemployment
  • Financial ruin
  • Academic failure
  • Job loss
  • Strained interpersonal relationships
  • Arrest and incarceration
  • Family discord
  • Liver and kidney damage
  • Hepatitis B and C
  • Pneumonia
  • Tuberculosis

Co-Occurring Disorders

Those who have developing heroin use disorder might also be at risk for developing the co-occurring disorders listed below:

  • Posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
  • Other substance use disorders
  • Depressive disorders
  • Antisocial personality disorder

Effects of Withdrawal and Overdose

Effects of heroin withdrawal: When an individual’s body has grown dependent on heroin, trying to stop or cease use can cause withdrawal symptoms to kick in, which can include:

  • Dysphoria
  • Flu-like symptoms
  • Nausea
  • Intense cravings for heroin
  • Inability to experience pleasure
  • Insomnia
  • Agitation
  • Runny nose and watery eyes
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Anxiety

Effects of heroin overdose: An individual who shows the symptoms listed below after consuming an exceptional amount of heroin might have overdosed. If this occurs, immediate medical attention is required:

  • Muscle spasms
  • Loss of consciousness
  • Shallow or otherwise irregular breathing
  • Slowed heart rate
  • Low blood pressure
  • Pupil dilation
  • Abdominal cramps
  • Bluish tinge near mouth or fingertips
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