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Heroin Addiction Guide: Symptoms, Treatment, and More

Heroin addiction is a serious problem in the United States, affecting thousands of people every year. More people are falling into opioid abuse and dying to drug overdoses. Heroin alone was responsible for 15,500 drug overdose deaths in 2016, and the number seems to be rising. Learn more about the signs and symptoms of heroin addiction, and how it can be treated.


With the addiction epidemic growing at increasing rates, it’s important to recognize heroin addiction for what it is: a disease. For a long time, addiction to narcotics and alcoholism was seen and treated as purely a moral failing. If you were rich, you’d “dry out” in comfortable medical facilities, and if you were poor, you would be sent to prison or asylums. Today, the National Institute for Drug Abuse (NIDA) recognizes the philosophy that addiction is a disease as a pillar of effective treatment.

The idea that addiction is a disease rather than a bad habit and a moral failing isn’t a novel concept. It was first theorized decades ago by doctors who had treated addicted patients who couldn’t stop using on their own. Dr. William Silkworth, a physician who specialized in the treatment of alcoholics in the 1930s, wrote a paper titled “Alcoholism as a Manifestation of Allergy,” which criticized the poor treatment of alcoholism.

Today, we have learned even more about addiction and how it operates in the brain. First, chemical dependence is a clear physical consequence of drug use and how it affects your brain chemistry. Heroin binds to opioid receptors in the brain and body, which you come to rely on over time. When you stop taking the drug, your brain chemistry is equipped to deal with the whiplash of chemical imbalance, causing you to feel unpleasant symptoms of withdrawal.

However, we know that addiction doesn’t stop after your brain chemistry balances out in detox. Addiction can take a long time to correct and for most people, that do achieve abstinence, it is a lifelong process. This is because addiction affects the limbic system, the part of your brain that is responsible for reward and motivation. Through drug use, you teach your brain that heroin makes you feel good. The limbic system is designed to recognize healthy activities that should be repeated. It’s why we have an instinctual desire to find food and seek comfortable shelter. But heroin sends signals to the limbic system that mimic the signals food and comfort send, only much more powerful.

Your limbic system goes into overdrive. It sends you impulses that make finding more heroin a top priority, even after your last hit of the drug leaves your system and withdrawal symptoms fade away. Those impulses will still fire because your limbic system has been hijacked and it takes serious time and treatment to correct.

However, NIDA also points out, “The initial decision to take drugs is voluntary for most people…” If taking drugs leads to addiction and the initial act is voluntary, how can addiction be a disease and not a decision? To understand this, it helps to compare addiction to another disease: type 2 diabetes. Addiction and diabetes can both begin in people after they reach adulthood and they even have similar rates of relapse between 40 and 60 percent.

Type 2 diabetes is caused by a number of factors including genetics, just like addiction, but the lifestyle is a significant contributing factor. Lack of exercise, unhealthy eating, and obesity all come from unhealthy choices and can ultimately lead to diabetes. Is it not a disease because choices lead to it? Of course not. There are a plethora of diseases that are caused by unhealthy life choices, but we still treat them as diseases. NIDA goes on to say, “repeated drug use can lead to brain changes that challenge an addicted person’s self-control and interfere with their ability to resist intense urges to take drugs.”

Heroin addiction can affect anyone. It’s not relegated to specific parts of society.

The growing opioid epidemic has shown that heroin use has spread like other diseases, across vast populations, from the inner city to rural areas. But what caused this epidemic?

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The opioid epidemic has spread across the country like wildfire. Despite the use of standard and new methods, the epidemic shows no signs of stopping. In fact, it’s growing faster. Drug overdose has always been a problem but 20 years ago the number of people dying in the U.S. from an overdose was less than 20,000. Today, we’ve exceeded 64,000. In the last few years, the rate of overdose death increase has gotten to the point where the line graph is almost completely vertical. But why? Why are more people using heroin and other opioids and why are more people dying?

The fight against opioids is a battle waged on two fronts: a flood of prescription opioids and a scourge of illicit heroin and synthetic drugs.

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, sales of prescription opioids have increased nearly four times over in a period between 1999 and 2014. They also point out that there hasn’t been a significant change in the amount of pain that Americans are reporting that would warrant such an increase. While the normal use of prescription opioids can lead to addiction in a small percent of highly susceptible people, hundreds of millions of opioid prescriptions are written each year, but only a small percentage of that number leads to addiction. So, is there a link between prescriptions and the epidemic?

The increase in opioid prescriptions may not likely lead a legitimate user into addiction. However, it does cause a large number of unused pills to sit on shelves after the pain subsides. Opioids are prescribed for everything from chronic pain to recovery from having your wisdom teeth pulled. Some people are prescribed things like oxycodone and Percocet for the recovery of surgeries and injuries. But they are given enough to last well beyond their pain has subsided.

The excess pills can take one of multiple paths:

  • They can be disposed of when they are no longer needed, but this is highly unlikely. They are expensive and they’re still effective, so why would anyone throw them out not knowing their potential danger?
  • They can be found by children, teens, or other people living in your house that are curious as to their potential recreational effects.
  • They can be given to a friend or family member that doesn’t have a prescription.

The last scenario is the most common form of prescription drug abuse. People that abuse prescription opioids don’t usually get drugs from illegal street sales or their own prescriptions. They get them from friends and family members.

Users who become dependent on prescription opioids often switch to heroin when prescriptions become too expensive or difficult to get. The low price and high availability of illicit heroin are caused by an influx of the drug from black markets involving transnational criminal organizations. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, a combination of these two factors has contributed to the overall increase in heroin overdose cases. In their 2016 National Heroin Threat Assessment Summary, they wrote, “Increased demand for, and use of, heroin is being driven by both increasing availability of heroin in the U.S. market and by some controlled prescription drug (CPD) abusers using heroin.”


Heroin abuse and subsequent addiction come with a number of signs and symptoms, including both physical and behavioral signs. Directly after using heroin, intoxication may involve shortness of breath, dry mouth, dilated pupils, disorientation or confusion, droopy and lethargic appearance, and fatigue. However, other drugs and even medical disorders can cause similar symptoms. Other symptoms like behavioral signs can point more definitively to heroin abuse. Signs include:


  •  Lying about drug use
  •  Struggling work or school performance
  •  Withdrawal from normal activities
  •  Loss of motivation
  •  Sudden change in friends
  •  Changes in weight
  •  Lack of attention to personal hygiene
  •  Lack of self-esteem
  •  Hiding needle marks with long sleeves and pants
  •  Drug paraphernalia


Pure heroin, in appropriate doses, only has mild effects and doesn’t produce deadly, adverse reactions. However, illicit heroin is rarely pure, and it can come contaminated by inert substance, other psychoactive drugs, dangerous chemicals, and other more powerful opioids. A shipment of heroin may arrive in the U.S. with few adulterants, but as it travels down the supply chain, dealers will cut it with other substances to increase profits. Once it gets to the street level, it’s difficult to know how pure it is or what else is mixed into it, so the appropriate dose is difficult to determine. Because of heroin’s unpredictable nature, overdose can happen in three ways:

  • A person who has developed an addiction to heroin achieves sobriety because of a medical procedure, prison, or because they were in recovery and then relapses. Over time a heroin user builds up a tolerance and uses more and more of the drug at a time. After they go through detox and stay clean for a while, their tolerance will drop, and if the relapse using the same doses they used to be tolerant to, they’ll experience an overdose.
  • A person starts by using heroin they don’t realize is very diluted. Once they get used to a week batch, they may assume that their normal dose is appropriate for any heroin. Once they get a purer batch the amount they are used to can lead to overdose.
  • A batch of heroin has fentanyl, or another powerful opioid mixed in. Fentanyl can be deadly to the average person in amounts as small as a snowflake.


It often said that heroin addiction is very uncomfortable, but it can’t kill you. And there is very little evidence to suggest that there is any significant risk of fatality. For instance, naloxone is a drug that reverses an opioid overdose by kicking heroin off of opioid receptors and blocking any further binding until it wears off. However, naloxone often sends people who are addicted to opioids into immediate withdrawal symptoms, yet the medication saves lives every day.

But, researchers like Shane Darke from the National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre have pointed out that people can and have died from an opioid overdose. When you go into an opioid withdrawal, you can experience a variety of symptoms which are often described as flu-like, including insomnia, yawning, muscle aches, runny nose, nausea, sweating, vomiting, and diarrhea. The last three symptoms pose a potential threat of dehydration without proper care or medical attention. Sweating, vomiting, and diarrhea can cause you to lose water quickly, which can lead to serious medical complications like dehydration, elevated blood sodium levels, and heart failure.

“These symptoms can usually be avoided easily with medical or clinical supervision and care. However, the idea that opioid withdrawal is uncomfortable but ultimately harmless could lead to inadequate care.”


Heroin addiction is a complex disease that requires complex treatment to effectively recover from. The disease is chronic, and relapse is a significant threat, but there are a variety of treatment options that can help you achieve lifelong recovery from active addiction. Though heroin withdrawal is not typically deadly, the safest option is to go through withdrawal in some kind of medical professional setting. In medical detox, you will have 24 hours on medically managed supervision that last for about a week. During that time, your symptoms will be mitigated as much as possible, and your safety will be a top priority. In medical detox, you will also have the accountability to help you avoid relapse.


After a week of detox, clinicians will help you find a treatment program that is right for you. Typically, treatment will involve the continuum of care, which describes different levels of care that you’re placed in based on your needs. As you progress, you will move to lower levels of care until you complete treatment. After detox, the levels of care include:

Inpatient treatment is the most intensive level of care after detox. It involves 24-hour clinically monitored care and offers extra supervision for clients that might have significant health and psychological needs that need attention. This is often useful for clients with ongoing medical concerns that need 24-hour care and for people with serious post-acute withdrawal symptoms that last for a few weeks after detox.

In intensive outpatient treatment, you will no longer need constant medical or clinical supervision, but you will still need highly intensive treatment. In IOP, you will have access to more than nine hours of clinical services every week.

Outpatient treatment involves fewer than nine hours of clinical services and represents the lowest official level of care in addiction treatment. This is an ideal step to help clients back into normal life, which they continue to learn coping strategies for real issues they are encountering in day-to-day life.

After treatment is completed, you should still continue your commitment to recovery by connecting to your treatment center’s aftercare program or by seeking out support groups. People who become complacent after treatment often fall back into old habits and are more likely to relapse. Connecting to a support community like a 12-step program can help you gain accountability to avoid relapse.


Addiction treatment can involve a variety of treatment options and therapies but one of the most important aspects of an effective treatment plan is that it’s highly individualized. When you enter a treatment program, you should have an opportunity to sit down with your therapist so that you can give them as much information and input to make your plan.

Addiction can be caused by a variety of underlying factors, and people will respond to different types of treatment. A personalized treatment plan will help ensure that you are getting the best treatment for your needs.

It’s also important for a treatment program to answer multiple needs besides a heroin addiction. Addiction can cause multiple problems like infectious diseases, vocational issues, and financial problems.

Person harvesting poppy bulbs

Effective treatment will address the medical, psychological, social, vocational, and legal problems.

Though treatment is individualized and can include a variety of different therapies, one of the most commonly recommended treatment options is behavioral therapy. Behavioral therapies focus on motivating and developing a meaningful behavioral change. Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) is among the most common in addiction treatment and it involves looking at the way thinking can lead to negative or positive behaviors. In the CBT model, clients learn to prevent relapse by practicing techniques that develop positive coping mechanisms and avoid thoughts that could lead to eventual relapse.


Though heroin is a chronic disease that is incredibly difficult to overcome on your own, there is help available. Addiction is a treatable disease, even if you’ve relapsed before. To learn more about heroin addiction treatment and how you can start the road to long-lasting recovery, call the addiction specialists at Delphi Behavioral Health Group. Call 844-899-577 and you may be taking your first steps on the road to lasting sobriety and lifelong recovery. Addiction is a difficult road but you don’t have to go through it alone.


CDC. (2017, August 30). Opioid Overdose from

Darke, S., Larney, S., & Farrell, M. (2016, August 11). Yes, people can die from opiate withdrawal from

NIDA. (2018, January 17). Prescription Opioids and Heroin. Retrieved from

Katz, J. (2017, June 05). Drug Deaths in America Are Rising Faster Than Ever from

National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2017, September 15). Overdose Death Rates from

National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2018, June). Understanding Drug Use and Addiction from




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