The United States is currently facing one of the worst drug crises in the country’s history. There are more than 900 deaths per week caused by opioid overdoses, and millions of more Americans suffer from heroin addiction.
Because of the way it affects the human brain, heroin is the #1 most addictive substance in the world. 1 in 4 people who try heroin become addicted.
If you or a loved is struggling with addiction, keep reading for advice on how to quit heroin and how to manage the aftermath of withdrawal.
What Is Heroin?
Heroin is an opioid. It is derived from morphine, an extremely strong painkiller that is made from the seed of the poppy plant. Other opioid drugs such as Oxycontin and Vicodin can sometimes lead to heroin use due to their highly addictive qualities.
Like other opioids, taking heroin causes feelings of calm euphoria. However, this euphoric feeling only happens during the first couple time of use, before the body adapts.
Once the body has adapted to heroin use, the high involved is less pronounced and becomes more of a heavy, oblivious feeling that ranges somewhere between sleep and consciousness.
A regular heroin user is more likely to use heroin to alleviate the cravings caused by addiction and to avoid withdrawal symptoms than to actually enjoy the high.
What Are the Dangers?
In addition to being the world’s most addictive substance, long-term regular heroin users risk liver and kidney disease. They also risk higher chances of contracting HIV, lung complications, mental disorders, sexual dysfunction, and death.
Plus, the short term physical effects of using heroin are not known to be pleasant. Extreme itching, nausea, and vomiting are not uncommon immediately after using the drug.
Heroin can be smoked, injected or snorted. A long-term effect of injecting heroin is collapsed veins. Regular users will have exhausted the veins in their arms and will try to find any other ‘good’ vein to inject into.
The dose required to get high off heroin is only one-fifth of the dose that can potentially kill you. Heroin overdoses account for almost 50,000 deaths in the United States per year.
How to Quit Heroin
Because of the physical manifestation of heroin addiction, it is not recommended to quit heroin ‘cold turkey’. Heroin withdrawal symptoms include severe muscle pain, vomiting, insomnia, extreme anxiety, and paranoia.
Withdrawal symptoms and can last up to 10 days, more if the person has been a long-term heroin user. The longer a person has used, the more severe and long-lasting the withdrawal symptoms will be.
There are two main ways to treat heroin addiction, and the best results come from using both methods in tandem.
Pharmacological treatment (using medication) for drug detox and behavioral therapy (usually conducted in a supervised treatment facility) together can help anyone overcome heroin addiction, no matter how extreme.
Common pharmaceutical medications used to treat heroin addiction are Methadone, Buprenorphine, and Naltrexone. All three of these medications are opioid antagonists.
Methadone is a slow-acting opioid antagonist and is used when the patient has not responded well to other medications. It is addictive in itself and produces its own high when injected, so it’s now commonly administered orally.
Buprenorphine is a partial opioid antagonist that relieves heroin cravings without the dangerous side effects of some other opioid antagonists. It was the first medication to be prescribed by doctors through the Drug Addiction Treatment Act.
Naltrexone is another opioid antagonist that is not addictive or sedative. Naltrexone should only be used once the detoxification process is complete. This is due to its limited effectiveness if the opioid is still in the system.
Using medication to treat heroin addiction is effective to relieve cravings, manage withdrawal symptoms and detoxify the body. However, it is not guaranteed to eliminate the addiction long-term.
In order to treat the addiction effectively in the long term, behavioral therapy is required. Often, treatment will happen in a supervised rehabilitation facility. Outpatient rehab can also work.
Contingency management and cognitive behavioral therapy are effective ways to treat heroin addiction. Especially combined with medication.
Cognitive behavioral therapy re-programs the brain to help the addict cope with triggers that can lead to relapse.
Contingency management often involves the use of some sort of reward system. It works by allowing a person to accrue points or rewards for negative drug tests and making positive, healthy choices.
For many addicts, quitting after using for so long seems like more trouble than it’s worth. While a user might not see it, the long term benefits for quitting outweigh the short term relief of using.
Not only can quitting heroin strengthen relationships and improve your overall health, but it will also greatly reduce your chances of contracting HIV and potentially dying from an overdose.
Quitting can also keep you out of legal trouble. Heroin is illegal to possess and sell in the United States and can lead to heavy fines and jail time.
The Fentanyl crisis is another huge reason to quit. Fentanyl is an extremely powerful painkiller that has been found cut into heroin in recent years. The presence of Fentanyl dramatically increases the likelihood of overdose.
The Bottom Line
Heroin is the single most addictive substance known on this planet. It has ruined the lives of millions of Americans.
If you think someone you love is using heroin, look for physical signs. Some signs are small pupils, rapid weight loss, shaking, being cold in hot weather, slowed breathing and nodding off when speaking.
Other things you can look for are heroin paraphernalia like burnt spoons, plastic baggies, syringes, and small glass pipes.
No one says quitting heroin is easy. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. The physical symptoms of heroin withdrawal are as unpleasant as the long-term effects of the drug itself.
Fortunately, there are numerous resources to help heroin addicts and their loved ones overcome the addiction and get back to living a healthy, fulfilling life. Check out our addiction blog for more resources and advice on how to quit heroin.