Heroin is a remarkably powerful drug, capable of overpowering the brain with transforming chemical signals on the very first hit.
As a result, this is a drug that can — and often does — trigger an addictive response with the very first hit. As soon as people use heroin, they want to use more. If people do use more, they could develop an ongoing heroin habit that could lead to physical, mental, and social consequences. These are just a few of the problems tied to long-term heroin abuse.
Brain damage can also come about due to a heroin user’s need to take more heroin to keep the happy feelings coming. Brain cells become accustomed to the presence of the drug, and they may no longer respond to small doses of the drug. As people take in more and more heroin, they run the risk of an overdose. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), heroin overdoses involve a suppression of breathing. This breathing suppression can deprive the brain of oxygen. Without oxygen, those brain cells can die. In severe cases, an overdose can cause permanent brain damage.
Heroin has also been associated with an increase in risk of viral infections, including HIV and hepatitis B and C. This is due in part to heroin users’ propensity to share needles with one another. Every shared needle could have a speckle of blood that could contain an infectious agent. But the risks go deeper. Heroin also has the ability to loosen behavior. People who use heroin may engage in risky sexual activity while under the influence, and that could also cause infection.
This risk of infection is very real, and NIDA reports that over half of all people in the United States diagnosed with a new hepatitis C infection in 2010 were intravenous drug users. HIV rates and hepatitis B rates are similar. Some of these conditions can be treated with medications and supportive therapy, but none can be cured.
People who inject heroin also run the risk of injecting bacteria into their bodies, and once inside, that bacteria can begin to grow and fester. People who inject drugs may develop abscesses at the injection site, and sometimes, those infections grow so large that they require an amputation. Similarly, some veins and arteries under constant attack from a needle can grow so scarred that they shut down altogether. That results in a slower blood flow, and that could also result in infection.
In addition to latching onto receptors in the brain, heroin attaches to receptors in the gut. When heroin is attached like this, movement in the gut slows down dramatically. People who use heroin over a long period of time may develop chronic constipation due to the abuse, and in some cases, constipation grows so severe that it causes the bowel to perforate or explode.
Women who abuse heroin during pregnancy can damage more than just their bodies. They can also hurt the bodies of the babies they are carrying. The March of Dimes reports that heroin can cause these problems:
- Birth defects
- Premature birth
- Low birthweight
- Addiction in the baby
- Sudden infant death syndrome
Some of these issues could cause the death of the baby. Others result in health problems the baby might be forced to deal with for the rest of life.
It is clear that heroin can cause a number of very serious physical health problems, but the drug can do more than harm a person’s body. The drug can also do a great deal of damage to a person’s mind.
Heroin brings about a sense of pleasure and relaxation due to chemical changes triggered in the brain. Each hit of heroin zooms through the blood-brain barrier and latches to specialized receptors. Once latched, heroin molecules trigger the release of a chemical known as dopamine. As dopamine levels rise, the brain interprets that surge as pleasure or happiness.
Without ongoing hits of heroin, the brain may be incapable of producing and/or releasing dopamine. That could mean that people in the midst of an addiction could become chronically depressed. Their brain cells are no longer adept at producing a feeling of pleasure without the help of heroin.
In an article in Psych Central, the authors report that depression could also be a cause for drug use and that people who self-medicate with drugs due to underlying depression could make feelings of depression worse. When the drug is working, it can mask depression. When it is gone, the suppressed feeling can return and be even stronger than it was before.
The Anxiety and Depression Association of America reports that some people with addictions could be using substances of abuse to mask feelings of worry or concern. These are symptoms of an anxiety disorder, and these disorders do not go away without treatment. But people who mask anxiety with heroin may never get the treatment they need. That could make feelings of worry, angst, and paranoia much worse and much harder to control.
Mental health could also be impacted by the isolation that comes with a heroin addiction. People who use this drug may not be able to talk openly about their substance use and abuse, and they may be forced to lie to family members and friends about how much they use and why they use. All of these lies and hidden pleasures can keep people from really connecting with the people who love them. They may always feel as though they are somehow lying, cheating, or stealing. They may never feel truly connected. That isolation can lead to feelings of hopelessness, helplessness, and loneliness.
Risks of Ongoing Use
While some problems associated with heroin can be tied to the length of the addiction, others can be linked to ongoing drug use. These are the risks every heroin user faces, every time that person preps a hit of drugs.
Chief among them is the risk of overdose. Heroin is not tested for purity, in most cases, before it hits the street. That means a dose of heroin could be intensely powerful or intensely weak, depending on the day and the method of preparation used. There is really no way to tell whether a dose is strong or not strong. People who pull up a dose that is just slightly too big could overdose very quickly.
Similarly, many people who abuse heroin go through periods of sobriety and relapse. People coming back from a period of sobriety may, according to the website FRANK, pull up a heroin dose that is similar to the dose they took when they were active users. That dose might be much too big for a partially recovered brain. Using it could put the brain into an overdose, which could lead to death.
Heroin doses can also be contaminated with items that should never enter a person’s body. For example, the organization Public Health England reported that many people in the UK became ill with botulism after using contaminated heroin. This is an infection that can quickly kill. Infectious agents like this are not visible to the naked eye, but they could be lurking in the next dose of drugs people prepare to take.
It is also worth noting that heroin is an illegal substance in the United States. That means people who sell, buy, or hold heroin could be faced with very steep criminal charges, including prison time. Of all the arrests for possession of drugs in 2012, according to the Federal Bureau of Investigations, heroin was responsible for 16.5 percent. That means many people get arrested for simply holding the drug. An arrest for drugs could lead to yet more consequences, such as job loss and/or eviction. An arrest could also lead to a fine, which could put the family in financial distress.
A Better Way
Ongoing heroin addictions can do a great deal of damage to a person’s body, mind, family, and community. But thankfully, a heroin addiction does not need to persist. Through the years, experts have studied how heroin addictions advance and grow, and they have developed a number of innovative solutions that can help. In fact, it is reasonable to say that people know more about heroin addictions than they might know about all other addictions.
There are therapies, medications, and additional solutions that have been specifically tailored to help people who are addicted to heroin. Some of those solutions begin to deliver relief in just weeks.
While people who have a heroin addiction might need to stick with treatment for months or even years in order to keep cravings at bay, people who do so may find that they gain a level of control over the addiction that they simply did not think was possible.
Therapy can be remarkably pleasant, as it is filled with therapists and peers who want everyone to get better. The best way to see that in real time is to enroll. Everyone who does so has a chance to avoid at least some of the consequences of heroin addiction.