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Heroin is one of the most addictive drugs, as it triggers several changes in the human brain on both a molecular and a neuro-chemical level. One of the aspects that make heroin so addictive is its high morphine content, which is derived from opium poppy plants and used for the management of severe pain. Heroin often presents itself as a white powder, although it is not uncommon for brown and even black heroin to be sold on the streets. The "street" version of heroin is cut or mixed with other substances, and it is used in a variety of different ways: some users prefer to snort heroin through the nose, others prefer to smoke it while others inject it intravenously.
Heroin is so addictive because it provides a very fast rush, and the user generally feels euphoric within a few minutes from the moment the drug was snorted or injected, as it quickly crosses the blood barrier and it instantly binds to the opioid receptors in the brain.
Heroin consumption can quickly turn into long-term dependence, and the side effects depend on the type of heroin that was used, as well as how it was administered (snorted or injected). Some side effects start to show a few minutes after the drug was used, and they include hot flashes and very dry mouth. Once the heroin rush has passed, it is not uncommon for the user to go through "brain fog", depression and even to experience severe skin rashes.
The long-term effects linked to heroin consumption are more severe, and they range all the way from collapsed veins and seizures to arthritis, liver disease, bacterial infections, pulmonary diseases, heart problems as well as infections with Hepatitis B, C or even with HIV. As a matter of fact, the HIV infection rates are the highest amongst heroin users, mainly because users tend to share needles, thus easily passing the virus from one to another. The risks of contracting HIV or Hepatitis C via infected needles are directly proportional to the length of the heroin addiction: a person that has been using heroin intravenously over the past 5 years or more has a 90% chance of contracting any of these two viruses.
There is always a risk of overdosing ' as mentioned above, heroin is available in different forms, and street-made heroin often includes ingredients that users are blissfully unaware of. Not only does street heroin include potentially fatal ingredients, but the user is also unaware of how intense the product is, this is why overdosing is a common problem.
In addition to the physical and emotional effects of heroin consumption, long-term use also involves some behavioral changes as well ' avoiding eye contact, lying, a decreasing attention to hygiene, incoherent speech, social seclusion or a lack of interest in activities that are otherwise interesting are only some of the potential signs of heroin abuse. Also, it is not uncommon for those who use heroin to also display a hostile behavior towards friends and family.
All heroin users go through a series of withdrawal symptoms when trying to overcome their addiction, this is why they are often given different medications to help them cope with the pain. It often happens that heroin abusers feel compelled to continue using the drug, and some of the most notable withdrawal symptoms include chills or hot flashes, insomnia, depression and anxiety, vomiting, nausea, severe muscle pain and twitching, intense sweating, heroin cravings, diarrhea and even fever.
All these changes are normal during the recovery period ' now is the time when the body slowly starts to "repair" itself, this is why it is of utmost importance for users who experience withdrawal symptoms after long-term drug consumption to be under close medical supervision. In rare cases, the patient may even die if he or she suffers from other underlying conditions, such as heart disease or HIV, the latter being known for destroying the immune system.
The recovery process following long-term heroin abuse depends on various factors, as there is no universal treatment plan that applies to all patients. Most of the time, the recovery process includes a four or twelve-step program designed to help the patient cope with the urges and cravings, manage their thoughts and behaviors in the long run, build and maintain their motivation as well as to live a balanced, healthy and drug-free life long after the treatment is completed.
During the recovery process, the patient is taught several strategies designed to help him relieve stress and pressure without resorting to drugs. These strategies are essential, as it often happens that patients find themselves at the highest risk for relapse when they face stressful situations. This is why behavioral therapists and psychologists emphasize on the importance of using other methods to relieve stress, such as aromatherapy, melotherapy, yoga, medication, or even sports. Physical exercise is extremely efficient for warding off depression and lowering the risk for heroin relapse, as it is known to naturally stimulate the production of endorphins in the brain (dopamine and serotonin).
On the other hand, another important part of the recovery process is keeping cravings and triggers away. After the patient gets sober from heroin, it is important to stay sober in the long run, in order for the brain to recover and rebuild the neural pathways that have been changed by the prolonged drug consumption. That being said, it is important for patients to avoid going to clubs and bars for at least a few months after the treatment is over, as drinking often impairs judgement and increases the risk of relapse. Moreover, it is also important for the patients to steer clear from old friends who are known to use drugs, as they are likely to try and convince them to slip back into their self-destructive old habits.
Lastly, patients must use prescription drugs with extra caution after they manage to beat their heroin addiction: they are still very vulnerable, and they can easily slip into another kind of addiction. Even if they have managed to overcome their heroin addiction, they can easily start abusing prescription drugs such as Oxycontin, anti-anxiety medication, painkillers and other powerful drugs that cannot be obtained over the counter.