Heroin Dependence

Heroin dependence has increased over the last years primarily due to pain medications being prescribed even more, which share similar effects to heroin.

The receptors in the brain accept and bind opioids to allow heroin to enter the body at a very rapid speed. Heroin dependence can change the areas of the brain that handle emotions around pain, controlling heart rate, sleep patterns and breathing.

Recovering from heroin, like all addictions, can be pretty tricky. The team of medical professionals at Aspen Behavioral Health has years of knowledge and expertise to help you on your journey to sobriety.

What is heroin dependence?

Those who regularly use heroin may find themselves at higher risk of contracting HIV or Hepatitis C (HCV) virus. The National Institute on Drug Abuse explains that because heroin is typically injected using needles, it is not uncommon for people to share needles with others, which increases the chances of becoming sick from HIV or HCV.

Diseases such as HCV and HIV are diseases that can be found in a person’s blood. As drug use increases, so does having unprotected sex which further increases the odds of the disease being passed along.

Am I dependent on heroin?

Those who use heroin regularly say that they feel this intense feeling of happiness and pleasure. Several short and long-term effects can show signs of heroin dependence that include:

  • dry mouth, nausea, vomiting
  •  warm flushing of the skin, severe itching, cold flashes
  • heavy feeling in the arms and legs
  • clouded mental functioning
  • going back and forth between being conscious and subconscious

The long-term effects of heroin dependence can include:

  • insomnia
  • collapsed veins from constantly injecting the drug
  • tissue in the nose can be permanently damaged from snorting or sniffing
  • infections in the lining of the heart and heart valves
  • abscesses (swollen tissue filled with pus)
  • constipation and stomach cramping
  • liver and kidney disease
  • lung complications, including pneumonia
  • mental health disorders ranging from depression to signs of antisocial personality disorder
  • sexual dysfunction for men
  • irregular menstrual cycles for women

What are the possible causes of heroin dependence?

Heroin contains various additives such as sugars, starches, and even powdered milk. These additives help to clog the blood vessels, increasing the chances of a person’s lungs, liver, kidneys, or brain being damaged forever.

How can a heroin overdose be treated?

When a person overdoses on heroin, their breathing slows or can completely stop in some cases. A heroin overdose can lead to lower levels of oxygen reaching the brain, known as hypoxia. The short and long-term effects of hypoxia can be coma or permanent brain damage.

What to do if you think someone is using heroin?

A standard medicine used to fight overdoses is called Naloxone, which is given right away as soon as possible. This medicine helps to lower the risk of overdose by closing the opioid receptors in the brain and stopping the effects of heroin on the brain. Sometimes more than one dose could be needed, so it is crucial to bring the person to a hospital as quickly as possible.

When should I consider getting clean from heroin dependence?

Heroin is highly addictive, and people who regularly use it can find their tolerance for the drug. As the tolerance level begins to increase, a person needs to use more drugs to reach the same state of euphoria.

Heroin use can lead to long-term patterns, also known as substance use disorder (SUD), which are ongoing health problems and ignoring responsibilities at work, school, or home.

Heroin can have several withdrawal symptoms; some can appear even a few hours after use. These withdrawal symptoms can include:

  • restlessness, sleeping issues
  • severe muscle and bone pain
  • diarrhea and vomiting
  • cold flashes with goosebumps (“cold turkey”)
  • uncontrollable leg movements (“kicking the habit”)
  • severe heroin cravings

What happens to your brain when you use heroin?

The National Institute of Drug Abuse has found that the long-term effects of opioid addiction may permanently impact decision-making, controlling behavior, and how someone can handle stressful situations.

What are some of the symptoms of withdrawal from heroin dependence?

Withdrawal symptoms from heroin dependence can range from mild to severe. Medical providers use a variety of medications and therapy to ease these symptoms and increase the success rate that the person will come out of withdrawal safely.

Here are some of the typical withdrawal symptoms seen when dealing with heroin dependence:

  • nausea, abdominal pain, muscle spasms
  • sweating, shaking, nervousness
  • agitation, depression, cravings for drugs

Heroin dependence does have quite a few drugs used to treat heroin dependence and behavioral therapies for the treatment of heroin addiction. Matching the proper treatment and medicine type to the specific needs of the individual is very important.

The FDA-approved drug, lofexidine, designed to treat heroin addiction, is a prescription opioid that helps lower the withdrawal symptoms in patients. Some other commonly used medication-assisted treatment prescription opioids used include buprenorphine and methadone.

These prescription drugs help close off the opioid receptors in the brain to help reduce any cravings or withdrawal symptoms. Another popular option is called naltrexone which completely blocks the opioid receptors in the brain, so any desires are entirely suppressed.

Some other heroin dependence treatment plans focus on changing the behavior that led to these addictive behaviors. This treatment plan aims to give the patient mental tools and develop to fight their addictive behaviors by managing their stress and triggers. This treatment type has been so successful because it rewards positive patterns by giving vouchers, cash rewards and other prizes.

How do I get help for heroin dependence?

The journey to sobriety can be difficult but it does not have to be done alone. Some resources that are entirely confidential and free can be found at:

Talk to a recovery professional at Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration Helpline: 800-662-HELP (4357)

If you or you know someone fighting heroin dependence, there are many treatment options available that have medical professionals to guide you or your loved one every step of the way.

Aspen Behavioral Health, located in sunny West Palm Beach, is a rehab center that helps people regroup, detox, and find support as they start their journey to sobriety. Take that first step and talk to one of our Aspen Behavioral Health specialists today.


National Institute on Drug Abuse, “What is Heroin?”, NIH Resources, June 2021

Kosten, Thomas R., MD & George, Tony P., MD, US National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health,”The Neurobiology of Opioid Dependence: Implications for Treatment”, July 2002, Retrieved from www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2851054/ 

Addiction Center, “Heroin Addiction and Abuse”, August 16, 2021

Mayo Clinic, “How Opioid Addiction Occurs”, February 16, 2018, Retrieved from www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/prescription-drug-abuse/in-depth/how-opioid-addiction-occurs/art-20360372 

American Addiction Centers, “What is Heroin Withdrawal?”, August 3, 2021


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