Recognizing the Signs of Heroin Use

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Heroin is an illicit synthetic opioid and one of the most common addictive substances in America. The drug affects millions of individuals and families around the country each year. Many people become addicted to heroin after misusing prescription opioids to treat chronic conditions. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), "[A]bout 80 percent of people who used heroin first misused prescription opioids." However, multiple factors determine if someone is more likely to develop addictive behaviors involving heroin. Symptoms and side effects of heroin use damage relationships, affect communities, and endanger lives.

The effects and signs of heroin use vary significantly depending on what other substances may be mixed into the drug. Heroin is often combined with other substances to increase profits for people selling the drug. Individuals taking the substance cannot know what may have been mixed into the heroin, making it challenging to anticipate possible complications. The previously mentioned research from NIDA reported, "Heroin often contains additives, such as sugar, starch, or powdered milk, that can clog blood vessels leading to the lungs, liver, kidneys, or brain, causing permanent damage."

Professional mental health and addiction recovery treatment programs provide the best outcomes for individuals struggling with substance use disorder (SUD). However, individuals and families often don't take advantage of these programs unless they know how to recognize the signs of heroin abuse. Pathways Recovery Center uses evidence-based methods to treat heroin use disorder (HUD) and co-occurring conditions. The clinical team educates clients, families, and the local community about how to recognize the signs of heroin use.

Understanding Heroin and Its Effects

Heroin is a Schedule I controlled substance, which means it isn't currently accepted for medical use. Heroin is highly addictive, and the most immediate effects include pain relief and euphoria. The drug is an opioid that depresses some functions of the central nervous system. As a depressant, heroin slows down the brain and breathing. Slowed breathing affects the heart and may cause unconsciousness, coma, or death.

Chronic misuse of any addictive substance impacts a person's mental and physical health. However, the side effects of heroin misuse are often severe and long-lasting. Some known long-term side effects of chronic heroin misuse include:

  • Skin abscesses and related complications
  • Collapsed veins
  • Damage to blood vessels leading to major organs
  • Increased risk of developing HIV and other blood-borne illnesses
  • Impotence
  • Lack of fertility
  • Increased risk of pneumonia and lung disease
  • Malnutrition
  • Chronic constipation

The type of side effects and severity of symptoms depend on many factors, including how long the substance was misused, the person's age and general health, and the presence of any co-occurring disorders. Long-term heroin misuse causes physical changes to the brain and impacts how people think and behave. According to NIDA, "Studies have shown some deterioration of the brain's white matter due to heroin use, which may affect decision-making abilities, the ability to regulate behavior, and responses to stressful situations."

Physical Signs of Heroin Use

Some side effects of heroin misuse cause physical changes to the brain and various body systems. Individuals and loved ones concerned about heroin use may notice physical signs of these changes.

The physical effects of heroin abuse include:

  • Skin infections, lesions, and necrotic tissue
  • Liver and kidney disease
  • Uncontrollable limb movement
  • Bone and muscle pain or discomfort
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Diarrhea or constipation

A person's appearance is often the most striking physical sign of chronic heroin abuse. Although people experiencing SUD may not notice due to how slowly the changes manifest, loved ones and acquaintances often notice extreme changes in appearance, including:

  • Significant weight loss
  • Unusual injuries or noticeable injection marks
  • Pinprick pupils
  • Unusually flushed skin
  • Sexual dysfunction or unusually low sexual interest

The physical signs of heroin use may vary depending on whether the person has recently taken the substance. As more time passes, the physical symptoms of withdrawal become more apparent. According to NIDA, "After the initial effects [of heroin], users usually will be drowsy for several hours; mental function is clouded; heart function slows; and breathing is also severely slowed, sometimes enough to be life-threatening." If someone is suspected of having a heroin addiction, their loved ones should remain vigilant for the physical signs of HUD and withdrawal.

Behavioral Signs of Heroin Use

Heroin affects the brain and limits a person's ability to make sound, reasonable, and time-sensitive decisions while under the influence. The behavioral signs of heroin use include:

  • Frequent excuses for odd behavior
  • Difficulty meeting achievable goals
  • Avoiding social obligations or interactions
  • Problems maintaining personal and professional relationships

People experiencing SUD often withdraw socially from friends, family, and social groups. Previously enjoyed activities no longer have priority as substance misuse takes over control of a person's life. Individuals who work may also have issues with meeting deadlines and remaining productive. Some people become so preoccupied with their heroin misuse they lose their jobs or face extreme financial strain. Treatment helps people replace maladaptive behaviors with healthy alternatives, reducing the risk of relapse and improving quality of life.

Psychological Signs of Heroin Use

Heroin symptoms often include changes to mood, personality, and cognitive function. Some people experience severe changes, while others may not. Multiple factors affect how symptoms manifest for each person.

Some of the primary psychological signs of heroin use include:

  • Uncharacteristic forgetfulness
  • Extreme mood swings
  • Changes to temperament or personality
  • Unusual irritation or aggression
  • Difficulty making decisions

The psychological effects of heroin misuse and co-occurring mental health issues look very different for younger adults. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), "Heroin use more than doubled among young adults ages 18–25 in the past decade." Young adults may show the following signs of potential SUD:

  • Secretive behavior
  • Changes in social engagement, including social isolation or spending more time with new social groups
  • Risk-taking behaviors with peers

A clinical diagnosis is necessary to receive essential treatment for heroin misuse. Psychological symptoms at any age increase the likelihood the person will be diagnosed with a co-occurring mental health disorder. Young adults at a higher risk of developing substance use disorder can undergo regular mental health screenings. Early intervention and treatment of mental health issues reduce the dangers of heroin misuse.

The Importance of Early Detection and Intervention

Recovery from SUD is often easier and takes a shorter period of time if clients get treatment early in their addiction. According to the journal Transactions of the American Clinical and Climatological Association, "[B]ecause substance use disorders develop over time, with repeated episodes of misuse, it is both possible and highly advisable to identify emerging substance use disorders while they are mild or moderate, and to use evidence-based early interventions to stop the addiction process before the disorder becomes more chronic, complex, and difficult to treat."

Recognizing the signs of potential heroin dependency and addiction helps people know when to contact their doctor or another medical professional for help. Many people in the early stages of HUD have fewer symptoms and may not realize the dangers of misusing substances. However, even a single instance of heroin use has the potential to cause long-lasting or life-threatening health issues. The adverse effects are often cumulative, and the more the drug is misused, the worse the symptoms become. Early interventions stop the disease before it affects every aspect of a person's life.

Treatment is most effective before heroin use becomes chronic. People who identify their condition and get help quickly are less likely to experience such things as the following:

  • Co-occurring mental health disorders
  • Infections or diseases related to substance misuse
  • Relationship problems or family dysfunction
  • Job loss or financial insecurity
  • Legal issues

Recognizing the signs of heroin misuse is essential to long-term recovery. However, identifying a problem is not helpful unless the person gets treatment for their condition. Untreated heroin misuse poses a serious problem for millions of families and communities. According to the journal Plos One, "The US societal cost of heroin use disorder was estimated to be $51.2 billion for 1,008,000 heroin users (an average of $50,799 per user)." The personal cost of untreated HUD is often much higher, with people losing loved ones and families breaking under the strain of heroin misuse.

Some additional issues caused by untreated HUD include:

  • Loss of social support
  • Decreased ability to cope with everyday stressors
  • Increased risk of life-threatening accident, injury, or illness

Pathways Recovery Center uses evidence-based methods to help families intervene and support loved ones with SUD. The clinicians educate individuals, families, and the local community on the dangers of addiction and how to recognize heroin use disorder.

How Pathways Recovery Center Can Help

The dedicated team of addiction recovery experts at Pathways Recovery Center uses trauma-informed care and personalized treatment to help people heal from heroin misuse. Every program ensures clients receive the level of care they need to achieve and maintain sobriety. Treatments also simultaneously address any co-occurring mental health disorders or other conditions affecting recovery.

Most clients start with detox and transition to residential treatment. Detox and withdrawal treatment provides clients with individualized medical care, including:

  • Medication-assisted treatment (MAT)
  • Psychiatric support
  • Individual and group psychotherapy
  • Peer support
  • Alternative holistic therapies

Residential treatment programs at Pathways Recovery Center offer clients a safe and structured space where they can do the following:

  • Develop essential coping and relapse prevention skills
  • Establish healthy routines and make necessary lifestyle changes
  • Build a strong support system

Peer support and access to recovery experts ensure clients have the resources to manage their condition and prepare for independent sobriety. Residential treatment helps people identify maladaptive behaviors and replace them with healthy alternatives. Case managers ensure clients meet their recovery goals and prepare them to transition to a lower level of care.

Some of the services offered at Pathways Recovery Center include:

  • Relapse education
  • 12-Step support
  • SMART Recovery
  • Anger management
  • Seeking Safety
  • Psychoeducation
  • Aftercare referral

Attending detox and residential treatment programs allows people to stabilize their physical and mental health before returning to their everyday lives. Treatment addresses the physical, psychological, and social aspects of substance misuse. The clinical team uses various therapeutic tools to guide clients through learning to balance their mental and physical health. Clients collaborate with their care team to recover successfully from heroin use and any co-occurring disorders.

Advice for Family and Friends: How to Approach a Loved One

People struggling with substance misuse may withdraw from their loved ones. Often, family and friends notice behavioral and physical changes caused by SUD before anyone else. The person misusing heroin may be unable to see how their behaviors affect their relationships and everyday life. Family members who know how to recognize the signs of heroin use can help their loved ones by providing information on treatment and intervening on their behalf.

If someone believes their loved one is misusing heroin, they can communicate their concerns by doing the following:

  • Asking if their loved one is struggling and needs support, pointing out objective signs that something is wrong
  • Providing information about therapy, counseling, and addiction recovery services while offering support and encouragement
  • Conducting an intervention with other family members or mental health professionals

It's vital to avoid subjective or emotional comments when discussing mental health or substance misuse. Language is important. Family members or friends should not belittle, manipulate, or intimidate loved ones struggling with SUD. Instead, family members and friends should communicate their support and love using facts and objective language. For example, a family member could say, "I love you and want to help you get the support you need to heal." Avoiding overly emotional displays reduces the risk of accidentally antagonizing someone who needs help.

Many families want to keep the problem contained and deal with it themselves. However, heroin is a dangerous substance, and SUD can cause severe illness, injury, or even death if individuals or families attempt to navigate detox and recovery alone. Families should discuss professional help and treatment programs if their loved one shows signs of substance misuse.

Some families feel they need to wait until their loved one hits rock bottom before attempting to get them into treatment. However, much better outcomes are possible when individuals and families seek help as soon as they notice a potential issue. Waiting may cause the symptoms to worsen.

The Power of Awareness in Combating Heroin Addiction - Pathways Recovery Center

Individuals and their loved ones reduce the harmful effects of heroin misuse by recognizing the early signs and choosing to get help. Raising awareness within families also helps communities create safe spaces where people feel protected and supported. Heroin is a highly addictive and dangerous drug. Knowing how to recognize the signs of substance misuse lowers the risk of severe physical or psychological side effects.

Early treatment improves the effectiveness of rehabilitation programs and makes it easier for people with SUD to heal and move forward. In addition, detox and withdrawal treatment is generally easier for people who have spent less time addicted to heroin and other substances.

People with more knowledge about their condition reduce the risk of relapse, overdose, or adverse side effects of HUD. Understanding the possible side effects of heroin misuse ensures the following:

  • Individuals and their families know when to reach out for help
  • People with SUD have an easier time recognizing the need for treatment, reducing ambivalence or reluctance to engage in treatment
  • Individuals and families prevent long-term side effects and chronic misuse

Treatment programs provide the best results if people get help as soon as they notice a potential problem. Pathways Recovery Center uses evidence-based and alternative holistic therapies to help clients recover from the effects of heroin misuse. Clients are given the guidance and resources they need to build healthy routines and develop essential coping skills. Pathways Recovery Center's residential and detox programs provide an ideal space for healing and personal growth.

People struggling with SUD don't always know how to recognize if their behaviors have created a dangerous situation. Understanding the possible side effects of heroin misuse and identifying the signs of addiction make it easier for people to know when to seek professional recovery treatment. In addition, families will know when to intervene for their loved ones if they recognize the signs of substance misuse. Treatment programs provide the best results if people get help when they notice a potential problem. Pathways Recovery Center uses evidence-based and alternative holistic therapies to help clients heal from the effects of heroin misuse. To learn more, call our office today at (888) 771-0966.

Clinically reviewed by 

Moses Nasser
Dr. Moses Nasser, a double board-certified physician in Family Medicine and Addiction Medicine, with expertise in holistic healing, addiction medicine, and psychiatric care, holds an X-waiver to prescribe buprenorphine and has extensive experience in mindfulness-based customer service and medication-assisted treatment.

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