As far as quantity, more people are addicted to nicotine than any other legal drug. The brain contains nicotine receptors that readily absorb nicotine, giving smokers a mild sense of euphoria and relaxation that they quickly come to crave.
Alternately, the title of ‘most addictive’ drug often goes to the illegal drug is a powerful sedative analgesic called heroin. The brain also contains receptors for heroin. Once heroin is injected or smoked, it immediately enters the bloodstream.
Within less than a minute, heroin users experience intense feelings of relaxation, painlessness, and euphoria. Heroin gives the brain’s reward centers such as strong feelings of well-being and exhilaration that the brain will start craving these sensations long after they have subsided.
How Heroin Creates Addicts
Brain cells and neurotransmitter levels undergo significant changes after just one use of heroin. In addition, opioid receptors for heroin comprise areas of the brain regulating pain perception, motivation, reward, and pleasure-seeking behaviors.
When high, heroin users don’t feel any emotional or physical discomfort whatsoever. It’s during a heroin high that the brain is actively working overtime, remembering and recording the incredibly pleasant sensations experienced by the user.
Heroin is such a powerful opioid that it puts enormous stress on brain cells. Repeatedly using heroin burns out brain cells, making them unable to provide the desired high originally felt by a user. This is why tolerance builds quickly, and heroin addicts need more and more heroin to appease cravings and avoid withdrawal symptoms.
Who Uses Heroin?
According to the Centers for Disease Control:
- More men than women use heroin.
- More people between the ages of 18 and 25 use heroin than any other age group.
- Heroin addicts are more likely to have abused prescription opioids in the past.
- People using cocaine are 15 times more likely to use heroin.
- People living in large urbanized areas are more like to die from a heroin overdose than people living in smaller communities.
Research clearly shows that rising rates of addiction to heroin have been directly fueled by physicians overprescribing painkillers. Addiction to prescription opioids like hydrocodone and OxyContin happens almost as quickly as addiction to heroin.
When a doctor stops prescribing pain pills, the patient needs to find something else to ease overwhelming cravings for the drug. This forces them to turn to the streets, where heroin is plentiful and cheap.
When Does Heroin Use Become a Heroin Addiction?
If someone uses heroin one day and then uses again several days later because they want to relive the euphoric rush heroin gave them, they are well on their way to an addiction. Initially, a psychological addiction develops.
But within several weeks of regular heroin use, the person becomes physically addicted. Abstaining from heroin use causes them to suffer physical withdrawal symptoms such as:
- Runny nose/congestion
- Profuse sweating/chills
- Restlessness, irritability, depression and headache
- Increase blood pressure and heart rate
- Body aches and pains
Long-Term Health Effects of Heroin Addiction
A heroin addiction changes the physiological and physical structure of the brain. There is deterioration and loss of white matter, a component of the brain containing brain cell extensions called axons (nerve fibers).
Surrounding these axons is a material called myelin that is essential to normal nerve signaling. Destruction of white matter severely impairs the ability of the brain to communicate with itself and the body.
Consequently, long-term heroin addicts have difficulty making rational decisions, regulating their behavior and feeling empathy for other people. A heroin addiction left untreated transforms an addict into a shell of their former self, concerned only with staying high on heroin and doing anything to obtain the heroin they constantly crave.
Health consequences affecting chronic injection users include:
- Collapsed and scarred veins
- Malnutrition/vitamin deficiencies causing a host of life-threatening medical conditions
- Bacterial infections of heart valves and blood vessels due to sharing of contaminated needles
- Soft-tissue infections due to repeatedly injecting heroin into the same body sites
- Infections involving blood-borne viruses such as HIV/AIDS and hepatitis C and B
- Lung, kidney, brain or liver damage due to using heroin containing unknown fillers that clog blood vessels
While most heroin addicts inject heroin intravenously, some smoke heroin because they think it’s safer than injecting. However, smoking heroin is just as addicting and dangerous as injecting heroin. Health problems attributed to smoking heroin involve dyspnea (labored breathing), impaired lung functioning, development of severe asthma attacks and aggressive toxic leukoencephalopathy, a serious and rapid deterioration of white matter in the brain.
Why Can’t a Heroin Addict Go “Cold Turkey”?
Years of heroin use dramatically alters brain functioning. Without heroin telling the brain how to signal the rest of the body, the central nervous system is jolted into a series of potentially life-threatening short circuits and glitches.
Tremors, seizures, severe flu-like symptoms and shock are the brain’s way of forcing addicts to start using again. Trying to kick a heroin habit “cold turkey” without medical supervision may result in permanent health problems or even death.
In addition, heroin addicts are likely suffering from a mental illness that has been suppressed by the pharmacokinetic effects of heroin. Once an addict is no longer high for a long period of time, psychological problems like major depression, bipolar disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder or a schizo-affective disorder may emerge and worsen their condition.
Why Heroin Addiction Demands Professional Treatment
Addiction isn’t just about the drug. It’s also about the person who becomes addicted. It’s learning why the individual may be prone to addictive behaviors and what can be done about making that individual feel they can live their life without heroin.
Overwhelming evidence from hundreds of studies indicates that a heroin addict’s best chance at recovering and maintain sobriety is by entering a medically supervised detox program and receiving the ongoing counseling, care and support they need. Achieving sobriety and avoiding relapse involves evidence-based psychotherapies and learning coping skills essential to identifying and controlling situations that may trigger drug use. Relapse psychology also examines a person’s self-efficacy, their expectations during and after treatment, and their motivation to stop using heroin.
Heroin addiction should not be viewed as a crime or personal failing. Instead, heroin addiction is a medical disease of the brain that requires long-term treatment, just like any chronic health problem. With the assistance of a caring medical staff, counselors and therapists, heroin addicts entering treatment at FHE will find the support, guidance and empathy they need to stop using heroin and start living the lives they were meant to live.