Although the number of young people choosing to use the illegal drug heroin has fallen by around 79% in the past ten years, there are still many individuals struggling with crippling addictions that are destroying their lives. The drug has become less fashionable these days, but during the nineties it was rampant in all areas of the UK. As a result, the median age of heroin addict is currently 39. Many of these people have been parked on a methadone programme for many years, not knowing if they will ever get clean. But what exactly is heroin and what is heroin addiction?

What Is Heroin?

Morphine is a natural substance that is derived from the opium poppy plant and used in medication to treat severe or chronic pain. However, heroin is a street version of the drug that is made from morphine. It can be purchased as a white or brown powder, or as a sticky substance that is known as black tar.

Heroin is a Class A illegal drug in the United Kingdom and, as such, it is against the law to possess or sell it. It is also illegal to give the substance away, and those found in possession can face up to seven years in prison, while for giving it to another person, whether selling it or giving it away for free, can mean a life sentence.

How Does Heroin Affect the User?

There are several ways in which heroin is used; it can be sniffed, snorted, smoked, or injected. As it enters a person’s system, it produces feelings of happiness and pleasure. The user tends to feel very relaxed and content. The drug has a sedative effect on the body, slowing down heartrate, breathing and inducing sleep. Unlike other drugs, the effects of heroin can last for many hours, which is one of the reasons many people use it repeatedly.

Heroin is highly addictive and as such, the body will begin to crave it as soon as the effects start to wear off. Some users end up on a path to addiction after just one use, despite being confident that they can try it once and then stop.

When the effects of the drug wear off, users may experience withdrawals that can include aches and pains, restlessness, vomiting, diarrhoea, and discomfort. The temptation to use again to relieve these symptoms is quite high, which encourages regular use.

Long-Term Consequences of Heroin Addiction

Those who continuously use heroin are risking their health and their life. The threat of an overdose exists every time a person takes the drug, and this is mainly due to the fact that most people have no idea of the purity of the drug they are taking.

Dealers will mix heroin with chemical substances to increase their profits, which can put users’ lives in danger. Someone who is used to taking a certain amount of fifty per cent pure heroin would almost certainly suffer an overdose if he or she were to take the same amount of eighty per cent pure heroin. The trouble with heroin is that it is impossible to tell how pure it is just by looking at it.

It is not just the risk of overdose that threatens the health and the life of the heroin addict. There are many other long-term problems associated with heroin addiction, including:

  • itching
  • cold sweats
  • gum disease
  • weakened immune system
  • breathing problems
  • constipation
  • partial paralysis
  • coma
  • menstrual problems
  • sexual problems
  • memory problems
  • poor cognitive function
  • depression
  • loss of appetite/malnutrition.

Those who inject heroin will often share needles with other users, and this can put them at risk of infections such as hepatitis C and HIV.

Spotting a Heroin Addiction

Most addicts will try to hide their drug use from those closest to them, but it is difficult to hide the symptoms of a heroin addiction. If you are concerned for a loved one and have your suspicions that he or she has developed an addiction to heroin, there are a few symptoms you can look out for. These include:

  • dry mouth
  • shortness of breath
  • disorientation
  • sudden change in behaviour
  • constricted pupils
  • switching from being hyper alert to drowsy
  • appearing as if limbs feel very heavy.

The above symptoms could be indicative of a heroin addiction but they could also be the result of other medical problems. Nevertheless, if you were to find drug paraphernalia such as burned silver spoons, syringes, burned straws, pipes, or missing shoe laces, you can have no doubt that your loved one is in trouble.

There are other behavioural signs that indicate an individual is struggling with an addiction, and you should be alert to these too. You may have noticed that the affected person has been acting quite strange lately. He or she may be trying to avoid eye contact with you or may be constantly lying to you. If your loved one is sleeping more, slurring his or her speech when talking, and neglecting hygiene and grooming, alarm bels should be ringing.

As unlikely as it may sound, there are many people who will not join the dots when a friend or relative is acting strangely, particularly if the individual is a teenager. This is often because teenage behaviour can be quite changeable. Some family members will be in denial and will not want to face the fact that this person that they love so dearly could possibly have a drug addiction. For them, it is easier to deny anything than face up to the truth. Failure to spot the signs of a heroin addiction often means the addict will continue down the path of addiction with no one to hold them accountable for their actions.

It is important to address the situation as soon as possible. If you suspect that this person may be guilty of drug abuse, you should act immediately. It is better to be suspicious and wrong than to do nothing and allow the illness to progress.

The Effect of a Heroin Addiction on the Family

To say that heroin addicts are only harming themselves is completely incorrect. The reality is that this illness has far-reaching consequences and can drive a wedge between all members of a family unit.

Spouses, children, parents, and siblings all suffer when a person is affected by heroin addiction. When the individual becomes dependent on the drug, he or she will go to great lengths to get it and will even put his or her life at risk in the process.

They may become manipulative and selfish and will withdraw from family members and friends in favour of spending time with other heroin users. They may steal money or valuables from loved ones resulting in financial strain on the whole family.

Living with a heroin addict means living with someone who will constantly break promises and will act in an unpredictable and often chaotic manner. Children may find this confusing and upsetting and will struggle to understand why their parent is behaving this way.

Some family members will break away from the addict after too many broken promises. They might find it hard to deal with the fact that their addicted loved one is unwilling or unable to get better.

Treatment for Heroin Addiction

For those who want to overcome a heroin addiction, a willingness to change and a motivation to succeed are required. It does not matter how much loved ones want their addicted family member to get well, if he or she is not committed to a programme of recovery, they will not succeed. Many heroin addicts will be hesitant to the idea of getting better because they will already be aware of the withdrawal symptoms they are likely to face during the detox process. Nevertheless, in a detox facility, withdrawal symptoms can be managed to make them more bearable and medication could be administered by medical professionals to help prevent certain symptoms.

In general, withdrawal symptoms will begin within eight to twelve hours after the individual has stopped taking the drug. Symptoms are usually graded as to how severe they are. This can range from 0-3, with 0 being the least severe. Symptoms can include:

  • profuse sweating
  • aches and pains in bones and muscles
  • nausea
  • vomiting
  • limb cramping
  • insomnia
  • cold sweats
  • diarrhoea
  • runny nose
  • watery eyes
  • fever
  • chills
  • intense cravings.

Some detox providers will administer medication to help ease the symptoms. This medication should be given in decreasing doses over several days. Methadone is a drug that was commonly used in the treatment of heroin addiction, but there are many critics of the programme.

Some believe that giving heroin addicts methadone instead of heroin is just swapping one addiction for another, with many addicts ending up being left on methadone for decades. These critics of the methadone programme feel that a better option would be to give the addict heroin in tapered doses instead; nonetheless, such treatment is currently illegal and there are no plans to change the law.

After detox, the patient must follow on with a programme of rehabilitation in which he or she will get professional help to tackle the psychological side of the addiction. Treatments such as individual counselling, group therapy, family therapy, and 12-step work are used to help the patient identify the cause of the addiction. These treatments are also used to teach the addict to replace negative behaviours with positive coping strategies to take with them into everyday life when their programme of recovery has finished.

There is no doubting the fact that overcoming a heroin addiction is a huge challenge. Just as with any other addiction, a heroin addiction results in changes to the structure of the brain and so it can be tough for addicts to turn their lives around. However, with the right help and support, this is entirely possible. Many heroin addicts have managed to kick their habit for good and are now living productive lives with their loved ones – and you can too.

All you need to do is get in touch with us here at Middlegate and we will help to find a detox and rehab programme that will work for you. We will assess your current situation and determine your treatment needs so that we can match you to a rehab provider that will meet those requirements.

If you are interested in a rehab programme for yourself or someone you love, please contact us right now. The sooner you get the help you need, the sooner you can say goodbye to heroin abuse once and for all.g

The Big Question – What Is Heroin Addiction?