Washington State Guide to Heroin Addiction Treatment

The Recovery Village RidgefieldRehab

The word death written with white powder, a needle and pills.

Washington State Drug rehab facilities are often called upon to treat the victims of heroin addiction. The use of heroin, an illegal opioid street drug, has increased exponentially in the United States, tied in part to the current explosion of addiction to prescription opioid pain medications.

Opioid addiction had tripled in the last few years in this country, as has the number of overdoses – many leading to the death of the addicted person. Because heroin is easy to get and much less expensive than prescription drugs, it becomes the “logical” conclusion tied to a life spiraling out of control because of opioids.

This guide will help you understand heroin. How does the drug affect our brain and bodies and why is it one of the most addictive illegal substances on the black market today? How will you spot the telltale signs of a person addicted to heroin? Are there treatment options that can help these people heal?

What is Heroin?

Heroin, sometimes called “horse,” “hell dust,” or “smack,” is an illegal street drug made from morphine found in the seed pod of opium poppy plants grown in Columbia, Mexico, and in the Southeast and Southwest corners of Asia. Heroin is an opioid and comes in a white or brown power form. Black tar heroin is a dark, sticky substance. 

Washington State drug rehab facilities often treat the victims of heroin addiction. These addictions often begin with other addictions or are co-occurring with alcohol or other substance use.

The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) says that 80 percent of Americans who use heroin began their path to addiction by using prescription opioids. Heroin has a similar physical effect at prescription pain relievers such as Vicodin or OxyContin. But heroin is often less expensive than prescription pills, so many people transition from prescription opioids to the far more dangerous street drug.

How is Heroin Used?

Heroin can be injected, snorted, or smoked. Speedballing mixes heroin with crack cocaine, a potentially deadly mix. Heroin works by binding to the opioid receptors in the brain, creating a rush of euphoria. 

Container with needles, rolled bill, spoon and plastic container.

There are multiple ways to ingest heroin, all of them potentially lethal.

Heroin users who inject the drug typically do it up to four times per day. Studies show that all three methods of ingestion are highly addictive. So, who is at risk of heroin addiction? Studies point out that the largest age group consuming the drug is over 30 years old. The drug is being seen more frequently in affluent communities, particularly when prescription opioids are the precursor to heroin addiction. 

An article in SELF points out the allure of heroin, which they call “incredibly addictive.” Heroin numbs physical and emotional pain but the psychological and physical addiction make it “an especially hard habit to kick” without the help of Washington State drug rehab.

Heroin has claimed the lives of thousands of people and use of this drug is skyrocketing. The Center for Disease Control (CDC) has released data showing that from 1999 to 2014 overdoses from heroin and other opioids in the United States nearly tripled. Because heroin is often laced with other substances, users are never completely certain how much heroin they are receiving – which is Russian roulette when it comes to their chances of overdose.

Heroin overdose is a form of poisoning and the effects of an OD are immediate. The person overdosing slips into unconsciousness or could have a seizure with an extremely slow heart rate, low blood pressure, and depressed breathing. As the body’s cells become deprived of oxygen, they begin to die. It is easy to overdose on heroin; because heroin is a street drug, the user never knows exactly how much is too much – until it is too late. The only treatment for an overdose is naloxone intravenous or nasal spray. 

To help combat the increase in overdoses, emergency medical personnel are being trained in how to administer naloxone (Narcan) to reverse the potentially fatal incidents of overdose.

What Does Heroin Do To Your Body

Heroin is extremely addictive, both psychologically and physically. Heroin works by binding to pain receptors in the brain, gastrointestinal tract, and spinal cord, working to lessen how you perceive the feeling of pain. The drug also stimulates the body’s reward centers, creating a feeling of pleasure in the user. Tolerance develops quickly, requiring the user to take the drug more frequently and in higher doses, which increase the risk of overdose.

Heroin users report an initial short-lived euphoria followed by a period of twilight wakefulness that is neither sleeping or waking, but sometimes called “nodding off.”

The NIDA lists the effects of heroin use. In the short-term heroin causes:

  • Dry mouth
  • Flushed skin
  • A heavy feeling in the legs and arms
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Intense itching
  • Reduced mental functions
  • Unconsciousness

Long-term heroin use can be extremely hard on the body. The effects include:

  • Collapsed veins from injecting the drug
  • Damaged nose tissue from snorting heroin
  • Insomnia
  • Infection of the valves and lining of the heart
  • Kidney and liver disease
  • Abscesses
  • Arthritis 
  • Pneumonia and lung disorders
  • Stomach cramping and constipation
  • Depression and antisocial personality disorder
  • Male sexual dysfunction
  • Irregular menstrual cycles for women

Because heroin is often laced with other additives to stretch the product, other health disorders can occur. For example, if starch, powdered milk, or sugar are added to the heroin, the compound can clog blood vessels, affecting the lungs, liver, kidneys, or brain. But poisons such as strychnine are often used to “cut” the drug before it is sold.

Man sitting on stairs with a needle in his arm.

Sharing needles also puts the heroin user at risk of HIV and hepatitis.

Sharing needles, which happens commonly as the substance user's judgment is impaired, can lead to hepatitis or HIV. Because this drug is so strongly addictive, the first step toward treatment is to manage the detoxification process and withdrawal from the drug.

Heroin withdrawal can hit just a few hours after last use of the drug. Symptoms of withdrawal include:

  • Extreme bone and muscle pain
  • Restlessness and difficulty sleeping
  • Vomiting and diarrhea
  • Goosebumps and severe chills
  • Involuntary leg movement
  • Intense craving for heroin

The most intense part of withdrawal hits at the 24 to 48-hour mark, subsiding after about seven days. However, some heroin addicts say the withdrawal can last much longer – for many months. Substance users also tell us that the habit-forming properties of heroin are so strong that the craving can pop up unexpectedly for years. That is why so many heroin addicts follow a pattern of clean living followed by addiction. The incidence of relapse back into heroin addiction is very high. Washington State drug rehab facilities see many substance users multiple times before their habit is finally under control.

As with most other forms of substance abuse, as tolerance for the drug builds, users spend more and more time seeking the illegal drug. Eventually, their search for the next high is all consuming, to the detriment of the families, relationships, jobs, and lives.

Risk Factors for Heroin Addiction

“The initial phase of using opiates is recreational, gratifying, and fun. However it quickly turns into addiction and most users want to kick the habit but are truly unable to do so.”
Indra Cidami, M.D.

The CDC says drug overdose is now the leading cause of death for people under the age of 50 in the United States. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) says that anyone who uses opioids for pain management is at risk for heroin addiction. In fact, a report by the National Institute on Drug Abuse suggests that heroin is both the most abused and fastest acting of any of the class of opioid drugs. 

But who would do this to their body? According to the 1998 National Household Survey on Drug Abuse, roughly 2.4 million people had used heroin at some point in their lives. Nearly 130,000 said they had used the drug within the month that the survey was given. Considering the stigma associated with addiction, it is entirely plausible that these reported numbers are low.

But what moves one person from the casual use of drugs like heroin or alcohol into addiction?  There are several factors that may put someone at risk:

  • We believe that our genetics can predispose some people to addictive behaviors, but research is ongoing. 
  • Too, brain chemistry has something to do with certain individuals and their vulnerability to substance use. 
  • Psychological factors may play a part; if a person has a mental health disorder such as depression or anxiety, they may be more prone to heroin addiction.
  • Exposure to stressors in their environment such as sexual or physical abuse may start the substance user down the path toward desiring a way to damper their feelings. Heroin can effectively mask all kinds of pain – until it wears off.
  • Heroin also often follows other drug use, such as prescription opioids.

Each individual is different and so their drug-seeking behaviors may have stemmed from any one of these factors – or several of them.

While science is trying to figure out why leads people to addiction, we do know that drugs like heroin are so highly addictive that it can cause problems for any user regardless of age, race, gender, economic status, or ethnicity. Simply put, heroin affects everyone, and if someone you love is addicted, the blowback from his or her substance use can have a detrimental effect on their families and loved ones.

Spotting the Signs of Heroin Addiction

“Shame is a gatekeeper that prevents people from seeking help.”
Erin Khar

There is a slippery slope for heroin users that can quickly slide them from occasional use to addiction. The problem is withdrawal, which is so uncomfortable for heroin users that they seek out more of the drug in order to avoid it. This physical dependence can quickly evolve into a full-blown addiction, spinning the substance abuser faster and faster until they overdose or get help.

The substance user addicted to heroin has a six to 20 times higher potential for death than the non-addicted person. Once the addiction becomes full-blown, the substance abuser’s drug-seeking behaviors will become easier to spot. That is because they put finding and using the drug at a higher priority level over anything else in their life. Some of the signs of substance abuse include:

  • Legal trouble
  • Lying or secretiveness
  • Physical track marks on the arms or body
  • Drug paraphernalia in the home
  • Erratic behavioral changes
  • Missing money or valuables in the home
  • Depression or aggression
  • Isolation and a loss of friends
  • Loss of job or other responsibilities
  • Poor judgment 
  • Exhibiting drug-seeking behaviors

Heroin Withdrawal – Is It Possible?

“Even though a person who is addicted to heroin may feel guilty about their habit and want to stop, strong cravings for the drug coupled with a fear of severe withdrawal symptoms – which can include delirium, seizures, and vomiting – keep them hooked.”

Karin Miller

Washington State drug rehab facilities offer a wide range of treatment options for heroin addiction. Medication-assisted therapies can help with withdrawal symptoms and behavior therapies are designed to deal with the psychological addiction to heroin. Some of the medicines that can help include methadone and buprenorphine. These medications bind to the same receptors in the brain that heroin does, reducing the cravings and calming withdrawal symptoms. 

Woman crossing her arms looking out  at blue sky.

Methadone, in particular, has been proven effective to control heroin withdrawal. This synthetic opioid has been used for more than 30 years. When properly prescribed, it lacks the sedating or intoxicating effects of many drugs, so the user is safe to drive a car or even go to work. Patients in Washington State drug rehab undergoing Methadone treatment can still feel pain and have emotions, they are not heroin “zombies,” and these medications can help substance users recover more quickly from the effects of their addiction.

Some of the therapeutic approaches used in Washington State drug rehab include cognitive-behavioral therapy, which actually modifies the person’s actions, teaching them to manage stressors that led to their addiction. Group and individual therapies can be helpful. Education around preventing relapse in a supportive, caring recovery environment is imperative.

If you or a loved one that has a life spiraling out of control from heroin or other drugs, contact us to learn more about admissions today.