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What are the long-term and short-term effects of heroin addiction?

Heroin is a powerfully addictive opiate made from morphine, which is derived from various types of poppy plants.  When heroin is used, it binds to and activates specific receptors in the brain called mu-opioid receptors. Everyone has naturally occurring chemicals called neurotransmitters that regulate pain and release hormones within the body.  The reward center of the brain stimulates the release of dopamine, and when opioids are introduced the opioid receptors are activated increasing the amount of dopamine being released causing the euphoric effects. The intensity of the effects depends on the amount of heroin being used, and what type of tolerance the drug user already has.    

When heroin enters the brain, it is converted into morphine and quickly binds to the opioid receptors.  Someone who uses heroin receives a surge of pleasurable effects and intense euphoria. For example, the feeling is a rush that is usually accompanied by a warm flushing of the skin, dry mouth, and a heavy feeling within the extremities.  Heroin users will also experience nausea, vomiting, and severe itching, and after the initial effects, the drug user will feel drowsy for several hours. The drowsiness is followed by a loss of mental function, slow heart rate, and respiratory depression.  Slowed breathing can lead to coma and even death.  

The regular use of heroin does change the physical structure of the brain, causing long-term imbalances affecting the hormonal system.  Some studies have shown a deterioration of the white matter within the brain because of heroin use. Heroin addicts will also struggle to respond to stressful situations and are unable to regulate their behavior.  Heroin abuse produces tolerance and dependency, and physical dependence causes withdrawal symptoms, which can be painful and dangerous. When someone stops using heroin, the withdrawal can occur within a few hours.  Withdrawal symptoms can include restlessness, muscle and bone pain, insomnia, diarrhea, vomiting, cold flashes, anxiety, and depression. Most of the withdrawal symptoms peak after 24 to 48 hours, and medical detox programs are the most effective way to help a heroin addict through a painful withdrawal.  

The signs of heroin addiction include continuing use despite heroin-related problems, trying and failing to quit, having persistent cravings, and building a tolerance leading to dope sickness.  The rush from intravenous heroin use lasts around two minutes. The general effects of heroin use include contentment, reduced anxiety, relieving tension, drowsiness, and apathy. The signs of a heroin overdose include shallow breathing, dry mouth, tongue discoloration, tiny pupils, slow pulse, and bluish lips.  Heroin addiction requires extensive treatment starting with detox, then leading to long-term inpatient drug rehab.

Heroin Addiction Treatment and Rehabilitation

Heroin addiction continues to be a problem throughout the United States. Amid the pandemic and due to some of the border closures, addicts relied on local supplies of heroin and other drugs. Overdose deaths are directly linked to heroin abuse, and many addicts struggle with heroin addiction for many years before they become sober, while others never achieve sobriety. According to the 2019 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, among people aged 12 or older, the percentage who were past-year heroin users increased from 0.2% in 2002 to 0.3% in 2019. Overall, past-year heroin use in 2019 was higher than those in most years from 2002 through 2013.

Treating heroin addiction requires extensive treatment beginning with detox. However, it should not be a traditional detox but rather a medically supervised detox. Heroin withdrawal symptoms may only last one week, but it can be longer. Withdrawal symptoms include nausea, abdominal pain, sweating, agitation, muscle spasms, and cravings for drugs. Medical detox providers use withdrawal management techniques and medication to control and ease withdrawal symptoms. The addict needs to move through withdrawal safely before they enter treatment.

Within six to twelve hours, the withdrawal symptoms begin, and by the first to third day, the patient reaches the peak of his or her symptoms. Within one week, many of the symptoms subside but can persist for weeks or even months without proper help. Withdrawal is meant to stabilize the patient before counseling and therapy. Heroin addiction usually requires long-term inpatient treatment. Residential rehabilitation centers usually offer a fuller suite of services to help addicts and their families.

Long-term treatment lasts three to six months or longer, but this is different for each program. Short-term rehabilitation usually lasts three to six weeks and is followed by outpatient treatment. Well-rounded rehabilitation is important, and it should involve aftercare support.


Heroin Addiction and Family Intervention

Convincing someone addicted to heroin they need help is not easy, and it is challenging for family and friends to demonstrate how much damage the addiction has caused. Family intervention is a carefully planned process that is done with the help of a professional interventionist. Family and friends come together to confront the heroin addict to persuade them to make positive changes. An intervention presents them with an opportunity to accept treatment or face the consequences.

Family intervention is carefully planned and organized and benefits everyone involved. An intervention provides specific examples of destructive behaviors and their impact on the family and addict. The process provides a prearranged treatment plan with clear steps, goals, and guidelines. Family intervention is specific with what everyone says, and it is even rehearsed among those involved. Family intervention is successful, and the best way to organize a family intervention is by hiring a professional interventionist.

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