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Heroin Addiction Explained

Posted on 12/12/19: Uncategorized

Heroin is one of the most common — and most dangerous — drugs out there today. It’s highly addictive and can wreak havoc on a person’s life, as well as the lives of those around them. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, “In 2017, nearly 494,000 people in the United States (12-years old or older) reported using heroin in the past year, which is an estimated rate of 0.2 per 100 persons. And in 2015, 81,326 emergency department visits occurred for unintentional, heroin-related poisonings in America, which is an estimated rate of almost 26 per 100,000 people.” It is no wonder that the United States has declared an opioid crisis.

What is heroin?

Heroin is a highly addictive drug derived from morphine, made illegal in 1924. Morphine is actually a naturally occurring substance found in the seed pods of certain kinds of poppy plants. It can be found in the form of white or brownish powder, often mixed with sugars, starch, powdered milk, or quinine (an antimalarial drug). Pure heroin comes in the form of a white powder that has a bitter taste and can be snorted or smoked. It originated in South America and Southeast Asia. Black tar heroin (a more impure form of the drug) is a dark-colored, sticky substance that is usually dissolved or diluted, then injected. It works as a painkiller, disrupting the brain’s ability to feel and process pain. Read more about how it does this below:

What does heroin addiction look like in the brain?

Heroin use disrupts the brain’s natural process by changing the way neurons send, receive, and process signals via neurotransmitters. Addictive drugs are so pleasurable to us because they flood the brain’s reward system with dopamine in a short amount of time, something that we cannot get via the natural process of the neurons. Meanwhile, the hippocampus stores this information as pleasurable memories and the amygdala creates a conditioned response to certain stimuli. 

Recent research suggests that dopamine not only contributes to the pleasure one feels when under the influence of a substance, but it also affects learning and memory, which play key roles in the transition from simply enjoying something to actually being addicted to it. The most widely accepted current theory about how addiction works, states that dopamine interacts with another neurotransmitter, glutamate, to take over the brain’s reward-related learning system. Heroin stimulates that circuit and overloads it, which repeats every time the person uses. This causes nerve cells in the nucleus accumbens and the prefrontal cortex (the area of the brain responsible for planning and executing actions) to transform liking something into wanting it. This, of course, is what leads to the intense desire to chase after and continue using whatever originally caused this connection to be made in our brains, manifesting as what we know as addiction. 

Tolerance building and why it’s dangerous

After some time of using heroin, the effects become less pleasurable to the user. However, because the brain’s chemistry is now altered, the person continues to seek out the substance because of the addiction it has created, not necessarily to recreate the initial pleasurable symptoms. It becomes a matter of maintenance, in essence. This is why many people describe continued use of heroin as an effort to “chase the high” they got when they first shot up. 

Heroin can release two to ten times the amount of dopamine that the brain naturally produces, and it does it more efficiently and reliably. However, there is a trade-off to this quick response, and that is that the brain receptors become overwhelmed with this overflow of neurotransmitters. As a response to this overload, the brain simply stops producing a normal amount of dopamine or even begins eliminating dopamine receptors. 

This, of course, causes dopamine to have less impact on the brain’s reward center because the brain becomes numb to it. This is what is referred to as tolerance. Developing a tolerance to heroin can be dangerous because most substance-addicted people combat tolerance by simply increasing their intake of the drug. In effect, they begin flooding their body with more and more heroin over time. 

Perceived tolerance is what causes many people to overdose on heroin, especially when they have made an attempt to get clean and then go back to using. This is because they had grown accustomed to taking a large amount, but in the time they were sober, their brain had begun to decrease its tolerance in an attempt to return to normal functioning. So then, if the user misjudges how much heroin they can handle, they can cause serious harm to themselves or even death when they relapse. 

Signs of heroin addiction

There are many physical and non-physical signs and symptoms of heroin use and addiction. These are:

  • Shortness of breath
  • Cottonmouth (dry mouth)
  • Constricted pupils
  • Sudden, abnormal changes in behavior
  • Disorientation
  • Mood swings
  • Limpness
  • Weight loss
  • Runny nose
  • Lying, deceptive behavior
  • More time spent sleeping
  • Slurred, incoherent speech
  • Apathy or loss of motivation
  • Isolation, withdrawal from friends and family
  • Repeated theft or “borrowing” money or valuables
  • Hostility or aggression
  • Wearing long sleeves or pants, even in warm weather (attempt to hide track marks)
  • Cuts or bruises from skin picking

However, these symptoms are not unique to heroin abuse and can be confused with other ailments. Therefore, they cannot be definitively used to “diagnose” a heroin addiction. More obvious signs of heroin abuse include possession of paraphernalia that is used to prepare, inject, or consume the drug:

  • Needles or syringes 
  • Silver spoons with burns underneath
  • Aluminum foil or gum wrappers with burn marks
  • Items used as a tie-off for injection (missing shoelaces, etc)
  • Small plastic bags
  • White, powdery residue
  • Pipes

Treatment for Heroin Addiction

Recovery from heroin addiction will be difficult but is completely possible. Treatment of heroin addiction starts with the detox period, to cleanse the body of the substance. Drugs like methadone, naloxone or other types of medication may be used, which help patients to manage the often-severe withdrawal symptoms that can accompany the detox period. Inpatient programs in treatment centers are one of the most effective options, as medical supervision during detox is highly recommended. However, in some less severe cases, outpatient treatment is possible. The important thing is that you get help fast before the disease takes a toll on your long-term health. There are numerous options available for those looking to find recovery from heroin addiction. However, the most successful options include detox followed by inpatient rehab. Recovery is possible. Start today.


If you or someone you know needs help with addiction, contact Sober Living of AZ now to get the help you need. Sober Living offers an acclaimed recovery environment that merges upscale and luxury accommodations with affordability, clinical expertise and an unwavering commitment to patient care and aftercare. Call us now at 602-737-2458.

Content for Scottsdale Recovery Center and Arizona Addiction Recovery Centers created by Cohn Media, LLC. Passionate and creative writing and broadcasting, covering the following industries: addiction rehab, health care, entertainment, technology and advocate of clear communication, positivity and humanity at its best. www.cohn.media

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